Jim Harbaugh returns to NFL: What Chargers hire means for Justin Herbert, Chiefs rivalry and more

Jim Harbaugh is back in the NFL with the Los Angeles Chargers. Harbaugh is expected to leave Michigan and make the jump back to the NFL, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Wednesday.

Will Harbaugh have the same success the second time around? Harbaugh left his alma mater, Michigan, where he compiled an 86-25 record and led the Wolverines to its first national championship since 1997, to return to the NFL coaching ranks. 

Harbaugh was the coach for the San Francisco 49ers from 2011-14 when he led the 49ers to three straight NFC championship appearances and a berth in Super Bowl XLVII in his first three seasons.  

Harbaugh played his final two seasons in the NFL as a player with the Chargers from 1999-2000. He is trying to become the fourth coach to win a national championship in college football and a Super Bowl in the NFL, an exclusive list that includes Barry Switzer, Jimmy Johnson, and Pete Carroll. 

The question now is whether Harbaugh can replicate the success he had in San Francisco in those four seasons with the Chargers, who bottomed out with a 5-12 record in 2023. 

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What is Jim Harbaugh’s NFL record? 

Harbaugh had a 44-19-1 record with the 49ers from 2011-14. That’s a .695 winning percentage. The only coaches with at least four years of experience and a higher winning percentage are Guy Chamberlain (.784), John Madden (.759), Vince Lombardi (.738), and John Madden (.712). 

Will the long break from the NFL change that? It’s a legitimate question knowing it’s been almost a decade. 

Harbaugh’s teams in San Francisco ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense all four seasons and the top three from 2011-13. The 49ers averaged 17.4 points per game allowed over those four seasons. 

The offense averaged 23.2 ppg in that same stretch with a run-heavy philosophy. San Francisco ranked no lower than eighth in rushing yards under Harbaugh. 

What does that mean for the Chargers’ franchise quarterback? That is another leading question that will determine whether Harbaugh’s return works out. 

How will Jim Harbaugh help Justin Herbert? 

There is no question Harbaugh benefitted Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick in their developments from 2011-14. 

In two seasons with Harbaugh, Smith had a 64.3-percent completion percentage with 30 TDs and 10 interceptions. He had a 57.1-percent completion percentage with 51 TDs and 53 INTs before Harbaugh’s arrival. Kaepernick emerged as a star for Harbaugh from 2012-14 as a dual-threat quarterback. 

Smith and Kaepernick combined to average 3,316 passing yards, 20 TDs, and eight seasons per season with Harbaugh. 

2011 Alex Smith 3,144 61.3 17 5
2012 Alex Smith 1,737 70.2 13 5
2012 Colin Kaepernick 1,814 62.4 10 3
2013 Colin Kaepernick 3,197 58.4 21 8
2014 Colin Kaepernick 3,369 60.5 19 10

Herbert has averaged 4,306 yards, 29 TDs, and 10.5 interceptions over the past four years with the Chargers. He’s also 30-32 as a starter and is yet to win a playoff game. He’s the most talented quarterback Harbaugh has had since he coached Andrew Luck at Stanford. 

Where could that make an impact right away? Look for Harbaugh to take advantage of Herbert’s mobility outside the pocket, but it will be even more important simply to keep Herbert clean inside the pocket. According to Pro Football Focus, Herbert had 15 TDs and one interception in a clean pocket – and those numbers are as good as any of the elite quarterbacks in the game. 

There also should be improvement in the deep passing attack. Herbert was not effective on passes of 20 yards or more last season. According to PFF, Herbert completed 20 of 55 passes – or 36.4 percent – for 615 yards, two TDs, and three interceptions last season. Compare that to Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy, who was 25-of-46 (54.3 percent) with 10 TDs and one INT for the Wolverines last season. Yes, there is a huge bump from the NFL to college, but Harbaugh’s offense is built on being efficient in the deep passing game. 

The offensive coordinator hire will also factor in, but Harbaugh has a knack for making quarterbacks better, and if Herbert makes a jump, then the Chargers could have one of the best offenses in the NFL. 

How can Harbaugh help with that? Add a tight end. 

Will Jim Harbaugh, Chargers take Brock Bowers in 2024 NFL Draft?  

With Harbaugh, the 49ers drafted edge rusher Aldon Smith and Kaepernick in the first two rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft. Smith had 14 sacks as a rookie, and Kaepernick sat behind Alex Smith before taking over the starting job the following season. The rest of Harbaugh’s first-round picks with the 49ers were hit-or-miss: WR A.J. Jenkins (2012), S Eric Reid (2013), and CB Jimmie Ward (2014). 

The Chargers have the No. 5 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. SN’s Vinnie Iyer has Los Angeles selecting Alabama edge rusher Dallas Turner with that pick

The Chargers do have talent at that position. Khalil Mack is coming off a 17-sack season. He will be 33 next season. Joey Bosa will be 29, and he’s played in 14 games the past two seasons because of injuries. 

With Harbaugh, that philosophy could change. Keep an eye on Georgia tight end Brock Bowers in that spot. Vernon Davis averaged 47 catches, 609 yards, and six TDs per season with Harbaugh in San Francisco. Bowers would give Herbert a mismatch across the middle of the field, and Harbaugh offenses always feature the tight end. 

Will Jim Harbaugh, Chargers make the playoffs in 2024? 

There’s a good chance, but it will not be easy in Year 1. The AFC West coaching ranks are interesting. Kansas City’s Andy Reid has 258 wins and is closing in on another Super Bowl appearance. Denver’s Sean Payton has 160 career wins, and the Raiders lifted the interim tag from locker room-favorite Antonio Pierce. 

Los Angeles also faces the AFC North and NFC South as part of its schedule in 2024. 

How will Harbaugh fare in the division and in close games? That’s the big question. Los Angeles was 6-12 against AFC West opponents the past three seasons, with losing marks against Kansas City (1-5) and Denver (2-4) and a .500 record against Las Vegas (3-3). 

Brandon Staley also struggled in close games last season. The Chargers were 3-8 in one-score games after compiling a 12-11 record in those situations the previous two seasons. 

Harbaugh will be expected to improve on that record. Harbaugh was 23-11-1 in one-score games with the 49ers. That might be the biggest difference maker for a team that is talented enough to get back in the postseason next year. 


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