The Los Angeles Chargers agreed to terms with Jim Harbaugh on Wednesday to be the franchise’s next head coach. Harbaugh joins the Chargers weeks after leading Michigan to its first national title in 26 years. Harbaugh, 60, returns to the NFL a decade after he spent four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers (2011-2014), who he led to a Super Bowl appearance.
Taking a closer look, Chargers reporter Kris Rhim answers four big questions about the Harbaugh hiring, including what comes next. National reporter Dan Graziano dishes on what he’s hearing about the hire, draft analyst Jordan Reid spins it forward to the draft and front office analyst Mike Tannenbaum grades the hire.
Why did the Chargers choose Harbaugh?
Rhim: In owner Dean Spanos’ only public comments since firing coach Brandon Staley and Tom Telesco, he said that the Chargers were «clearly not where we expect to be … and we need new vision. Doing nothing in the name of continuity was not a risk I was willing to take.»
Spanos making an in-season firing — the second in team history — shows the urgency that the 73-year-old has to win and his belief in the Chargers chances to do so. Harbaugh was one of the top options of this cycle, with a history of turning middling teams into contenders, and he knows the organization, playing quarterback for the Chargers for two seasons (1999-2000).
What made Harbaugh successful with the 49ers, and will that carry over to LA?
Rhim: When Harbaugh joined the 49ers, they were a team that had fallen from the league’s elite, missing the playoffs for eight straight seasons. In Harbaugh’s first team meeting, he told players he would «burn the grass» to «get rid of the snakes,» former 49ers tight end Delanie Walker told the Bussin’ With The Boys podcast.
«We were terrible because we just partied every night and did what we wanted,» Walker said. «Everybody started to change around with Jim.»
The changes quickly showed on the field. The 49ers went from 6-10 in the season before Harbaugh to 13-3 and an NFC Championship Game appearance. Harbaugh’s approach could be effective with a Chargers team that team sources described as disconnected and lacking accountability for three seasons under Staley.
What is Harbaugh’s first priority as head coach?
Rhim: Figuring out whom he will be coaching. Outside of Justin Herbert and a select few other players, this Chargers roster could look vastly different, as they head into the offseason $27.5 million over the salary cap, according to ESPN’s roster management system. The biggest decisions Harbaugh will have to make is surrounding outside linebackers Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa and receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, who all have cap hits upward of $30 million next season. Williams and Allen both expressed that they would like to remain with the Chargers, with Allen saying he would consider retiring if not.
Allen set the Chargers single-season record for receptions in just 13 games this season with 108, and had 1,243 yards, the second most in his career. Mack had a career-high 17 sacks, second best in the NFL.
Why did the Chargers hire a new coach before bringing on a new GM?
Rhim: Harbaugh’s tenure with the 49ers was littered with reports of his tension and fractured relationship with management. Months after the 49ers announced that they had mutually parted ways with Harbaugh on the night of the 49ers’ final game, Harbaugh told the San Jose Mercury News that he was «told I wouldn’t be the coach anymore» and that he «didn’t leave the 49ers. I felt like the 49er hierarchy left me.»
The Chargers could want to involve Harbaugh in the process of selecting a general manager that he will get along with to avoid any conflicts. The Chargers have already begun interviewing candidates for GM, including multiple with Harbaugh ties, such as Indianapolis Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds who worked for the Raiders when Harbaugh was the team’s QB coach in 2003.
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Who’s a GM that the Chargers might target, and could work effectively with Harbaugh?
Graziano: New York Giants assistant GM Brandon Brown was in Los Angeles on Wednesday for a second interview for the GM job, and Harbaugh was still there. So it’s possible — likely, even — that Harbaugh was involved in the interview. If that’s the case, obviously part of the reason would be to get a sense of how the two get along and how their visions for the future of the franchise align. Brown has a good chance to get the job.
Another candidate to watch is Colts assistant GM Ed Dodds, who has been connected with Harbaugh in speculation for months now. The two worked together at the start of their NFL careers with the Oakland Raiders. Baltimore Ravens assistant GM Joe Hortiz is another name to keep in mind. He is well thought of around the league, has had several GM interviews in recent years and has worked closely with Jim’s brother, John Harbaugh, the head coach of the Ravens.
What are you hearing around the league on the hire?
Graziano: There’s obviously a strong chance that Harbaugh’s son Jay follows him from Michigan and becomes the Chargers’ special teams coordinator, and there’s a solid chance that Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter ends up being the Chargers’ defensive coordinator. The Chargers will have to go through a full interview process for those positions, but those seem like the two most likely Michigan assistants to jump with the head coach when all is said and done.
Otherwise, I think most people expect this to be a home-run hire for quarterback Justin Herbert, combining Harbaugh’s track record with quarterbacks and the immense talent of Herbert. The Chargers have a lot of tough salary cap and roster decisions to make, but they’re set at quarterback, which makes a lot of other decisions feel much easier.
What can the Chargers do in Round 1 to help Justin Herbert in Harbaugh’s offense?
Reid: Surrounding Herbert with more help on offense is the top objective of the offseason, as many of the Chargers’ key playmakers are aging and/or have quickly become expensive. That includes Allen and Williams, who both missed extensive time with injuries in 2023. Plus, the early returns on Quentin Johnston, last year’s first-round pick, haven’t been great (38 catches, 431 yards, two TDs).
Harbaugh and this new regime might be looking for some upgrades there, and I’d keep an eye on Washington’s Rome Odunze or LSU’s Malik Nabers at No. 5. Los Angeles could also go with Georgia tight end Brock Bowers or even Notre Dame offensive tackle Joe Alt to shore up other parts of the offense for Herbert. And don’t be surprised if Harbaugh drafts from the Michigan pool; Wolverines receiver Roman Wilson could come off the board late on Day 2 or early on Day 3, and he would help this Chargers offense.
How would you grade this hire?
Tannenbaum: A-. This is an ideal fit for both sides. Going back to his time as a Raiders assistant in 2002-03, every quarterback coached by Harbaugh has gotten better, so this should only help Herbert’s ascension to superstar QB status. The Chargers have massive cap issues, and there could be growing pains; this won’t happen overnight. But it’s a very strong hire for an organization that needs to get back on track.