What Jim Harbaugh’s first NFL coaching stint reveals about how he’ll transform the Los Angeles Chargers into instant winners

Jim Harbaugh
Melanie Maxwell / USA TODAY NETWORKCredit: Melanie Maxwell / USA TODAY NETWORK

When the Los Angeles Chargers hired Jim Harbaugh, they got the ultimate quick-fix head coach, someone who’s proven he can transform a losing team into a winner in only one season.

His coaching resume is littered with examples of teams he elevated immediately at both the college and the pro level. Even at a powerhouse college program like Michigan, Harbaugh took over a team that had been only 5-7 the year before and won 10 games in his first season.

Before heading to Ann Arbor, he’d done the same thing in his first NFL head coaching stint with the San Francisco 49ers. One season after they went 6-10, Harbaugh turned them into a 13-3 team that advanced all the way to the NFC Championship Game.

There’s no guarantee he’ll have the same immediate impact on the 5-12 Chargers in 2024, but Harbaugh is already borrowing from the same script he used in San Francisco to put together a winning team.

Related: What The Jim Harbaugh Hire Means For Justin Herbert And The Los Angeles Chargers

For Jim Harbaugh, it all starts with defense

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As a former NFL quarterback, one would assume Jim Harbaugh to be an offense-first coach. But with the 49ers, his first item of business was to initiate a complete defensive makeover.

It is exactly what Harbaugh is already initiating with the Los Angeles Chargers, who ranked 28th in total defense, 24th in points allowed and 30th against the pass under previous head coach Brandon Staley, a former defensive coordinator, who fired the day after the Chargers gave up 63 points to the Las Vegas Raiders.

The hiring of Jesse Minter, the coordinator of his No. 1 national championship defense at Michigan, is the first key step in Harbaugh’s blueprint, the same one he used with the 49ers.

In San Francisco, Harbaugh brought both coordinators with him from Stanford — Greg Roman on offense and Vic Fangio on defense. Before Fangio came to Stanford, he’d been a NFL defensive coordinator for 11 seasons in Carolina, Indianapolis and Houston and had coached under Harbaugh’s brother, John Harbaugh, in Baltimore.

Can Jim Harbaugh repeat his 49ers turnaround with Chargers?

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In addition to having a quality defensive coordinator, building a great defense quickly requires at least two centerpiece players. Harbaugh’s defense, which ranked 15th in points allowed under the previous 49ers coaching regime, already had perennial All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis and Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith.

If his history with 49ers is instructive, Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke worked to address key defensive needs with the following off-the-field moves.

  • Drafted DE Aldon Smith with the No. 7 overall pick from Missouri
  • Drafted ILB Navorro Bowman in the third round from Penn State
  • Signed free agent CB Carlos Rogers, who’d been with Washington
  • Signed free agent S Donte Whitmer, who’d been with Buffalo

On the field, Fangio then promoted three former reserve players — OLB Ahmad Brooks, DE Ray McDonald and CB Tarell Brown — into starting roles.

The result: The 2011 49ers led the NFL in run defense and takeaways and ranked second in points allowed. Aldon Smith was a sack machine, with 14 in addition to 28 QB hits. Bowman fit right in next to Willis and led the team in tackles.

Justin Smith (7.5 sacks) was named a first-team All-Pro and was third in NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting. Brooks, a future Pro Bowler, and McDonald excelled up front, while Rogers, who intercepted six passes to make his first Pro Bowl, another holdover Dashon Goldson were named to their first Pro Bowls.

With Harbaugh’s defense playing lights out, it repeatedly put the 49ers offense, under incumbent quarterback Alex Smith, into great field position.

Related: Los Angeles Chargers mock draft 2024

Chargers might be Jim Harbaugh’s biggest challenge yet

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Harbaugh will want to take the same approach with his franchise quarterback, Justin Herbert, whose best offense would be a great defense. But that requires supreme personnel, something the Chargers lack.

Working with new GM Joe Hortiz, Harbaugh will likely look to build around Pro Bowl linebacker Khalil Mack and maybe either safety Derwin James or defensive end Joey Bosa, although the latter has become an annual injury liability.

There’s no doubt the Chargers would like to hold onto one defensive free agent, safety Alohi Gilman, who was among their best defenders in 2023, ranking No. 8 at his position, according to Pro Football Focus.

The problem is that, with their severe salary cap issues, the Chargers will need to rely on a solid draft class in April and perhaps some creative uses of the cap to fill their defensive holes with quality talent, albeit at a relatively cheap cost.

Even before he coaches his first game with the Chargers, Jim Harbaugh might be facing the biggest challenge of his coaching career. In a follow-up to Harbaugh’s crowning achievement as a national champion, the next eight months will determine if he still has the magic touch as the master of quick turnarounds.