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Chargers hire Jim Harbaugh: Why head coach’s history of winning could make ‘Chargering’ extinct

Chargers fans should be dancing in the streets because Jim Harbaugh, who reached a deal to become the team’s new head coach, is the perfect fit to turn around a franchise best known for “Chargering.” 

What is Chargering? It’s the Chargers’ propensity for collapses, losing close games and overall underachievement (in my opinion). But for kicks, I’ll extend to everything bad Chargers. Despite all their talent over the years, this is a team that has never won a Super Bowl

They allowed a franchise-record 63 points to the Raiders this year in Brandon Staley’s final game as their head coach. They blew a 27-point lead last postseason to the Jaguars. They lost a game in the 2021 finale to the Raiders, which seemed destined for a tie, costing them a playoff spot.

They never sniffed a Super Bowl despite having Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates. They lost multiple playoff games in the 2000s to the Jets, thanks to Nate Kaeding’s kicking woes. They went one-and-done in the 2006 postseason after Marlon McCree’s infamous fumble vs. the Patriots. I could go on but I’ll spare Chargers fans.

Jim Harbaugh has a history of turning programs and the culture around wherever he goes. He is intense, a little maniacal, but the man wins. 

Here’s a breakdown of all the Chargers’ struggle areas where Harbaugh can finally get them over the top:

Winning

Key stat: Justin Herbert has a losing record (30-32) despite recording the most passing yards (17,223) through four seasons in NFL history 

Let’s start with the basics. This current Chargers team desperately needs to win. They have a losing record (30-32) in Justin Herbert’s starts. Jim Harbaugh was 44-19-1 with the 49ers, good for the second-best record by any head coach since the merger behind John Madden. He has won with every program he’s coached, pretty much right away.

He went 11-1 with conference titles in each of his last two years at the FCS level at San Diego. Stanford was 1-11 in the season before Harbaugh took over (2006) and they went 12-1 with an Orange Bowl victory in his last season there in 2010. The 49ers were 6-10 the season before Harbaugh and he made a conference championship in his first three years there. Like the Chargers, he inherited a 49ers team with talent (Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Joe Staley, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis) and won right away. He won 10 games in his first year at Michigan after taking over a 5-7 program.

Championships

Key stat: The Chargers have never won a Super Bowl and their last conference championship game was in 2007

The Chargers are one of 12 teams without a Super Bowl title but now have legit Super Bowl expectations with Harbaugh joining forces with Justin Herbert.

Harbaugh is the only head coach in NFL history to make a conference championship game in each of his first three seasons. He’s made a conference championship game more recently than the Chargers, who have made four in 54 seasons since the merger, last doing so in 2007.

Of course, Harbaugh just won a national title at Michigan and was a play away from beating the Ravens (and his brother John) in Super Bowl XLVII.

Performance vs. expectation

Key stat: The Chargers have gone under their preseason win total in five straight seasons

The Chargers seemingly have Super Bowl upside every year but never have the right person pulling the strings to get the best out of their roster. Most recently, the Chargers have gone under their preseason over-under win total in five straight years, the longest active drought in the NFL. Even though Harbaugh already had high expectations with the 49ers and Michigan, he still exceeded them, hitting the over in eight of 12 seasons (excluding COVID season).

Chargers Preseason Win Totals in Last Five Seasons O/U Result

2023

9.5

Under

2022

10.5

Under

2021

9.5

Under

2020

8

Under

2019

10

Under

Collapses/close games

Key stat: Chargers finished 0-7 in games decided by three points or less in 2023

This is Chargering in its purest form. The Chargers went 0-7 in games decided by three points or less this year, tied for the worst record in a season all time (1994 Oilers). They seemingly always find a way to lose, and 2023 epitomized it. 

Justin Herbert has the most losses by three points or less (14) by any QB through four seasons in NFL history. We know the late collapses extended to the Philip Rivers era, too. 

But alas Chargers fans, because the 49ers had the best record in one-score games (20-8-1) in four years with Harbaugh. 

Wasting QB talent

Key stat: Herbert has the fourth-most pass TD (114) in any four-year span without a playoff win all time

The Chargers brand also equals squandering all-time great QB talent. They never reached a Super Bowl with two Hall of Fame QBs, Dan Fouts and Philip Rivers. They haven’t even won a playoff game with Herbert, one of the best talents in the NFL.

The Chargers have had 17 4,000-yard passing seasons, the second most by any franchise all time (behind the Packers). Fouts led the NFL in passing in four straight seasons in the 1980s and was the NFL’s all-time passing leader before Dan Marino passed him. Rivers is one of the greatest QBs of all time to never play in a Super Bowl. 

Hopefully Harbaugh can prevent Herbert from going down that same road. Not that Herbert’s career needs salvaging of any sorts, but let’s remember that Alex Smith was looking like an all-time bust before Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco. Smith went 19-5 in two seasons with Harbaugh after the former No. 1 pick went 19-31 in his first five seasons. Harbaugh’s influence totally changed the trajectory of Smith’s career, as he then went on to have success under Andy Reid in Kansas City. There’s nothing wrong with the way Herbert is playing (or the numbers, which are historic), but Harbaugh can elevate Herbert and change the trajectory of his legacy in terms of winning.

Defense

Key stat: The Chargers are 28th in scoring defenses since drafting Herbert

The biggest culprit behind recent years of Chargering is the defense. The Chargers are 28th in scoring defense in four seasons since drafting Herbert, which explains that losing record. They’ve been among the top spenders on defense in that span, and have some talent (Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, Asante Samuel Jr., Derwin James), but have underachieved badly. 

Harbaugh is obviously a former QB, but it’s hard to argue with the results he’s overseen on defense as a head coach. Michigan led the FBS in scoring and total defense in 2023, and was sixth in the nation in scoring defense in nine seasons with Harbaugh. The 49ers were the second-best scoring defense in four seasons with Harbaugh, behind only the Legion of Boom. 

Beating big brother

Key stat: The Chargers are 3-17 vs. the Chiefs in the last 10 seasons

And no, I don’t specifically mean his older brother, John, but he’ll have to do that, too. I mean, how are the Chargers going to get past Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and the Chiefs?!?! The Chargers are 3-17 in the last 10 seasons vs. the Chiefs. Only two divisional matchups are more lopsided in that span: the Packers over the Bears and Patriots over the Jets.

Getting past Mahomes is going to be the biggest hurdle for Harbaugh over the next five years, but he did finally get over the hump at Michigan. The Wolverines lost their first five games to Ohio State under Harbaugh, but they won their last three. That helped them make the College Football Playoff in each of the last three years, culminating in the national title win.

Football isn’t played on paper, but hey, you can’t ignore all the evidence pointing toward a lot of winning in the Chargers future. Harbaughing is strong enough to overcome decades of Chargering.

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