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A Brief History of Jim Harbaugh’s Quarterbacks: Can He Maximize Justin Herbert?

Justin Herbert has earned enormous praise from film experts for his quarterback play. But it hasn’t translated into passing efficiency. Could Jim Harbaugh, supposed quarterback whisperer, bridge the gap?

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Justin Herbert has been a polarizing quarterback for as long as he’s been on the national scene. Oregon fans were split on him and, once it became clear he was going to be a draft prospect, analysts were split on the quiet cannon.

Entering the NFL, there seemed to be a rare moment of consensus as Herbert put together an astounding rookie season and satisfied a broad range of NFL analysts, from data-oriented spreadsheet mavens to film nerds who have worn out their clickers. Herbert won in all the hidden ways that are hard to spot and the bombastic ways that are easy to credit.

With good athletic ability, an astounding arm and courage under fire, it seemed like Herbert might have been part of the emerging potential dominance of the AFC West.

The Broncos and the Raiders failed to live up to their end of the bargain and we wouldn’t be talking about new head coach Jim Harbaugh if the Los Angeles Chargers hadn’t done the same. Under Brandon Staley, the Chargers could not capitalize on Herbert’s potential.

Herbert continued to excite the types of people who break down the mechanics of quarterback play and obsess over phrases like “arm slot” but was losing the faith of those who wanted more concrete results on the field, whether that showed up in the box score or the wins column.

After an even more efficient 2021, which saw him upgrade from Offensive Rookie of the Year to Pro Bowl invitee, he declined in efficiency in 2022 and 2023. The wins helped mask that in 2022, but Herbert just wasn’t as effective — for a variety of reasons — down-to-down, even if he showed up late in games in a way that other quarterbacks don’t.

The Ringer, before it took Herbert off the list due to injury, ranked the Los Angeles quarterback third overall, just behind Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen — ahead of Lamar Jackson. He praised Herbert’s feel for the game, quick processing and pocket presence.

Yet Herbert ranked 13th in passer rating, 16th in adjusted net yards per attempt and 18th in EPA per play. None of this is to say that the film experts are incorrect, just that we haven’t seen that translate into passing efficiency and results on the field.

While supporting cast plays a significant role, it’s probably fair to say coaching deserves some of the blame, too. With a new head coach, could that change? After all, Harbaugh is known as a quarterback whisperer. I decided to take a look at his 20-year history of coaching to get a sense.

2002-2003: Oakland Raiders

Ending his NFL career in 2001, Harbaugh might initially look like someone who jumped right from the NFL into coaching as Bill Callahan’s quarterbacks coach, but he was an assistant coach at Western Kentucky for eight years under his father, Jack Harbaugh.

Jim Harbaugh had the opportunity to coach Rich Gannon, a long-time NFL veteran who started for four three years in Minnesota, half a year for Washington, four years for Kansas City and four years for Oakland before Harbaugh arrived.

Under the previous Raiders regime, with Jon Gruden, Gannon was already a high-level quarterback. He had earned three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances under Gruden and was poised to earn a fourth under Callahan and Harbaugh.

By itself, the fact that Gannon had the best year of his career under Harbaugh might not mean much, even at 37 years old. But it’s the first time that Harbaugh coached quarterbacks and it seemingly went better than anyone could have hoped. Gannon earned the MVP award, had a much higher success rate on his throws, led the league in yards per game, ranked fourth in adjusted net yards per attempt and third in expected points per play.

They were all personal bests for Gannon. Unfortunately for the Raiders and Gannon, he would have two injury-shortened follow-up seasons, so we didn’t get to see if Gannon could repeat at ages 38 or 39. But it was an encouraging start to Harbaugh’s career.

2004-2006: University of San Diego

Harbaugh took over a moderately successful San Diego program — they had gone 5-5 and 8-2 in the prior two years in the Pioneer Football League of the FCS. In his first year there, they went 7-4, continuing the tradition.

After that, they posted two consecutive 11-1 seasons, winning the conference while going undefeated in conference play. That’s great, but we’re here for quarterbacks. Who was his quarterback?

It was a relatively unknown, unrecruited quarterback named Josh Johnson. Harbaugh went with Johnson after a spring competition at quarterback and Johnson paid back that faith by posting remarkable statistics, averaging 8.6 and 8.9 yards per attempt and leading the conference in every major passing category. He finished sixth in voting for the Walter Payton Award, meant for the best player in the FCS.

Johnson would go on to have an even more remarkable senior season after Harbaugh left for Stanford and finished his career with a 113-14 touchdown-interception ratio in games he started. That was enough to get him drafted in the fifth round, and Johnson turned in one of the most proliferate backup careers the NFL has ever seen.

2007-2010: Stanford University

Harbaugh recruited some guy named Andrew Luck. It went well.

That’s not the whole of the story — Harbaugh took on quarterbacks T.C. Ostrander, Tavita Pritchard and Alex Loukas and they didn’t perform remarkably well. That said, Ostrander put up a better season in 2007 than he’d ever done before while Pritchard played better under Harbaugh as well — both posting better success rates, touchdown-interception ratios and passer ratings with Harbaugh than without.

While it might be a bit much to give Harbaugh credit for how well Luck played under him, it’s worth pointing out a few things — the first is that Luck was more efficient as a sophomore under Harbaugh than as a junior under David Shaw.

He also wasn’t the top quarterback recruit in the country; he was a four-star recruit ranked behind Blaine Gabbert and Dayne Crist, just barely ahead of Mike Glennon.

That’s not bad — it speaks to Harbaugh’s ability as a recruiter — but it’s not a lock as far as prospects are concerned. Also, as you can imagine from the name “Dayne Crist,” high-level quarterback recruits don’t always turn out. It’s not fair to Luck or the recruiting process to argue that Harbaugh’s talent for development was solely responsible for the outcome, but it’s also not fair to discount Harbaugh’s coaching, either.

As for team outcomes, things were excellent there as well. The last time Stanford had won at least ten games was in 1992 under a guy named Bill Walsh, and he only managed it once. Before that, they last won ten games in 1940.

Harbaugh steered Stanford to its first season of eleven or more wins when he secured 12 wins in 2010. The 29 total wins he produced in four years at Stanford took seven years under his previous three predecessors.

2011-2014: San Francisco 49ers

This one is pretty easy.

Alex Smith performances by year — seasons with Harbaugh highlighted in yellow

Alex Smith was a truly abysmal quarterback despite his first-round pedigree for years. Smith was subject to constant speculation — wholly justified — that he’d be benched before Harbaugh arrived and revived his career.

Smith couldn’t succeed under two different head coaches — Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary — and five different offensive coordinators. Some of the coordinators were well-respected, too, like Mike Martz and Norv Turner.

Nevertheless, Harbaugh got the most out of Smith before trading him to Kansas City, where Smith thrived and earned accolades, though he didn’t often match the passing efficiency he had with Harbaugh.

The 49ers also drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 draft — an unusually quarterback-rich draft with players like Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. The draft also featured, in the first round, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Jake Locker.

Is it significant that Kaepernick’s only good seasons were with Harbaugh? Perhaps. It should be noted that after an incredible 2012 run to the Super Bowl, where Kaepernick replaced Smith partway through the season, Kaepernick’s efficiency dropped off in 2013 but the numbers appear worse than they actually are — he ranked eighth in EPA per play both seasons.

After Kaepernick signed an extension in 2014, he continued to decline. Whether he could be turned around by Harbaugh remains a mystery; Harbaugh left for Michigan after that season and Kaepernick’s efficiency cratered. He had dropped from passable to bottom-of-the-league.

It would have been nice to see Kaepernick in at least one more quarterbacking environment for our purposes today — to see if Harbaugh was unique as a coach in this respect — but some other stuff got in the way of that natural experiment. Debate amongst yourselves what that means.

2015-2022: University of Michigan

Under the previous two Michigan coaches, the Wolverines earned more than nine wins only once: an 11-win season in Brady Hoke’s first year, 2011. Immediately after Harbaugh arrived in 2015, Michigan earned 10 wins.

They would secure nine-win-or-better years in 7 of the 8 full seasons Michigan would enjoy under Harbaugh. That includes three appearances in the College Football Playoff and one National Championship.

At quarterback, things were a bit more up-and-down. Harbaugh secured a transfer quarterback in Jake Rudock, who played better for him than he ever did at Iowa. Wilton Speight was his next quarterback, who again played better for him than he did at eventual transfer UCLA.

John O’Korn transferred from Houston but his playing time was limited until his redshirt senior season, where he was mediocre — he had played much better as a true freshman at Houston, though that was admittedly in a much weaker conference.

The bigger question comes from Shea Patterson, who in 2015 was the top quarterback recruit in the country and a top three recruit overall. Initially an Ole Miss recruit, Patterson transferred to Harbaugh’s Michigan squad after two years to play the 2018 and 2019 seasons in the Big Ten.

By raw numbers, Patterson’s numbers seemed to decline switching from the SEC to the Big Ten, but his Pro Football Focus grades improved and his mistakes — turnover-worthy plays, uncatchable passes and so on — decreased.

But, no matter how you spin it, the Shea Patterson era was disappointing. His poor play was enough to damage Harbaugh’s reputation as a quarterback whisperer. Add in the fact that four-star Harbaugh recruits Brandon Peters, Cade McNamara and Dylan McCaffrey never amounted to much and it’s enough to ask if Harbaugh had lost his touch.

Peters and McNamara both transferred to other schools. McNamara was never as efficient at Iowa as he was at Michigan and Peters didn’t play enough reps at Michigan to provide a proper comparison to his Illinois play, which was mediocre.

Three-star recruit Joe Milton did end up transferring to Tennessee and in his sixth year of college football did manage a much more productive season than anything he could do in Ann Arbor, but that seems immaterial; his efficiency improvement was modest despite three more years of development.

But this year, J.J. McCarthy resurrected that mythos. His status as a high-end draft pick seemingly validates what Harbaugh has been able to do at the position.

So, What Does This Mean?

Nothing is ever definitive when it comes to this kind of data — a head coach’s impact on quarterbacks across three different levels of football is generally pretty difficult to measure. It’s also worth noting that players like Josh Johnson, Alex Smith and Andrew Luck received more acclaim after Harbaugh had left.

But, even with some spotty years at Michigan, it looks like Harbaugh generally maximizes quarterbacks. Though Johnson performed better after Harbaugh left the University of San Diego, Smith and Luck earned postseason accolades with less efficient seasons.

Quarterbacks generally do better with Harbaugh than without him. Overall, this looks like a pretty positive sign for Herbert and what he can do with the San Diego Chargers. Perhaps Harbaugh can finally prove those film nerds right.