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Los Angeles Chargers: Get ready to run the ball with Jim Harbaugh

Jim Harbaugh stormed through the NFL with a run-heavy offense from 2011-2014. Get ready for more of the same in 2024.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The hiring of new head coach Jim Harbaugh should provide major changes to the Los Angeles Chargers organization. While the defensive coordinator position has been figured out, there’s still work to be done in the front office and on the offensive side of the ball before we can understand anything concrete about the shape of the team.

That doesn’t mean we can’t generate early insights into what Harbaugh might be looking for when he builds a team.

With the San Francisco 49ers, Jim Harbaugh’s team had the second-fewest passing attempts in the NFL, just ahead of the Seattle Seahawks. As for his Michigan team, they were the only team with an efficient quarterback that ran the ball as often as they did — ranking 17th in rushing play percentage out of 133 FBS teams.

Meanwhile, the 2021-2023 Chargers ranked second in the NFL for most passing attempts.

But we also know that’s not the whole story; teams run the ball when they have the lead and pass the ball when they’re behind. And those 49ers teams were ahead quite often.

The Chargers have been famous for finding themselves in two-minute situations, so it’s not surprising that they passed the ball as often as they did. They also have a better quarterback than most NFL teams, so passing the ball is a lot more appealing for them than it is for most of the league.

Still, the Wolverines and 49ers had very efficient passing games as well, so that doesn’t explain the entire difference. What if it was all a product of game situation? We can take a look at how the Chargers and 49ers approached the same situations compared to the rest of the league.

Let’s first take a look at early-down pass frequency when the win probability for a team is between 10-90 percent and when excluding the final two minutes of each half.

When looking at those situations, we see that the Chargers were fairly extreme in their passing frequency even outside of the two-minute drill and with somewhat neutral game situation. At the same time, the 49ers ran the ball at an above-expected rate, but weren’t extreme once accounting for situation.

Processes like these will never be precise; what the above chart doesn’t take into account is whether a team is more likely to run the ball on 2nd and 10 versus 2nd and 1. Those provide different kinds of information. Perhaps a team willing to run on first down wouldn’t do so on 2nd and 6 or 3rd and 2.

But we can also account for down and distance. Let’s look at the down-and-distance chart and be even more aggressive about game situation. Let’s exclude any plays where a team has a win probability under 20 percent.

The 49ers ran the ball more often than their peers — but not substantially so. The Chargers were more aggressive about passing the ball to a greater degree than the 49ers were about running the ball.

What this means is we’ll probably see a more run-forward Chargers for the first time in Justin Herbert’s career.

Opinions on this could vary; the analytics movement has long held that NFL teams don’t pass the ball nearly enough. Successful teams with efficient quarterbacks like the Chiefs, Bills and Buccaneers have won this way, while run-heavy teams like the Titans, Bears, Falcons and Panthers have had more difficulty being consistently effective.

They might be able to make up for that with even more efficient passing, which seems to be a specialty of Harbaugh’s. Whether Harbaugh teams use more play-action after running the ball so often seems mixed; Michigan had one of the lowest play-action rates in the FBS over the last two years while Harbaugh’s 49ers teams ranked anywhere between 4th and 15th in the NFL.

Because running the ball is much more effective in college than in the NFL, it’s not fair to map these on one-to-one, but it’s still a valuable datapoint.

Nevertheless, this emphasis on the run seems to be a sea change for the Chargers. What that means in terms of roster-building is important too; the 49ers were intentional about adding road-grading offensive linemen beyond just their starting five.

The use of fullbacks and run-blocking tight ends was a well-known feature of the team as well. Though many know Vernon Davis primarily as a super-athletic pass-catcher — and he was — he was one of the best run-blocking tight ends in the NFL in his prime, too. They also deployed Delanie Walker along with Davis in two-tight end sets.

That doesn't mean they elided the use of high-value pass catchers; they invested a first-round pick in receiver A.J. Jenkins to complement Michael Crabtree and gambled on players like Randy Moss, Ted Ginn and Mario Manningham.

It’s not quite the corps of receivers one might have expected in a three-receiver offense like the one that the Chargers ran under Brandon Staley, but it’s not a dearth of investment either.

In addition to potential picks like Brock Bowers or Joe Alt early in the draft, don’t be surprised if the Chargers go after a receiver in the middle rounds and invest heavily in guards there as well. Expect a tight end from somewhere, whether it’s free agency or the draft. And a day two running back makes sense as well.

Because the Chargers are going to run the ball.