NFL offseason power rankings: No. 23 Los Angeles Chargers should be rejuvenated by Jim Harbaugh’s NFL return

About 11 minutes into Jim Harbaugh’s introductory news conference as the new Los Angeles Chargers head coach, absolutely unprompted, he started getting fired up about the team getting a new vacuum for the weight room. And he seemed absolutely serious.

“The weight room, we’re getting it cleaned up right now. Getting it all set,” Harbaugh said. “We had a great day just yesterday. I mean, talk about fulfillment. Going in there to Home Depot and getting the Shop-Vac.”

The Chargers needed to do something bold to get some attention in the Los Angeles market, and also to win some games. The relocation from San Diego played out exactly as expected, with the Rams being the choice of those who want to root for a local team, transients following whoever they grew up rooting for and the Chargers being mostly ignored.

Harbaugh changes that vibe. Instantly.

When the Chargers lured Harbaugh away from Michigan, with Harbaugh likely having an eye on outrunning NCAA sanctions, they signed up for the whole circus. Harbaugh is genuinely quirky, as his excitement unknown to mankind for the new Shop-Vac showed. Harbaugh moved to Los Angeles and decided to live in an RV. It never seems like an act. He’s just a unique character.

He’s also a fantastic football coach.

At every stop, Harbaugh has won. He had a 29-6 record at the University of San Diego, took a Stanford program that was 1-11 before he was hired and ended up going 12-1 with an Orange Bowl win in 2010, led the San Francisco 49ers to a seven-win improvement his first season there and nearly won a Super Bowl the next season, then eventually turned Michigan into a 15-0 national champion. Four head coaching stops, and four success stories.

The Chargers are hoping to get relevance and wins, in whatever order. Harbaugh should bring both.

Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Justin Herbert are an intriguing match. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Chargers head coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Justin Herbert are an intriguing match. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The question is if the winning will come right away. Harbaugh immediately turned the 49ers into one of the NFL’s best teams, going 13-3 his first season there, but San Francisco‘s roster was set up well for a rapid improvement. Despite the annual offseason optimism about the Chargers, all of the disappointment through the years says maybe their roster isn’t as good as everyone wants to believe. The lack of a division title since 2009 hasn’t been entirely due to coaching failure.

The roster starts with quarterback Justin Herbert, an exciting talent who hasn’t helped the Chargers to much team success. Because of salary cap issues, the Chargers had to part ways with top receivers Mike Williams and Keenan Allen. Running back Austin Ekeler left in free agency. They were able to retain Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack when the veteran pass rushers took pay cuts, but the roster probably isn’t as good as it was last season when the Chargers went 5-12.

Roster deficiencies, always overlooked in the yearly hype over the Chargers’ potential, is one of many questions as Harbaugh starts his Chargers journey. How does a nine-year absence from the NFL affect Harbaugh? That’s a long time in NFL terms. How will Harbaugh’s run-first mentality — on display when the team passed on talented receivers to take offensive tackle Joe Alt with the fifth overall pick — mesh with having a true franchise quarterback?

If history is a guide, Harbaugh will eventually have answers to all of those questions. His track record is excellent. Perhaps it takes a year or two, but the Chargers are banking on a big improvement in the Harbaugh era.

And if nothing else, their idiosyncratic coach ensures the Chargers won’t be anonymous anymore.

The Chargers were limited by a tough salary cap situation. Keenan Allen was traded and Mike Williams was cut, eliminating the team’s top two receivers. Others, like linebacker Kenneth Murray, tight end Gerald Everett, running back Austin Ekeler and cornerback Michael Davis, left in free agency. The team added tight end Will Dissly, running back Gus Edwards and cornerback Kristian Fulton, but none of them are top-end options at their positions. The draft was a good one, with Jim Harbaugh first getting offensive tackle Joe Alt to fit his priority on the offensive line, and then following that up with a strong pick of receiver Ladd McConkey in the second round to fill a need. When Harbaugh took the Chargers job, he did so knowing the team had some salary-cap issues to clean up. That delayed Harbaugh building the roster in his image for a year.

Grade: C-

Blind resume time. Compare the two quarterbacks …

Player A: 7.1 yards per attempt, 4.7% TD percentage, 66.6% completion percentage, 95.7 passer rating, 30-32 team record in his starts

Player B: 7.6 yards per attempt, 5.2% TD percentage, 67% completion percentage, 99 passer rating, 73-41 team record in his starts

Player B is Dak Prescott, who got ripped on sports talk radio for 17 different things while you looked through that comparison. Player A is of course Justin Herbert, who could light SoFi Stadium on fire and everyone would blame it on his Chargers coaches and teammates.

Herbert has been undoubtedly good. He also has somehow avoided much criticism at a position that is dissected more than any other. Very few quarterbacks avoid being blasted at some point, especially when their team is two games under .500 for their career. To add to the curiosity, Herbert has thrown more fourth quarter interceptions in one-score games than any other quarterback in the NFL since 2020, his rookie season, but has mostly gotten a pass. Oft-criticized quarterbacks like Prescott and Kirk Cousins must be wondering why they’re not on that scholarship.

It’s not that Herbert is bad, it’s that there’s still a level to go before he should be considered truly elite. All other quarterbacks have had to hit certain marks before they’re universally praised, just not Herbert for some reason. But count Jim Harbaugh among the Herbert fan club.

“To the point, the athleticism and strength, really, he could play tight end here. He could play edge rusher here,” Harbaugh said, via Chargers Wire. “And the arm talent is even better than advertised. It’s an exciting thing. I found myself just sitting at my desk at times, going, ‘He’s on our team!’”

The Chargers’ win total at BetMGM is 8.5, which is a lot of respect for Jim Harbaugh. And the over is the popular side, with the inflated -150 odds (bet $150 to win $100). The Chargers won five games last season, and a four-game improvement is a big ask. If they do post a winning record they’ll be in playoff contention and Harbaugh will have plenty NFL Coach of the Year buzz. He’s tied for the second shortest odds for that award, at 10-to-1.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “It might look strange to see Justin Herbert currently the QB18 in Yahoo drafts, but if anything that ranking might not go far enough. Jim Harbaugh, of course, is a running coach, and he hired a run-first offensive coordinator in Greg Roman. In Roman’s ten years as an NFL coordinator, his offenses have been Top 8 in rushing yardage every year — and outside the Top 12 in passing yardage (usually well outside) every season.

“Mind you, to pile up gaudy rushing volume, you usually need to be a winning team with a certain kind of recurring game script. The Chargers aren’t seen as a Super Bowl contender just yet. But Roman and Harbaugh built a dynamic running game together at Stanford and with the 49ers, and they’ve built successful running games without each other. The Chargers are also dealing with a fresh start at receiver, where rookie Ladd McConkey is the possible No. 1 target.

“Bottom line, scout running backs Gus Edwards, J.K. Dobbins and Kimani Vidal closely this summer, because this is a backfield you’ll likely be interested in. And outside of McConkey, you can probably fade the passing game for managed-league purposes. Any LAC pass-game option you draft in August will surely open the season on your bench.”

Despite playing all 17 games last season, 2023 first-round pick Quentin Johnston had just 431 yards. He averaged 0.92 yards per route run, which ranked 89th in the NFL, according to Player Profiler. He “won” on just 34.6% of his routes, ranking 129th, according to Player Profiler, and won just 20.7% of the time vs. man coverage to rank 123rd. Johnston finished tied with the fourth-worst “open score” among NFL receivers last season, a metric from ESPN that measures how well a receiver separates from coverage, ahead of only DeVante Parker, Jonathan Mingo and Cedric Tillman. Simply put, as a rookie, Johnston couldn’t beat NFL cornerbacks and get open, which is a bad sign for the 21st pick of the draft. It’s hard to label anyone a bust after one season, but Johnston has some work to do. The most memorable moment of a forgettable rookie season might have been when he did get open downfield in the final minute against the Packers, with the Chargers trailing 23-20, and he dropped the ball to cost the Chargers at least a chance to tie the game. The Chargers lost Keenan Allen and Mike Williams this offseason and could really benefit from Johnston playing much better in his second season.

“Going into this year, I can confidently say that I’m far more ready for it this season,” Johnston said, according to the team’s site. “More confident. I feel like part of that was just with the first-year jitters still kind of feeling my way around everything. This year, I’m more confident.”

Jim Harbaugh likes to run the ball. He had quarterback J.J. McCarthy at Michigan, who ended up being the 10th pick of the NFL Draft, and let him pass just 332 times in 15 games last season. He extolled the virtues of making the offensive line the foundation of a team, before and after Los Angeles picked Joe Alt fifth overall. In Harbaugh’s four 49ers seasons they ranked third, seventh, third and ninth in rushing attempts. Part of that is the 49ers won a lot and therefore were protecting plenty of leads by running the ball, but Harbaugh’s preference is to keep it on the ground. However, the Chargers didn’t have the resources to allocate to the running back position. Gus Edwards got $6.5 million over two seasons, and while he was mostly efficient with the Ravens, he wasn’t a workhorse or a star. J.K. Dobbins is a question mark due to many injuries. Rookie Kimani Vidal is interesting but he’s still a sixth-round rookie. The Chargers’ offensive line, with top tackles Alt and Rashawn Slater, should be good and perhaps can support a run game. The Chargers will have to figure it out, because that’s how Harbaugh wants to play and a mediocre defense would be better off if it can be supported by a run game that can control time of possession.

Maybe, just maybe, all those folks who have been touting the Chargers as a dark horse Super Bowl contender each offseason were right all along about the roster and it really was just coaching holding them back. Brandon Staley certainly wasn’t good. When Jim Harbaugh took over the 49ers after Mike Singletary had been fired, he led an instant turnaround that took San Francisco all the way to an NFC championship game his first season. That seems improbable for the 2024 Chargers, but a big breakthrough is not impossible. Harbaugh might be an unusual personality but he can coach. Justin Herbert has the talent to become the elite quarterback everyone seems to think he already is. When Harbaugh took over in San Francisco he didn’t have to battle with Patrick Mahomes for a division title, and it’s hard to get the Chargers past the Chiefs in the AFC West no matter how many strides they make. But perhaps the Chargers can be a playoff team — they’re projected to have the second easiest schedule in the NFL, according to analyst Warren Sharp — and a dangerous one too. It is a big coaching upgrade, after all.

The Chargers were bad last season. They lost a game 63-21 to the Raiders in which they trailed 42-0 at halftime. The roster is mostly the same as last season, and probably a little worse. Justin Herbert hasn’t exactly been able to lift the Chargers to another level. Jim Harbaugh has been out of the pro game for nine seasons, which amounts to a couple of lifetimes in the NFL. The skill positions are surprisingly thin. The defense was bad enough that it gave up 63 points to Aidan O’Connell and the Raiders. There are a lot of reasons this season could be pretty bad for the Chargers. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if we realize halfway through the season that it’s going to take Harbaugh some time to turn things around.

The anticipation for Jim Harbaugh’s second NFL stint is justified. He is a proven coach and he could lead the Chargers to a Super Bowl once he shapes the roster. Justin Herbert should end up being a star at quarterback for him. But there are too many questions in Harbaugh’s first year back to buy into a seismic turnaround in 2024. We’ve constantly overrated the Chargers’ talent and it will take some time for Harbaugh to get his players and also adjust to the changes in the league since he left. All of the uncertainty makes it hard to believe the Chargers will have a winning record this season. If they do, it will be another highlight on Harbaugh’s impressive coaching resume.

32. Carolina Panthers

31. New England Patriots

30. Denver Broncos

29. Washington Commanders

28. New York Giants

27. Tennessee Titans

26. Las Vegas Raiders

25. Arizona Cardinals

24. New Orleans Saints

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