Can Jim Harbaugh make the Chargers a contender right now?

Welcome to Football Court, where we debate about some of the biggest topics in the NFL. Think of it like First Take, but with less takes and more logic.

Jim Harbaugh is the new head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers. The biggest splash of the 2024 hiring cycle, Harbz now departs Michigan as a National Champion with his eyes on lifting the a solid Chargers team into a Super Bowl contender.

Today on the Football Court docket, case No. 24-10001: “Does Jim Harbaugh make the Chargers an immediately contender in the AFC?” Our lawyers today are James Dator and Mark Schofield, with the honorable judge JP Acosta presiding.

Jim Harbaugh will turn the Chargers around immediately — James Dator

The Chargers have been a sweetheart pick to turn the corner and contend in the AFC for each of the past three seasons, and each year they’ve underperformed. Brandon Staley was given a longer rope than most coaches would have in the same position, and it became very clear that coaching was the biggest issue this team faced.

That changes now.

You don’t need to like Jim Harbaugh to respect what a damn good football coach he is. Is he overbearing? Yes. Does he rub people the wrong way? Yes. Is it ‘his way or the highway’? Absolutely. The man is also 188-71-1 as a head coach across college and the NFL, adopting talented, but underperforming teams and gotten them over the hump three times before now.

Stanford was a perennial underachiever before Harbaugh turned them into a bowl team.

The 49ers were stuck outside the playoff picture and he took them to the Super Bowl in two years.

Michigan was locked in Brady Hoke-fueled mediocrity and became a national champion under Harbaugh.

Now he walks into the best roster in the NFL with a coaching opening, complete with a franchise quarterback and every tool to win. The Chargers are rough around the edges, sure — and there are some difficult cap decisions to be made on defense with Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa, but the nucleus here is good.

Two years ago this team was 10-7, in the playoffs and lost by one point to the Jaguars in the Wild Card Round. All that with Staley at the helm. Harbaugh will make this team into a contender, and with the AFC wide open — paired with potential changes in Kansas City after this season, I think Harbaugh can get the Chargers into the Super Bowl picture within a year or two.

Results may come, but they might not be overnight — Mark Schofield

There is certainly a great deal of excitement at the news that Harbaugh is the next head coach of the Chargers, and I understand the joy that that fan base is feeling today.

However, my argument today is this: Maybe we should wait before crowning the Chargers an immediate success story.

The hiring of Harbaugh gives the team hope, and after all, the NFL offseason is built to manufacture hope for every single fanbase. From the hiring cycle through free agency and ultimately the NFL Draft, the calendar is built to generate hope for the 31 fan bases that did not see their team lift the Lombardi Trophy in February.

But I think there are a few reasons that Chargers fans might want to be more muted today.

First, we do not know what the staff will look like around Harbaugh. He has built some impressive coaching staffs before. For example, the staff he built in San Francisco, where he led the 49ers to the Super Bowl? Vic Fangio was the defensive coordinator, Greg Roman was the offensive coordinator, Jim Tomsula was the defensive line coach, and if you look deeper down the staff, Ejiro Evero was an offensive assistant. Even in college, if you look at some of the coaches he has worked with — such as David Shaw or more recently Mike Macdonald — you can believe he puts a strong staff around him.

But … we do not know who those hires are, at least not yet.

Second, we do not know who the next general manager is in Los Angeles. The team is still sorting through interviews for that position, and until we know who steps into that role, we have no idea how that person, and Harbaugh, will work together.

The third issue? The salary cap position that the new general manager will inherit. After their loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2022-2023 playoffs, the Chargers entered the offseason more than $20 million over the cap. Believing the team was on the cusp of a deep playoff run, then-GM Tom Telesco kicked the can down the road, restructuring contracts for veterans like Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Joey Bosa, and Khalil Mack.

The result? A 5-12 record and a roster that is anywhere from $27 million to $45 million over the cap, depending on what resource you use.

The next GM faces some difficult roster decisions, and the team Harbaugh actually gets to coach may look a lot different than the team that entered 2024 with such lofty expectations.

The final point is this, and it cannot be stressed enough.

Patrick Mahomes is still playing football.

For the foreseeable future, the AFC West still runs through Mahomes and Arrowhead Stadium. You can attack each and every day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind, but it will not change the fact that #15 is still a huge, huge hurdle to overcome in that division.

So you have an uncertain coaching staff, an unknown general manager, an aging roster that is already in a precarious financial position, and Patrick Mahomes on the other side of the field twice a season.

Enthusiasm is okay right now. Hope is okay right now.

But it might take a while to see results.

The Verdict, by Judge JP Acosta

First of all, I would like to thank both counsels for their time and cases in the Harbaugh decision. For me, my verdict comes down to this: who will Jim Harbaugh be bringing in to surround his $260 million QB? Pep Hamilton is a great name as a potential QB coach and coordinator, but Greg Roman gives me some pause. The run game will certainly be rejuvenated—if there’s one thing Jim Harbaugh teams will do well, it’s run the ball—but the Roman passing game was a little outdated and bare in Baltimore, the reason he ultimately was let go.

In addition, as Counsel Schofield points out, the Chargers are currently in a tight spot financially. EDGEs Joey Bosa or Khalil Mack could both end up being cap casualties, and a restructuring of WR Keenan Allen’s deal will be important. The Chargers roster is less “all around talented” and more “top heavy”, with Herbert, Mack and Bosa being the big names, but after the top 6-8 players it gets to a bare cupboard.

While I do agree on some points with Counsel Dator, especially in Harbaugh’s track record as a winner, my verdict is in favor of deferring judgement until April 28, 2024. There’s reason for hope and excitement, yes, but the building out of staff and the draft has to come first before we come to an ultimate decision on if he’ll be successful. Once the staff has been built out and we get a clearer picture of what the Chargers roster will be under Harbaugh, then we can ultimately make a decision on if this will be an instant success.

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