“Insider Insights: The Surprising Salary of Jim Harbaugh with the Chargers”


There are three things when it comes to Jim Harbaugh’s football career we know to be true. He was a great player at Michigan under Bo Schembechler from 1982-86. He was an excellent NFL head coach with the San Francisco 49ers from 2011 to 2014. And he was a legendary head coach in college at three different stops: San Diego (2004-06), Stanford (2007-10) and Michigan (2015-23).

What I think gets lost in the sauce a bit is his professional playing career. It started when he was a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears in 1987, culminating with a backup job on the terrible 2001 Carolina Panthers he did not even see the field for. Harbaugh saw action on four teams (Chicago, Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens, Chargers) and was on two more (Detroit Lions, Panthers).

Was he a decent quarterback professionally? Clearly, but was he good? That is not as easy as it seems. He had his moments in Chicago, and definitely in Indianapolis, but it wasn’t like he was the equivalent of being a Heisman Trophy finalist like he was during his redshirt senior season at Michigan in 1986. His stats are not in his favor, but you must remember the era in which he played.

Let’s answer this question once and for all: Was new Los Angeles Chargers head coach Jim Harbaugh a good NFL player? It has long been up for debate, but I think we can sort it all out.

Los Angeles Chargers: Was Jim Harbaugh a good NFL quarterback?

If you want to look at his numbers, here you go.

  • 26,288 passing yards
  • 58.8 completion percentage
  • 129 passing touchdowns
  • 117 interceptions
  • 77.6 passer rating
  • 66-74 record in 140 starts over 177 career games

And his accolades…

  • 1995 Pro Bowl
  • 1995 NFL Passer Rating Leader
  • 1995 NFL Comeback Player of the Year
  • 1997 George Halas Award
  • 2005 Indianapolis Colts Ring of Honor

Pro Football Reference compares Harbaugh’s career favorably to the likes of Chris Chandler, Kerry Collins, Matt Hasselbeck, Craig Morton and Jim Plunkett, all of whom were somewhere between okay and pretty good. The weird part is he is the only one in that group who never led his team to a Super Bowl. Conversely, only Plunkett ever got to hoist the Lombardi Trophy as the primary starter, although Morton did play a bit.

As you guessed it, Harbaugh’s best years were in Indianapolis. His induction into the Colts Ring of Honor in 2005 may be a surprise to you, but you have to remember how awful they were as a franchise after relocating there in 1983, up until Peyton Manning rose to prominence in the early 2000s. His four-year run in Indianapolis was enough to convince Jim Irsay he should be remembered forever.

I think the best way to analyze Harbaugh’s playing career is where you land matters. He linked up with the Bears well after the unforgettable 1985 season. Just him even being drafted in the first round when Jim McMahon was on the team feels kind of odd to look at it now. It kind of reflects the machismo aura best emanated by his former head coach Mike Ditka. Again, so much up and down…

Harbaugh would start and win games in Chicago, occasionally leading the Bears to the playoffs, but never a guy you could count on when it mattered. When he signed with the Colts in free agency in 1994 to play for Ted Marchibroda, that was probably the best thing for him. He was the best head coach he played for in the pros, but definitely not on the same level as Schembechler was in college.

The Colts’ surprising run to the AFC Championship Game in 1995 cemented his legacy as a legend of sorts in Indianapolis. His ability to pull off upsets in the postseason elevated his status quite a bit, enough to pretend that he was Screech’s cousin on Saved by the Bell. However, Irsay got in the way of something great yet again… He let Marchibroda walk and he went to the Baltimore Ravens in 1996.

Harbaugh would eventually be traded over to Baltimore in 1998, but the Ravens still had not really found their way as the former Cleveland Browns. He would go to the then-San Diego Chargers to be Ryan Leaf’s backup, and that era of Chargers football under Mike Riley absolutely sucked. Harbaugh would finish playing career with two other bottom-feeders in the NFC in Detroit and Carolina in 2001.

Overall, Harbaugh’s highs in the NFL as a player bordered on great at times. He was nicknamed Captain Comeback for his play in Indianapolis, a nickname he shares with the iconic former quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, Roger Staubach. However, his success was not sustainable and he had several mediocre seasons in his 15 NFL seasons from 1987 to 2001. Again, this is not easy…

Ultimately, I would side with Harbaugh being a good NFL quarterback as opposed to an okay one more often than not because he had staying power, two teams we think of him fondly playing for (Chicago, Indianapolis), and the fact his 1995 season had him finish inside the top five in NFL MVP voting. Yeah, I can say with great confidence that Harbaugh was a good NFL quarterback, but that’s it.

The good news for him is he has proven to be an incredible head coach, both in college and the pros.

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