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Chargers Mailbag: Why the Bolts Chose Jim Harbaugh as Their New Head Coach

Mailbag 2.7.23

Welcome back to the Chargers Mailbag!

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Off we go...

The Chargers interviewed a lot of head coach candidates. Why was Harbaugh the choice? (Bill via email)

Back in December, John Spanos said the Bolts were going to case a wide net when it came to the upcoming head coaching search.

The Chargers President of Football Operations wasn't kidding. The team eventually interviewed 15 total candidates for that role, which obviously eventually went to Jim Harbaugh.

Spanos said last week that it was beneficial for the Bolts to get as many viewpoints as possible.

"It was awesome because every coach has a different perspective and insight and we got to pick their brain," Spanos said.

So, why is Harbaugh now the new Chargers Head Coach?

Here are my top three reasons:

1. He's a winner

The Spanos family wants to win. Point blank period.

Harbaugh alluded to that when he referenced a chat with Dean Spanos a few weeks back in which the coach said he was hungry to win.

Spanos replied that he was "starving" to win.

The Bolts have seemingly been on the cusp of being a consistent winner for years now but needed to find the right person to help take them over that proverbial hump.

Harbaugh has won at every single place he's coached at, whether that's the University of San Diego, Stanford, the 49ers and most recently at Michigan.

And we're not talking winning like going 9-7 and being a slightly above average team. Harbaugh routinely makes sure his team is playing deep into the season and are playing in massive games.

Stanford won the Orange Bowl. The 49ers went to a Super Bowl amidst three straight appearances in the NFC title game. And Michigan, of course, just won a national title.

The expectation is that Harbaugh was the best choice of those 15 candidates to help the Chargers reach new heights.

2. Head coach experience

John Spanos said back in that December chat with reporters that he saw a benefit if the Chargers next head coach had been previously held that role elsewhere.

The Bolts past three head coaches were all first-time head coaches. And while each of them had earned that right, neither of them worked out for a myriad of reasons.

Harbaugh knows what it takes to win in the NFL. It's a demanding and ruthless league where the smallest mistake can mean the difference between a win and a loss on Sunday afternoon.

The Bolts brass decided they wanted to go with someone with a proven track record. And Harbaugh is on the short list of coaches who fit that criteria.

3. Culture setter

Harbaugh's persona and mannerisms were on full display in his introductory press conference last week.

Of course, there was the line about attacking each day "with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind."

But he also said his brother, John, is as "tough as a two-dollar steak" and quipped "don't let the Powder Blues fool you" when describing how touch he wants his team to be.

The quote that has stuck with me the past week was this one about Justin Herbert:

"Let's see if I'm man enough, a good enough coach, so that all of his hard work can be realized. I want to work really hard so that his hard work is going to be realized, Justin and every player on our football team."

Herbert's play the past four seasons has sort of summed of the Chargers overall. Incredible bright spots but a lack of overall team success that certainty doesn't fall on the quarterback's shoulders.

But that quote above just oozes of accountability. Harbaugh is going to hold his players to a high standard while perhaps holding himself to an even higher one.

Harbaugh knows the Bolts need to be revamped in a lot of ways. That started with him going to Home Depot to get a Shop-Vac to clean up the weight room and will also include him having his team prepared down to the finest detail by the time Week 1 rolls around.

Harbaugh obviously has a prior relationship with the Spanos family from the two seasons he was a quarterback with the Chargers organization.

Dean Spanos said last week that the connection surely played a part in Harbaugh getting hired here. But the focal point was finding a head coach to lead the Chargers to a place they've never been before.

Harbaugh was the clear-cut choice there in a strong pool of candidates.

"I think that we both have a great deal of respect for each other," Dean Spanos said. "He has a great deal of respect for our family and I think he knows a lot about our family and not just in the last two weeks, but from before.

"Yeah. surely it makes you feel good, but it was a two-way thing," Spanos added. "I think we both felt great about each other and very comfortable. Now the hard work begins."

A great question here from Mike, mostly because Harbaugh has orchestrated quick turnarounds nearly every place he's been.

Stanford one just one game the season before Harbaugh arrived in 2007. He had the Cardinal bowl eligible within three years and on top of the Orange Bowl in four years.

The 49ers were a six-win team before Harbaugh arrived. San Francisco won 36 regular-season games and five more postseason games in the first three seasons under Harbaugh.

And Michigan was a five-win squad before Harbaugh ripped off back-to-back, 10-win seasons in his first two years in Ann Arbor.

I'm not going to sit here and predict that the Chargers will be a playoff team in 2024 and that they are going to make a deep postseason run.

They will have to earn that, something Harbaugh himself noted in his introductory press conference.

"It has to start with being humble and hungry. That's, where we are right now, humble and hungry. We're going to respect all of our opponents. We're going to strive, we're going to earn their respect and we're going to earn our winning as a tough team, a resilient team, a relentless team, a physical team. That is what we're going to aspire to be."

Harbaugh also made it quite clear that he came back to the NFL to chase a Super Bowl trophy.

And the bones of that potential are here with the Chargers, beginning with Justin Herbert.

The 2024 NFL season is still seven whole months away. We'll know in due time how it all shakes out for the Bolts.

But if we've learned anything about Harbaugh so far, it's that he's not going to allow the Chargers to settle for mediocrity going forward.

Draft season is quickly approaching!

And since Frank is curious about the possibility of the Bolts trading back, here's what Hortiz himself said about the topic on Tuesday:

"I think those are options that you consider. Certainly, you have to have a partner to do something like that. We're a long ways away from the draft. Right now, I don't think anyone can tell you how the first five picks are going to go. There's a lot to go, there's a lot more. We'll see at the Combine, Pro Days, workouts, the talk in the media and seeing where everyone goes. But, we have a lot of time to figure that out and other teams have a lot of time to see if they're interested. You have to be ready to pick at five, I know that. If there's one thing that I've learned, from anything in Baltimore, there are times when that phone doesn't ring, and you better be ready to pick."

My personal belief is that trading back is almost always a strong option since you can get more bites at the apple and possibly future draft capital, too.

However, I've also never covered a team that has a Top-5 pick, and it's apparent the Bolts have a chance to draft a game changer that high. If we were talking about pick No. 15 or 20 then it would be a different story.

As Hortiz said Tuesday: "We don't want to be picking there again."

The Chargers know that they have a chance to make a franchise-shaping move if they hit on the fifth pick.

As for which player to take at No. 5, I'm not ready to throw any names out there just yet. But I will note that adding another piece to the Chargers offense makes sense right now given how the Chargers roster looks in early February.

Of course, a whole lot can change by late April.

We're about a month away from having some clarity on the Chargers roster.

(A quick aside: We posted a helpful article on key 2024 offseason dates that you can find here).

But the date and time that is most important is 1 p.m. (PT) on March 13, which is the start of the 2024 League Year. All NFL teams must be salary-cap compliant by that time.

The Chargers are currently projected to be $46 million over the cap, according to Over the Cap.

Here's what Hortiz said Tuesday when asked about his initial thoughts on the Bolts salary cap conundrum.

"There's some work to do, but it's not unattainable," Hortiz said. "We just have to keep crawling and digging, right? It's going to take some work, but, again, we have smart guys in those roles.

"[Executive Vice President of Football Administration/Player Finance] Ed [McGuire] is a wizard. I know that," Hortiz added. "His reputation preceded him with me walking into the building, so I'll rely heavily on him with that."

Of course, March 13 is also the start of free agency, so player additions and roster shuffling will be in full force that week.

Yes, the Chargers might have to revamp a few position rooms — tight end and running back come to mind first — but the Bolts will construct a plan in the coming weeks and then execute it.

As for the main focus of the roster this offseason, the first priority needs to be getting under the cap. And that attention will shift to the Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack, all of whom have rather large cap hits in 2024.

Once the cap puzzle gets solved, then it's free agency moves and potential contract extensions. Rashawn Slater, for example, is eligible for an extension this offseason.

Lots to figure out but no need for anyone to panic. Hortiz and his staff will get it all sorted out.

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