Jim Harbaugh introduced himself to the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday armed with high expectations and awe for his quarterback.
The new coach arrived at his first news conference in typical Harbaugh fashion, heaping effusive praise on the organization, his family and mentors alongside vows to "bring it" and to remain "humble and hungry." There were multiple shout-outs to "Ted Lasso" and a "Shawshank Redemption" reference.
He then set the bar high, laying out an expectation to win "multiple championships" in Los Angeles. This is with a franchise that competes in the same division as the Kansas City Chiefs and has a single playoff win on its record since 2014.
"One thing I know is Los Angeles, Southern California, they respect talent, effort and winning," Harbaugh said. "And it needs to be multiple, multiple championships. We're gonna be humble and hungry. But that's our goal."
Just sniffing that goal will be a monumental challenge — one the requires unlocking the so-far unrealized potential of quarterback Justin Herbert. As a former NFL quarterback and reputed quarterback whisperer who's helped develop the likes of Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick and J.J. McCarthy, Harbaugh was hired as the man to do exactly that.
Doing so or not will be the difference between in the Chargers realizing long-coveted postseason success and just continuing to be the Chargers.
Can Harbaugh lead Justin Herbert to the next step?
Herbert is one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks in football, a 6-foot-6 statue of a man with a cannon for an arm and the touch to put the ball exactly where it needs to be. There are few coaches in the NFL who wouldn't trade their quarterback for Herbert. Harbaugh knows what he's been handed.
"Justin Herbert, you see; he's a crown jewel in the National Football League," Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh, who said last week that meeting Herbert left him "a little starstruck," then demonstrated what that meeting may have looked like.
"OK, all right. This is awesome," Harbaugh said of meeting Herbert.
It sounds awesome. But so far in the NFL, Herbert's play has fallen short of that assessment.
In four seasons since the Chargers drafted Herbert with the No. 6 pick, he's shown flashes of his tremendous upside. He earned Rookie of the Year in a talented field, then made the Pro Bowl in his second season.
But his play hasn't been consistent. And it hasn't translated to success. The Chargers have made one playoff appearance in Herbert's four seasons at quarterback. They lost last postseason in the wild-card round in a meltdown from a 27-point lead against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was the Chargers Chargering at peak Chargers.
Then came 2023, a colossal disappointment. Fresh off a 10-7 campaign, expectations were that the Chargers would compete in the AFC West with talent to do so on both sides of the ball. Instead, they finished at 5-12 in last place in the division. Herbert completed a career-low 65.1% of his passes as the Chargers fielded a middling offense that ranked 18th in yards and 21st in points per game. Head coach Brandon Staley was summarily dismissed.
Harbaugh's history of success with quarterbacks
Enter Harbaugh, who's won at every step as a head coach alongside consistent success at developing quarterbacks. In his first job, he lifted the University of San Diego to two Pioneer League championships in three seasons while compiling a 29-6 record. His quarterback, Josh Johnson, went on to an eight-season NFL career from an FCS program.
Harbaugh then took over a 1-11 Stanford team that finished in the top five as 12-1 Orange Bowl champions four seasons later. Luck developed from a four-star high school prospect into one of the most coveted quarterback prospects in NFL history in the process.
In Harbaugh's first stint with the NFL, he saw something in Kaepernick that convinced him to start him over former No. 1 pick Alex Smith. The decision paid off with a trip to the Super Bowl.
Then at Michigan, Harbaugh developed McCarthy from a four-star high school prospect into a national champion and a bona fide NFL prospect. And now he's on to the next challenge.
With the Chargers, Harbaugh's working with a talent whose skill set and physical gifts rival Luck's. Expectations are high, and there's plenty of reason for optimism. It's up to Harbaugh to tap that potential to meet those expectations.