Jim Harbaugh's Amazing San Francisco Impact

Jim Harbaugh is an odd man, but he's a heck of a football coach.

Jim Harbaugh has enough decisions to make – finding a unique outfit every morning can’t be one of them.

The khaki-loving, long-sleeve black shirt wearing Harbaugh has become known for his awkward dad-like appearance since entering the NFL to coach the 49ers, sure. But more importantly, Harbaugh’s made his mark through team success, becoming one of the best head coaches the league has seen in years.

And while there are currently some strange storylines about power and contract issues with Harbaugh in San Francisco, I don’t really feel the need to dive into that. Instead, I wanted to show any sort of Harbaugh doubter the kind of impact he’s made for the 49ers over his first three seasons there.

It goes beyond the obvious, too. Of course his impact is well documented, as the 49ers have made it to the NFC’s Conference Championship game in each of his three seasons leading the team. But what often goes unnoticed is what he was working with, compared to where things are at now. And when you see that, Harbaugh’s success becomes that much more amazing.

The 49ers Before and After Harbaugh

Before Harbaugh landed in San Francisco, the 49ers were a struggling team. Under Mike Singletary, the team finished no better than 8-8, totaling a 21-27 record. Though it was an improvement over Mike Nolan, it still wasn’t anything close to write home about.

Over the three years prior to Harbaugh’s arrival, the 49ers metrics were anything but attractive.

YearPass OffenseRush OffensePass DefenseRush Defense

The rankings above reflected our team Adjusted Net Expected Points metrics, which are fixed for strength of schedule. The only areas that were moderately good before Harbaugh got to San Francisco was their 2009 total defense and their 2010 rush defense. Outside of that, the 49ers never had a passing offense that ranked higher than the bottom-third of the league, and they had just one rush offense that ranked higher than 20th.

Little did the 49ers know, Screech’s cousin was about to change their fortunes.

Harbaugh inherited a team that was far below average, though it showed some signs of having good defense, as pieces were in place for a sound defense to push through. But if we compare what Harbaugh did in just his first year with San Francisco to the averages the team saw in the previous three seasons, it’s pretty sensational:

Pass OffenseRush OffensePass DefenseRush Defense
Prior Averages23rd21st18th9th

The averages above are rough, but the point in displaying them is to show the immediate impact Harbaugh made on the 49ers. Most notably, he made them better within metrics that matter most: pass offense and pass defense.

It’s a quarterback-driven, pass-happy league, which makes sense because throwing the ball is mathematically more efficient than running. It’s not to say that running the football is bad – you need some balance – but teams that are effective throwing the pigskin and defending the pass are rewarded in terms of Net Expected Points (in the end, points) more than teams who can just run the ball and stop opposing rushers.

That has been the reason San Francisco has been able to turn things around. And the excellent coaching by Harbaugh is key to this change.

He was able to take Alex Smith – a perennial disappointment, especially considering his first overall pick status – and turn him into something usable. In fact, Smith had never played above expectation prior to Harbaugh entering the picture - he had five season of bad (and I mean bad) quarterback play. During his two seasons with Harbaugh? A Passing NEP of 27.56; a score that was 40 points better than his previous season-high.

That quarterback play obviously continued with Colin Kaepernick, and over the last two seasons, the 49ers have had the 9th- and 10th-best passing offenses in the NFL.

Pass defense-wise, San Francisco went from averaging a number 18 ranked unit to a yearly top-10 one. In Harbaugh’s three seasons, the 49ers ranked 7th, 6th and 11th against the pass. That comes after the team finishing 25th, 4th and 26th during the three seasons prior to big Jim’s arrival. For some perspective, that type of difference in play can account for 60 to 70 points per season, or four points per game. And that's from the standpoint of looking at stopping the pass only.

Though what happens on the ground is less vital, it's important to note that the rush defense has been stout as well under Harbaugh, ranking 3rd, 5th and 9th over the last three seasons, where it ranked 19th, 1st and 7th in 2008 through 2010. It was already pretty good, but it’s become a more consistent bunch.

And lastly, although the team’s rushing offense has stayed relatively the same, it did see a significant spike in 2012 with the arrival of Kaepernick. Harbaugh’s low pass-to-run ratio typically leads to a less efficient ground attack, as pounding the ball over and over again doesn’t always yield amazing results. But it does sets up a successful, efficient passing attack, which, as I said, is much more vital to a team’s success than a rushing one.

Among these four high-level areas of a team over the last three seasons (12 total instances), San Francisco has amazingly only ranked below 12th twice. And both of those instances were in rush offense, where, as I said, a high rushing rate can create low efficiency.

All of this is to say that San Francisco has a gem - for a lot of reasons, actually - in Harbaugh. He knows how to work with the talent he has, and will be able to keep San Francisco relevant for years to come.