Packers Head Coach Candidate: John Harbaugh


One weakness of Packers head coach Ray Rhodes was his disdain for special teams. As head coach in Philadelphia, Rhodes rarely alloted practice time to special teams and his units were ranked in the bottom third of the league in all four of his seasons as head coach.

In 1999, the Packers hired Rhodes and had a reputation of excellent special teams. Super Bowl MVP and returner extraordinaire Desmond Howard was back in the fold as a free agent signee, too.

Rhodes tried to bring his special teams coordinator with him from Philadelphia to Green Bay – a young coach named John Harbaugh – but Harbaugh had signed a two-year contract in 1998 and new Eagles head coach Andy Reid wanted him back.

The details on John Harbaugh

Most recent job: Head Coach, Baltimore Ravens (2008-present)
Record as a head coach: 110-74
First job: Running Backs and Outside Linebackers Coach, Western Michigan (1984)
Packers connection: Coached under former Packers head coach Ray Rhodes and assistant Andy Reid in Philadelphia. Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine worked as an assistant in Baltimore during Harbaugh’s first season. Packers offensive passing game coordinator Jim Hostler was on Harbaugh’s staff for six seasons (2008-2013) in Baltimore.

The background on John Harbaugh

John Harbaugh is the older brother of Michigan head coach and potential Packers head coach candidate Jim Harbaugh, but doesn’t have the same pedigree as a player. John transitioned to coaching immediately after his college playing career ended, rising through the ranks at Western Michigan (1984–1987), Pitt (1987), Morehead State (1988), Cincinnati (1989–1996), and Indiana (1997).

By 1998, Ray Rhodes hired Harbaugh to coach special teams for the Eagles. Rhodes and his staff were fired after a disappointing season, but incoming head coach Andy Reid kept Harbaugh around. For nearly the next decade, the Eagles experienced tremendous success and Harbaugh’s star rose. In 2007, he transitioned to defensive backs coach as at the time it was rare for a team to hire a special teams coordinator as a head coach.

It didn’t take long for Harbaugh to get an opportunity to be a head coach. The Baltimore Ravens hired him prior to the 2008 season to replace Brian Billick. Harbaugh retained the defensive staff – including defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and assistants Vic Fangio and Mike Pettine – but brought in a new offensive staff.

The Ravens ascended under Harbaugh’s steady leadership, culminating with a win in Super Bowl XLVII over his brother Jim’s 49ers. Much like Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, Harbaugh’s time in Baltimore could be running low despite bringing a Super Bowl to Maryland.

A recent report by Pro Football Talk suggested the Ravens may hold off on firing Harbaugh and instead focus on trading Harbaugh to a team who wishes to hire him as their head coach.

John Harbaugh’s biggest moment

It’s really hard to top coaching your team to a win in the Super Bowl against a team coached by your younger brother. If we’re trying to go beyond the obvious, though, John Harbaugh may be the closest thing to Kevin Bacon in the NFL.

Consider this list of coaches who have served as assistants under John in Baltimore: Mike Pettine, Rex Ryan, Chuck Pagano, Vic Fangio, Jim Caldwell, Leslie Frazier, Hue Jackson, Jim Hostler, Cam Cameron, Dean Pees, Marc Trestman, Jim Zorn, Don Martindale, Juan Castillo, Steve Spagnuolo, Marty Mornhinweg, and Teryl Austin.

It’s quite a testament to the character and emotional intelligence of John Harbaugh that so many coaches who are fired as head coach – Trestman, Frazier, Zorn, Caldwell and Spagnuolo, specifically – arrive in Baltimore immediately afterwards.

In John Harbaugh’s own words

Telling your parents you’re considering forgoing a potentially lucrative career as a lawyer to pursue a less-lucrative career in coaching isn’t quite the same as Zac Taylor meeting his future father-in-law Mike Sherman, but it was sure to strike up similar nerves. John Harbaugh did just that – here’s the passage from a 2013 profile of John and Jim prior to Super Bowl XLVII:

Instead, he informed his parents one day over dinner that he had decided to try his luck as a coach. "I wish I had something really clever to say about that," John told reporters this week, when asked what prompted the change of heart. "President Obama said he wouldn't let his kids get into football, so it would be great to say our dad wouldn't let us get into politics. [To say] I wanted to do that but dad said, 'No, it's not safe,' which it probably isn't."

The real story, as Jack tells it, is entertaining enough. "[John was a] political science [student], and talking about going to law school ," he said. "Jackie was so excited. She loves political science and politics. [John] came home one day and we're sitting around the table having dinner. Jackie says, 'John, what law school will it be?' John says, 'Mom, I think I want to try coaching.' At that point… Jackie went face down into the mashed potatoes."

What are the chances John Harbaugh is the next Packers head coach?

Jon’s Rating: 2/5

If there’s something that would be hard to justify to Packers fans, it would be replacing a coach whose message had reportedly grown stale after winning a Super Bowl with another coach who experienced the exact same thing.

John Harbaugh certainly has his merits. He got the most out of Joe Flacco, a sentient plywood cutout of a football player with a JUGS machine stabled to its right shoulder. His ability to put the pieces in place to take advantage of Flacco shouldn’t be undersold.

But after making it to the Super Bowl, Harbaugh hasn’t been able to all his ducks in a row in Baltimore. The Ravens have been back to the playoffs just once, and if the Packers are trying to maximize Aaron Rodgers’ last few years, it’s going to be hard to sell a guy who can’t seem to handle the perpetually semi-dysfunctional Steelers and continually disappointing Bengals in the AFC North.

Gary’s Rating: 3/5

John Harbaugh’s mutual friendship with his brother Jim has helped both men become better head coaches and hire better assistants. Vic Fangio was on John’s staff in Baltimore for two years before joining Jim at Stanford in 2010. Greg Roman was part of Jim’s offensive coaching staff through his tenure with San Francisco, and joined John’s staff in Baltimore this year.

There’s symmetry in the Packers hiring a former Super Bowl winning head coach who had worn out his welcome to replace Mike McCarthy. John Harbaugh offers many of the traits that make his younger brother Jim a desirable head coach with – from an outsiders’ opinion – a higher emotional intelligence.

Realistically, it’s unlikely the Packers go down the route of trading for any coach. If Harbaugh isn’t fired, then I doubt Green Bay is interested. Rob Demovsky reported the day after McCarthy’s firing that general manager Brian Gutekunst is a fan of Jim Harbaugh. Perhaps he’s also a fan of John as well.