Jim Harbaugh, not pending QB decision, could wind up being Bears' biggest what-if

Jim Harbaugh, not pending QB decision, could wind up being Bears' biggest what-if originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

"I haven’t talked to Jim. He’s the coach at Michigan."

That was Bears general manager Ryan Poles at his end-of-season press conference when asked if he had reached out to Jim Harbaugh before making the decision to retain head coach Matt Eberflus for a third season.

Harbaugh had just won the College Football National Championship two days earlier, but his interest in returning to the NFL was well known. After getting Michigan to the top of the college football world, it felt like a foregone conclusion that he would return to the NFL to chase a Super Bowl.

Harbaugh is a proven winner. It's all he does. He's addicted to winning. He's done it at every level without fail.

In his second and third seasons, he took a non-scholarship University of San Diego program to their first conference championships in program history. He arrived at Stanford and transformed the Cardinal from a 1-11 doormat to a 12-1 Orange Bowl champion. Harbaugh took over a middling 6-10 49ers team and took them to three straight NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl berth. After losing a power struggle with 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, Harbaugh returned to Michigan and took a 5-7 team to 10 wins in Year 1 before topping it off with a national title.

With the No. 1 overall pick in his back pocket, Poles had a chance to clean the slate and make a run at a generational coach to supercharge his rebuild. He elected to stay with Eberflus, citing second-half improvement, defensive growth, and an ability to steady the ship through adversity (some of which was self-inflicted).

The Bears could have looked at a 7-10 record bolstered by wins over six teams with losing records and decided improvement was good, but more was needed for the Bears to maximize the opportunity in front of them.

Instead, Poles stuck with Eberflus, and Harbaugh agreed to a five-year deal to be the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers on Wednesday.

After firing Brandon Staley, Chargers owner Dean Spanos promised to "reimagine" how the Chargers go about "building and maintaining a championship-caliber program."

Consider that promise kept with the hire of Harbaugh.

The Chargers are notoriously cheap. A small-market team that rarely, if ever, makes the seismic moves needed to vault them into the tier of franchises that will do whatever it takes to win.

But with a franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert and a need to get a foothold in the Los Angeles market, the Chargers put on their big-boy pants and made a move that signals they are ready to swim in the deep end.

In an offseason that will be consumed by the quarterback debate and the long-reaching ramifications of Poles' Justin Fields-Caleb Williams decision, the bigger what-if very well could end up being the decision not to upgrade from an improving head coach in Eberflus to a generational winner in Harbaugh. Choosing not to pair Fields or Williams with one of the best football coaches of this generation.

Perhaps Harbaugh, a former Bears quarterback, was not interested in coming to Chicago. There's a good chance that Poles didn't want to share or surrender personnel control with Harbaugh. The Chargers hired Harbaugh before hiring a general manager, which signals that he'll have all the control he didn't have in San Francisco when working with Baalke. There's a chance the Bears' decision not to pursue Harbaugh lies at president and CEO Kevin Warren's feet. Warren promised to take a big-picture, comprehensive view of the Bears' 2023 season before making big changes. It was ultimately decided that Eberflus deserved a third season.

The discussion, both in the moment and in retrospect, should not be about what Eberflus is and isn't as a head coach. Things don't have to be horrible for a change to be needed. You can say that Eberflus is a second-year head coach who has improved and instilled a strong culture while also recognizing that Harbaugh would have been a massive upgrade.

Winning organizations, like thriving companies, always look to upgrade, especially at positions that are the catalyst for growth and long-term success.

The Bears should have looked at Eberflus and seen a coach who is getting better and could continue to grow in his role. They should see someone who might develop into a winning head coach but also see a critical position that could be upgraded if one becomes available.

Harbaugh was that upgrade. At least, he will be for the Chargers.

For the Bears, all that's left is for them to hope they aren't destined to look back at this moment -- a pivotal one in the franchise's history -- and regret not chasing greatness.

Regret playing it safe instead of doing all that was necessary to be the franchise they always tell us they want to be.

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