Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh figures to be one of the preeminent names on the NFL coaching carousel this offseason, assuming he elects to leave the Wolverines to chase a Super Bowl title.
The Bears are understandably a team often mentioned as a possible landing spot for Harbaugh. The Athletic's Dianna Russini said Wednesday on FOX Sports that the Bears have had "conversations" about Harbaugh should they decide to fire head coach Matt Eberflus.
If the Bears move on from Eberflus, Harbaugh would make a lot of sense.
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He is an elite coach and program builder. He went 44-19-1 during his four seasons as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Harbaugh led the 49ers to two NFC West titles, three NFC Championship Game appearances, and one Super Bowl berth. The 49ers didn't have a winning season in the eight years before Harbaugh arrived and went 7-25 in the two seasons after before starting a rebuild spearheaded by John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan.
Harbaugh knows what he is doing. He knows how to build a team and a culture. He wins everywhere he goes. His demeanor and personality should make him immune to the poison inside Halas Hall that seems to just about everyone who enters into the worst version of themselves.
I don't think there's a good argument to be made against the Bears hiring Harbaugh if they decide two years of Eberflus is enough.
But the Bears would need the answers to a few key questions to line up before anyone starts thinking about an introductory press conference at Halas Hall for Harbaugh.
First, they have to decide if Eberflus deserves a third season.
I've said for the past month that I don't think Eberflus' seat is as hot as the outside world wants it to be. General manager Ryan Poles' statement of support last month didn't sound like a typical word salad from a GM about to drop the axe. Poles' backing of Eberflus sounded genuine and at least gave the impression that he believes he has the right guy in the building.
Eberflus has also done great work with the Bears' defense this season.
After holding the Minnesota Vikings to 10 points and 242 total yards on Monday night, the Bears' defense now ranks ninth in yards allowed per game and first in rushing yards allowed per game at 79.0. The Bears' defense has forced seven turnovers in the past two games. Now fully healthy and with an elite edge rusher in Montez Sweat, Eberflus' defense is showing that it works when all the right pieces are in place, and the right guy is pulling the strings.
I would also assume the Bears don't judge Eberflus' record the same way the outside world does. The 2022 season was always going to be a lost cause record-wise, but Eberflus got a young locker room to play hard throughout and buy into his culture and system.
Despite having a bad run of injury luck, the Bears are 3-3 in their last six games and are two fourth-quarter meltdowns away from being 6-6 on the season. The meltdowns should be attributed to coaching. At the end of the day, it falls on Eberflus' ledger.
It has been far from perfect, but the Bears are showing progress under Eberflus this season.
At the moment, I feel like that will be enough to get him Year 3.
If the Bears choose to look for a new head coach, the next test to pass is the Kevin Warren exam.
The Bears' new president and CEO will make the hire. While Harbaugh is a great coach, there's a feeling in league circles that Warren and Harbaugh don't exactly see eye-to-eye after the former's time as Big Ten commissioner.
Only Warren and Harbaugh know if the headbutting between the two during the COVID-19 pandemic caused bad blood or if it's just a case of Harbaugh grating people the wrong way, as he seems to do at every stop.
There's obviously no chance Warren's first head coach hire will be someone he doesn't get along with and won't want to work with on a daily basis.
That brings us to what I would say is the potential big hurdle in this hypothetical Harbaugh-to-the-Bears scenario.
Who has personnel control?
Harbaugh's time in San Francisco ended after he continuously butted heads with general manager Trent Baalke over personnel decisions the coach disagreed with. Baalke eventually won the power struggle, and Harbaugh left after the 2014 season.
When Harbaugh's brother-in-law Tom Crean was removed as head basketball coach at Indiana in 2017, Harbaugh peeled back the onion a bit on his time in San Francisco.
"Much like my situation in San Francisco, the people that are doing the micromanaging…when it comes to building a ball team, what they know could not blow up a small balloon," Harbaugh said via Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg. "In my case, an owner and a general manager. In his case, an administration. They are so similar in that way. And he still wins two Big Ten championships outright."
Given how his time in San Francisco ended, the feeling around the league is that Harbaugh likely will ask for personnel control when he returns to the NFL.
So where would that leave Poles, who owner George McCaskey gave the keys to less than two years ago? Are the Bears going to fire Poles? Will they try to arrange a marriage similar to the one the Las Vegas Raiders had with Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock, where Mayock was the general manager and oversaw the scouting and personnel departments, but Gruden had the final say on the moves?
Neither is an ideal situation for a franchise that is still very early in a rebuild.
The Bears agreed to give Poles time to see his vision through. The team has added talent, and the arrow appears to be pointing up. He's a young GM and has made mistakes. None fatal to this point. Pulling the plug this early would only set the franchise back. Asking Poles to stay but be under Harbaugh when it comes to personnel decisions probably isn't going to fly.
That's a quandary. A solution exists, but it will be the hardest of these questions to answer in a way that sets the Bears up for long-term success.
I don't think quarterback Justin Fields factors into the Harbaugh equation much, if at all. If Fields continues to play well enough down the stretch to earn another season as the starter, it likely means he saved Eberflus' job in the process. If the Bears decide to move on from Fields, they should also clean house and bring in a staff to choose its quarterback and put everyone on the same timeline.
It's hard to see a world in which Harbaugh is coaching a Bears team led by Fields in 2024. Maybe Harbaugh gets hired and thinks he can get Fields to turn the flashes into consistency. It’s possible but logical puzzle pieces just don't fit seamlessly together.
Doesn't mean it can't happen. The Bears don't exactly do things by the book, but it's just the least likely of the scenarios, in my opinion.
The Harbaugh-Bears rumors will undoubtedly continue until one side squashes them. In all likelihood, it will be just noise in the end.
Harbaugh would be a great fit. But timing is everything, and the Bears would have to make multiple things align for the move to make sense this offseason. It's doable if the Bears want to make it happen.
But with other franchises with bigger upside potentially willing to give him what he wants, Harbaugh's NFL return likely will be somewhere other than Chicago.