It's pretty clear by now that white-hot Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh is leaving the college ranks for the NFL. He wants to win a Super Bowl, the one goal he didn't accomplish in his 11 years as a quarterback in the league, getting only as far as an AFC title game loss with the Colts at Pittsburgh in 1995.
In order of likelihood of where he lands, here are the pros and cons of the five NFL teams reportedly interested in him:
Why it makes sense: The 49ers">49ers are clearly in the pole position in this race for any number of reasons. Let's start by remembering that San Francisco is the only job on this list in which he wouldn't have to move his family, given the proximity of Palo Alto and Santa Clara. Then there's the NFC West factor. What's the softest, most winnable division in the NFL, as the Seattle Seahawks just proved? Yep, the one the 49ers are in.
True, the 49ers have no quarterback of the future (or even the present), and need to find one before the 2011 season begins. But St. Louis is the only team in the division that doesn't have quarterback issues, and Harbaugh, a pretty fair QB himself in his day, has enough confidence that he can find a competent passer somewhere and upgrade the 49ers offense.
Other than at quarterback, San Francisco has a lot of the pieces to the puzzle already in place. There are two young weapons in the passing game to build around in tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree, two first-round offensive linemen who started as rookies in guard Mike Iupati and tackle Anthony Davis, and the reliable Frank Gore remains the team's premier playmaker and go-to running back. San Francisco also has a ready-made defense that still has the potential to grow, with star middle linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive end Justin Smith being two of its most dependable cogs.
While there has been some speculation that the 49ers' decision Tuesday to elevate VP of player personnel Trent Baalke to their general manager job might hurt their chances of landing Harbaugh, league sources told me that's probably off base. While Harbaugh and Baalke don't know each other well, Harbaugh wouldn't shrink from the chance to work with a first-time GM, with whom he might have success exerting his influence over in terms of personnel decisions. Harbaugh has a lot of confidence that he knows what it takes to win in the NFL based on his own experience in the league, and that of his brother, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh.
Lastly, the 49ers were considered the consensus favorite to win the division this season once Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner retired, and the hiring of Harbaugh would likely inspire hope and make them a popular pick again in 2011. Though San Francisco's playoff drought has reached eight seasons and spanned three head coaches (Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary), it's not seen as a bad gig or a franchise devoid of talent. It's just in desperate need of direction and leadership.
Why it may not work: While San Francisco owner Jed York is desperate to find the right man to lead his team and help the franchise finally get a new stadium, he's reportedly not in the position to shell out the $6 million or $7 million per year that Harbaugh is rumored to be seeking. In that scenario, it's possible Harbaugh could price himself out of the 49ers price range.
Why it makes sense:Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Harbaugh have the University of Michigan in common, and that's no small detail. Ross is UM's biggest athletic booster, and the school even named its business school after him. I'm going to take a leap of faith and say the two men have probably gotten to know each other a little bit over the years, dating from when Harbaugh was the Wolverines' star quarterback in the '80s.
What did the 2010 Dolphins need that became even more glaring as their second consecutive disappointing 7-9 season wore on? Someone who can come in and fix the team's post-Dan Marino quarterback problems and bring a state-of-the-art NFL passing game to Miami. That could double as Harbaugh's calling card.
Despite their missing the playoffs eight of the past nine seasons, the Dolphins remain one of the league's flagship franchises, located in a glamorous part of the country. Ross has tried to add glamour to the Dolphins with every one of his celebrity minority ownership partners, and he's probably willing to outspend any other team in pursuit of Harbaugh.
Why it may not work: If you were a first-time NFL head coach, would you join the AFC East if you had other options? Two games a year against the Patriots and Jets is no walk down easy street, and I also believe Harbaugh has little interest in coaching in the same conference as his brother's team in Baltimore.
The Dolphins, for the foreseeable future -- which, granted, is about 15 minutes in today's NFL -- look like the third-place team they've been for a while now in their division (their 2008 AFC East title notwithstanding). There's talent, but not in spades. And who knows how Harbaugh really feels about Chad Henne, the former Michigan quarterback he'd inherit? By even the most generous interpretations, Henne regressed significantly in his third NFL season.
Why it makes sense: Much like in Miami, the Broncos' best hope in their quest for Harbaugh lies in a personal relationship. Denver just named Broncos legend John Elway the team's new football czar, and guess where Elway starred in college? If you said Stanford, give yourself a big high-five. Elway will also try to sell Harbaugh on how great it is to work for longtime Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, and what glory can be had when you win in Denver.
I don't like Elway's chances. All of that probably sounded quite a bit better about 10 years ago.
Why it may not work: True, the Broncos are also in the one of the weaker divisions in the NFL and have more potential to win quickly than some other strugglers in the league. They also have a first-round drafted quarterback in Tim Tebow, who flashed some potential in his late-season, three-game starting tenure, in addition to a solid veteran option in Kyle Orton.
But other than that, the Broncos appear to be starting from scratch and may have to get used to last place in the AFC West for a while. Elway's hiring is at best a risky move given his limited executive experience, and Harbaugh probably doesn't know much about how things would work in a front office where Elway, team president Joe Ellis and general manager Brian Xanders are all involved.
With Bowlen owing both Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels considerable money out the door, is he really in position to win a bidding war for Harbaugh? On top of that, the idea of going with another relatively youthful first-time NFL head coach probably should make Bowlen a little nervous. Even if Harbaugh has successful head coaching experience in college, and McDaniels didn't.
Why it makes sense: Stop me if you're heard this one before, but Harbaugh knows someone in the Raiders organization. Guy named Al Davis. I think he runs the place. Harbaugh was a Raiders offensive assistant in 2002-03 under head coach Bill Callahan, and he and Davis have remained friends. Davis certainly is intrigued by Harbaugh's coaching work at Stanford, in his proverbial bay area backyard. Sources say one reason Davis moved so uncharacteristically quick in letting go of head coach Tom Cable this week was because he thinks he has a legitimate shot of enticing Harbaugh to Oakland.
Why it may not work: It's our considered opinion that Davis is delusional if he thinks he's going to talk Harbaugh into the Raiders job, which isn't exactly the league's plum assignment in terms of working environment and hands-off ownership. The chances are greater that Harbaugh sees the Raiders' interest as a way of leveraging his best possible deal out of the cross-bay 49ers, because we all know how much Davis likes losing any battle to the folks in San Francisco.
And did we mention the Raiders aren't known for paying head coaches even a fraction of the money Harbaugh is said to be seeking?
Why it makes sense: We're going to keep this one short and sweet. The Panthers currently own the No. 1 pick in April's NFL Draft. They need a quarterback. Stanford's Andrew Luck plays quarterback. If Harbaugh goes to Carolina, and Luck declares for the draft, Luck could keep playing for Harbaugh, the coach who helped make him No. 1 overall pick material.
Why it may not work:Panthers owner Jerry Richardson went into a serious cost-cutting mode this year and suffered through a 2-14 season in part because he felt like he was paying John Fox and his coaching staff too much money. Richardson is not about to make that mistake again. Fox was not brought back and Carolina is looking to hire a young, hungry NFL coordinator who will work relatively cheap in return for his first head coaching opportunity.
Does that sound like Harbaugh to you? Me neither. So even if the Panthers do draft Stanford's quarterback, they're out of luck in the Harbaugh derby (pun intended).