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:
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.
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.
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.
I don't like Elway's chances. All of that probably sounded quite a bit better about 10 years ago.
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.
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?
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).