-Describes any level of football coach that is able to bring the best possible quarterback play out of a player. Usually, but not always, involves revitalizing a previously forgotten, passed-up, or washed quarterback.
Jim Harbaugh knows the quarterback position better than everyone on the planet outside of possibly a small handful of absolute football freaks that wouldn’t skip a film session to watch their kids open Christmas presents.
There really does not exist a respectable argument against this stance, but yet the early moniker of “quarterback whisperer” is not necessarily attached to Harbaugh anymore in public discourse. Recently, more highly visible success stories from coaches like Lincoln Riley, Dabo Swinney and Kyle Shanahan have quieted some of the early hype surrounding Harbaugh’s ability to pull the absolute best football out of his quarterbacks.
There is some content to mine in tracking the journey of Harbaugh’s playing career, to his coronation as a brilliant quarterback mind, to where we are now; and I intend to mine it like some 12-year-old children working a Montana copper mine in 1919.
In part one of a two-part series, I will look at some of the first quarterbacks under Harbaugh’s tutelage all the way up to his hiring at Michigan, trying to find similarities, patterns, and give the man credit where credit is due, as well as criticism when warranted.
Rewatching his tape, Harbaugh’s game was more athletic, rugged and unhinged than I imagined it would be. I was but a twinkle in my father’s eye when Harbaugh was knocking off Big Ten opponents like DeNiro knocking off the participants of the Lufthansa heist in Goodefellas. But as a self-proclaimed historian of Michigan football, I have done my research on the subject matter.
He wasn’t quite Steve Young or Denard Robinson with what he could do out of the pocket and with his legs, but he was agile and improvisational in the pocket. He didn’t stick around and wait for the punishment to come like Roethlisberger or Wilton Speight, but didn’t panic when waiting for something to come open and could deliver an accurate ball under pressure.
He had above-average arm talent, and you would see him throw some absolute missiles on slants and drags where he is going all the way across the field, but it was nothing like the cannon hardwired on J.J. McCarthy’s torso. The ball did not quite “float” out of his hand into that picture perfect spiral that you see when watching the Andrew Luck’s Stanford tape, but they always seem to get where they were going. Harbaugh did not make a ton of glaring mistakes where you would place the sole blame on the quarterback, even in seasons where there were double-digit interceptions.
Not as suave as the Sean Connery Bond, nor as physical as the Daniel Craig iteration, Harbaugh fell firmly into the Pierce Brosnan in Goldeneye or Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights range. He was cerebral and methodical when the offense called for it, but could turn on the type of “to hell with you, I am getting this first down” type of playmaking you need from a quarterback and a leader.
What truly defined Harbaugh as a quarterback was his all-around athleticism, intelligence and determination to win. He was a multi-sport athlete and competitive about literally everything he did, and looks for the same in all of his quarterback recruits and prospects.
In looking through all the quarterbacks Harbaugh would go on to coach, you can see flashes of his quarterback style and personality in his players, but few have been carbon copies or even passable facsimiles of Harbaugh, outside of one notable outlier.
The lineage of quarterbacks under Harbaugh is almost as interesting as the man himself.
Todd Mortensen is probably the least discussed quarterback reclamation case under Harbaugh, but is undoubtedly the first domino that led to his eventual moniker of “quarterback whisperer.”
He transferred from BYU to play for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego, and you probably would not have been scolded for not waking up your wife to tell her about that news even if you were the most ardent supporter of the Toreros.
Mortensen went 27-of-77 passes with one touchdown and four interceptions in three seasons as a backup, but had a 4.0 GPA and graduated summa cum laude, a fact that seemingly endeared him to Harbaugh. He admitted to being enamored with the intelligence of Mortensen, and spoke about his GPA and mental makeup when asked about what got him excited about the player.
Harbaugh was able to mold Mortensen from disregarded backup to fringe NFL guy in just one season under his wing.
“He will take advantage of as much aptitude and intelligence and knowledge of the game as you have,” Mortensen said. “If he has a guy that’s really smart, Jim can use his full tool kit and be as creative as humanly possible in terms of coming up with formations, and schemes, and plays and ways to get matchups.”
He said his transformation wasn’t immediate — San Diego started 2-4 his senior year before winning its final five games — but the offense began to click in midseason. It culminated in his penultimate college game when he completed 37-of-54 passes for 464 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 38-35 win against a frisky Dayton team. He earned First Team All-PFL honors and he was named the Co-Offensive Player of the Year in 2004. Mortensen finished the year with 2,874 yards and 25 touchdowns.
There was not a lot of tape of the lone year at San Diego for Mortensen, so I had to go on word of mouth and vibes for a lot of this analysis. Mortensen had John O’Korn level tools, but Jake Rudock level intelligence, and that served him well in his only year under Harbaugh. There is a very real alternate universe where Mortensen never plays another snap after BYU, but he instead ended up sniffing around the NFL in some training camps for a couple of years. This was an incredible coaching job by Harbaugh here and deserves some shine.
Decision Making/Football IQ: 9
Arm Talent: 5
Got that dawg in him: Milo, Jack Russel Terrier, The Mask
The first full-on Harbaugh product, Josh Johnson was recruited, coached and developed by Harbaugh at San Diego, where he became one of, if not THE most prolific quarterback to come through the university to this day. His development also has an argument for the most impressive case under Harbaugh.
An Oakland native and cousin of Marshawn Lynch (randomly), Johnson played all three years Harbaugh coached at the University of San Diego, sitting behind Mortensen for most of his freshman season outside of some garbage time and developmental minutes.
There is a lot to like about Johnson’s game, particularly against lesser competition, where he put up borderline absurd — even-for-a-video-game — numbers. What I love the most about the dude; he just flat out wins.
He only lost four games in his career at San Diego with an overall record of 30-4. In 2005, this man threw for seven touchdowns — IN THE FIRST HALF — against Valparaiso. He finished with 11,563 yards of total offense. In his final season after Harbaugh moved to Stanford, he set a school record with 43 touchdowns and was first in the nation in total offense, passing efficiency and total points responsible for. He still holds the record for the highest career passer efficiency (176.68) in NCAA Division-I history to this day.
Johnson was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL Draft and had an NFL career with longevity that would make even Chad Henne blush. If you count the double and triple stints at places like Cleveland and San Francisco, Johnson has been on an absurd (24!) NFL and semi-pro teams in his career. He is currently on the roster for the Baltimore Ravens along with several other Harbaugh products.
2005 Season: Sophomore
70.7% Completion - 2881 Yards- 31 TD- 8 INT- 169.0 Rating- 345 Rush Yards- 4 TD
2006 Season : Junior
66.3% Completion - 3320 Yards- 35 TD- 5 INT- 169.9 Rating- 720 Rush Yards- 11 TD
He was big (6-foot-3, 200), fast and physical, but could deliver an accurate ball with well above average arm strength. He had touch on his release that resulted in beautiful looking passes delivered with excellent form and real zip. Outside of the pocket and on designed runs, Johnson was a legitimate weapon defenses had to account for, and may have an argument for best or at least second-best running quarterback under Harbaugh.
Harbaugh gets a ton of credit; both for identifying the talent and for the majority of Johnson’s development. Johnson had an incredible senior year after Harbaugh left, but the foundation was clearly laid during Harbaugh’s time with the program and spent directly coaching Johnson in 2005 and 2006.
Decision Making/Football IQ: 7
Arm Talent: 7
Got that dawg in him: Sam (pre-zombie), German Shepherd, I Am Legend
Still the pièce de résistance of Harbaugh quarterback disciples, Andrew Luck was built in an underground lab to play the quarterback position and grow thick, unsightly neckbeards.
One of the most highly ranked recruits to ever commit to Stanford, the consensus four-star beat out incumbent Tavita Pritchard as a true freshman and was quickly one of the best players in the Pac-12.
Luck played under Harbaugh for his freshman and sophomore seasons, where he helped him improve his accuracy, touch, decision-making, leadership and every statistical measure across the board. He also won — a LOT. In a trend that would not stop at Stanford and has not stopped to this very day, Harbaugh landed his quarterback and started winning quickly. The Cardinal jumped from five wins to eight wins once Luck took over as a freshman, and made the real proverbial “leap” the following season when Luck and Harbaugh led Stanford to a 12-1 record and an Orange Bowl victory.
Harbaugh would take the San Francisco job that following offseason, but Luck came back for one more stellar 11-2 campaign under David Shaw, culminating in a Fiesta Bowl loss. For his college career, Luck completed 67 percent of his passes and threw for 9,430 yards, 82 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
Luck was the Heisman runner-up twice in 2010 (Cam Newton) and 2011 (Robert Griffin III) and it does kind of feel like he probably should have won one when you think about how dominant he really was in a Stanford program that remains a notoriously difficult place to win.
2009 Season: Freshman
56.3% Completion - 2,575 yards- 13 TD- 4 INT- 143.4 Rating - 354 Rush Yards- 2 TD
2010 Season: Sophomore
70.7 percent Completion - 3,338 yards- 32 TD- 8 INT- 170.2 Rating- 453 Rush Yards- 3 TD
At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds as a freshman, Luck had a similar frame to a college-aged Harbaugh, but had more room to put on some weight, resulting in that “built-in-a-lab” fully finished product that would help solidify him as the first overall pick. The best arm talent by far of the Harbaugh disciples — and that is by no means a knock on J.J. McCarthy or anyone else — Luck had one of the best arms to ever play the position, and that is not even close to being hyperbole.
Watching Luck’s Stanford highlights is honestly film session nirvana, as he does everything you would want a starting quarterback to do. His reads are quick and decisive, he throws a ball that should have inspired way more poetry than it has, and he could fit throws into windows that look too small to even fit a football through.
Luck was also a devastating runner and probably could have played several other positions on offense if he didn’t have an artillery cannon for an arm. The quarterback version of the T-800 terminator also came equipped with that “gamer” mentality, where he performed the best when the lights were the brightest, and elevated the play of every player around him.
Luck improved across the board under Harbaugh, and much like Josh Johnson before him, kept improving even after Harbaugh moved on. Harbaugh gets the bulk of the credit for both quarterbacks, as he identified the talent and laid the foundation for what their finished product would become, though it is safe to wonder if Luck was “too-good-to-fail” and would have succeeded with or without Harbaugh.
Decision Making/Football IQ: 10
Arm Talent: 10
Got that dawg in him: The Beast, English Mastiff, The Sandlot
While Harbaugh did not recruit Alex Smith to the San Francisco 49ers, he absolutely helped revitalize his career. This is a great example of Harbaugh being in his bag when it comes to improving a quarterback around the margins.
Already a solid NFL quarterback with six seasons of experience under his belt when Harbaugh arrived, Smith’s best season pre-Harbaugh was probably 2009, where he went 5-5 as a starter, completing 60 percent of his passes for 2,350 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Those numbers would qualify as what the youth of today like to label “mid,” and I would label as forgettable. Smith did almost the exact same thing in 2010, throwing for 2,370 yards with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, hitting what appeared to be a plateau as a starter.
Fast forward to Harbaugh’s arrival a year later and all of a sudden, Smith is the quarterback of a 13-win team, his completion percentage has gone up, he has thrown for more than 3,000 yards for the first time in his career and he has upped his touchdowns (17) and dramatically reduced his interceptions (5).
Smith was actually on pace for an even better statistical year in 2012 when he was completing around 70 percent of his passes and had led the team to a 6-2-1 record before ceding the starting role to Colin Kaepernick after suffering a concussion in Week 10.
Smith went on to have five productive years in Kansas City, where he won 11 games in back-to-back seasons in 2015 and 2016, and a pretty monster 2017 throwing for more than 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns.
60.3% Completion - 3,144 yards- 17 TD- 5 INT- 90.7 Rating- 179 rush yards 2 TD
70.2% Completion -1,737 yards- 13 TD- 5 INT
Smith was clearly not the exact style of quarterback Harbaugh envisioned in his offense, as evidenced by the eventual switch to Kaepernick, but he clearly played a major role in giving a fresh coat of paint and some landscaping to Smith’s curb appeal.
The categories I decided upon for this exercise really don’t highlight what made Smith such a reliable NFL quarterback for nearly 15 years. Before being coached by Harbaugh, Smith had thrown for double-digit interceptions in four out of five seasons, including a pretty heinous 16 interceptions in his second season. He would never throw more than eight interceptions in a season after Harbaugh.
Smith was steady, capable, intelligent, TOUGH and accurate. He was just not elite at any one thing and did not possess quite the level of athleticism of a young Harbaugh or many of the hand-picked quarterbacks on Harbaugh led teams.
Decision Making/Football IQ: 9
Arm Talent: 6
Got that dawg in him: Old Yeller (pre-rabies), Old Yeller
When Harbaugh benched Smith in favor of Kaepernick, he was ushering in a new era for how NFL offenses built around their quarterback. There were certainly offenses that featured a running quarterback before this pairing, and there were attempts to build gimmicky, Wildcat and Wildcat-adjacent offenses to maximize having an athletic quarterback who could run but lacked the ability to truly threaten through the air.
What changed after this was coaches and coordinators realized you could tailor your system more towards the player and still have success, whereas conventional thinking was leaning heavily in the other direction. It also helped that Kaepernick was a real quarterback and not just a runner.
Kaepernick was recruited by a large number of schools as a pitcher, but only the University of Nevada would offer him as a quarterback. It didn’t take him long to make everyone else look like they did not know ball. He was named the WAC Player of the Year as a sophomore and went for at least 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in every season as a full-time starter at Nevada. In 2010, he joined Tim Tebow as the only other player in college football history to log 20 passing and rushing touchdowns in the same season.
The 49ers traded up in the 2011 draft to select Kaepernick 36th overall in the second round, to the surprise of many. He sat behind Smith his first season and was primarily used as a gadget running option early on in 2012. When Smith went out with a concussion, Kaepernick stepped up and never gave any reason why he should relinquish the role, and the higher ceiling became quite evident.
Perhaps no single game optimized what the highest highs of Kaepernick looked like than the NFC Divisional Playoff win over Green Bay, where he set a quarterback rushing record of 181 yards with two scores and another 263 yards and two scores through the air. I re-watched that game for this exercise and Kaepernick looked like a turn-of-the-century cavalry horse charging through enemy lines for most of the night.
62.4 Completion Percentage- 1,814 yards - 10 TD - 3 INT - 415 rush yards- 5 TD
58.4% Completion- 3,197 yards-21 TD- 8 INT- 524 rush yards- 4 TD
60.5% Completion - 3,369 yards- 19 TD- 10 INT- 639 rush yards- 1 TD
The Kordell Stewart and Tebow experiences are not the same as the Kaepernick experience. Kaepernick could make NFL throws and had NFL decision-making skills, but he also was built like a triceratops. He could beat you through the air and it would hurt, but he would beat you on the ground and it would maim.
The ball popped off his fingertips and looked like someone slowed down footage of a .357 slug propelled towards a target. He was erratic and inconsistent at times, and had trouble processing the mental chess game that is an NFL defense, but were it for these deficiencies and him being shunned from the league, he could have broken records and won championships.
Harbaugh gets credit for identifying Kaepernick was not only a starting caliber quarterback in the NFL, but that you could tailor your offense around him and have success. He was able to help get Kap to that critical 60 percent completion threshold which you need to be at to keep defenses honest at that level. The 2014 team dipped off as Kaepernick leveled out, but there were other factors at work in the downfall of the Harbaugh era in San Fran outside of a slight regression from the quarterback.
Decision Making/Football IQ: 7
Arm Talent: 8
Got that dawg in him: Grey Wind, Direwolf, Game of Thrones
Keep an eye out for part 2 of this series next week where I will continue breaking down the Harbaugh quarterbacks and will be focusing on the Michigan run, starting with Jake Rudock and going all the way through J.J. McCarthy.