Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff: 4 Days with Jim Harbaugh

Chicago Bears, Jim Harbaugh
Chicago Bears, Jim Harbaugh / Peter Brouillet-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow, the NFL Kickoffs with the anticipated Thursday Night Football game between the Detroit Lions and the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. However, for most teams, the Chicago Bears included, today marks just four days until the start of the 2023 NFL season. To celebrate the season's approach, today's installment of Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff brings us to the life and career of the best player in franchise history to don the number four, quarterback Jim Harbaugh.

Michigan Star Jim Harbaugh Joins Chicago Bears in 1987 NFL Draft

Originally hailing from Toledo, Ohio, Jim Harbaugh was close to the game of football since birth. His father, Jack Harbaugh, served as a coach for a number of collegiate teams throughout Jim's childhood. Subsequently, the family, which also included Jim's brother John, moved around a lot during the sons' childhoods, especially during their high school days.

Jim Harbaugh attended multiple high schools, including Pioneer High School and Palo Alto High School, based on where his father was coaching (at Michigan and Stanford, respectively). Despite bouncing around as a prep player, Harbaugh was a strong pro-style quarterback who came from a true football family, and he was recruited fairly heavily as a high schooler.

Harbaugh eventually elected to attend the University of Michigan, the same team that his father coached with for seven seasons, where he worked with the defensive backs. Upon joining the Wolverines, the quarterback redshirted as a freshman and served as a backup in his second year, but by the 1984 season, Harbaugh became the team's starter.

That year, Harbaugh got off to a strong start to the tune of 700 yards and three touchdowns in four games, but in a week five battle versus Michigan's in-state rival Michigan State, the quarterback suffered a broken arm, ending his highly anticipated season on the sideline.

Harbaugh recovered and returned to full strength by the start of the following year, where he enjoyed a breakout campaign. Finishing the year with nearly 2,000 yards, 18 touchdowns, and just six interceptions, Harbaugh led his team to a 9-1-1 record, strong enough for an appearance in the ensuing Fiesta Bowl, where the Wolverines faced off against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

There, despite a 14-3 halftime deficit, Michigan prevailed 27-23, largely due to their 24 unanswered points in the third quarter. Harbaugh scored two touchdowns during the quarter, both of which were rushing touchdowns near the goal line. Nonetheless, the Wolverines won their first bowl game since 1981, largely due to Harbaugh's efforts.

The next year, Harbaugh had his most productive collegiate season in terms of passing yards (2,557) but struggled with a touchdown (10) to interception (8) ratio. However, he did enough to help the team finish with a 10-2 record, strong enough for a Rose Bowl appearance, where the team would unfortunately lose a one-possession game to the Arizona State Sun Devils.

Following the end of the season, Harbaugh elected to enter the 1987 NFL Draft. The Michigan man was one of the top-rated signal callers in his class and ended up being the fourth quarterback drafted thanks to the Chicago Bears, who used the 26th overall pick in order to add Harbaugh to a quarterback room that included the incumbent starter in Jim McMahon and a number of backup options, including undrafted free agent Sean Payton, who would join Harbaugh as a coach after their playing careers.

Jim Harbaugh Takes Chicago Bears to Multiple Playoff Births

Nonetheless, Harbaugh joined a Chicago Bears squad that was only a year removed from their Super Bowl victory. While the offense still had a lot of players from the 1985 season like Walter Payton, Willie Gault, Jay Hilgenberg, and Jimbo Covert, Harbaugh was one of many younger players, including Neal Anderson, Wendell Davis, and Brad Muster, brought in to try to extend their championship window.

However, with McMahon still on the roster, Harbaugh served primarily as a backup in his first three seasons with the team, where he recorded a total of 1,780 passing yards, five touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. In seven starts over this span, the team finished with a 2-5 record, but in his first season as a starter, he was able to lead the team to a successful season.

In 1990, Harbaugh became the team's starting quarterback, and he played in 14 games (a shoulder injury would sideline him near the end of the season). When playing, Harbaugh led the team to a 10-4 record thanks to over 2,100 passing yards and 10 touchdowns. The team won the division and made it to the playoffs, but with Harbaugh sidelined, the postseason run was short-lived.

The following year, Harbaugh was able to return to full health and completed his first season as the team's full-time starter through 16 games. He had a productive season to the tune of 3,100 yards and 15 touchdowns, and despite throwing a semi-alarming 16 interceptions, the team finished with an 11-5 record, strong enough for their second consecutive first-place division finish. Harbaugh was able to make his NFL postseason debut following the end of the season, but the team struggled as a whole, and the quarterback was no exception. He threw two interceptions in the loss, not surprising considering the fact that he had to throw 44 passes during the contest as the team played from behind.

Chicago Bears, Jim Harbaugh
Chicago Bears, Jim Harbaugh / Long Photography-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, over the next couple of seasons, Harbaugh would begin to struggle as the team's starting quarterback. In 1992 and 1993, he started 28 games, where the team finished with a 12-16 cumulative record. During this span, Harbaugh threw for almost 4,500 total yards, but he scored just 20 passing touchdowns compared to 22 total interceptions.

Chicago Bears Move on From Jim Harbaugh, Transition from Player to Coach

Following the season, the Chicago Bears elected not to re-sign Harbaugh, who was a free agent during the offseason. The quarterback signed a deal with the Indianapolis Colts, where he played for four seasons, mainly as the team's starter. His best season as a Colt came in 1995, where he had an extremely efficient year, finishing with 2,500 yards, 17 touchdowns, and just five interceptions. In fact, amongst all quarterbacks during the season, Harbaugh had the lowest interception rate, meaning that he was perhaps more careful with the football than any of his contemporaries. His success helped the team reach the playoffs for just the third time in his career.

After his stint with the Colts, Harbaugh spent time with the Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers, and Carolina Panthers before retiring after the 2001 season. He stepped away from the NFL after a 15-year career that saw half of his time spent with the Chicago Bears. As a Bear, Harbaugh finished with a 35-30 regular season record, where he logged over 11,500 yards, 50 touchdowns, and 56 interceptions.

Harbaugh finished his career with the Bears as the team's second all-time leader in passing yards and fifth in passing touchdowns, although recent quarterbacks like Jay Cutler and Mitchell Trubisky have pushed him down further on the list. Still, Harbaugh remains inarguably one of the best quarterbacks in franchise history, a grand accomplishment for a player who served as a backup for almost half of his tenure with the team.

After stepping away from the game as a player, Harbaugh followed the path of his father and became a coach, starting as a quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders. After two seasons in the Bay, he became San Diego's head coach, where he remained for three seasons. He left the program following the 2006 season to accept a head coaching position at Stanford.

In the Pac-12, Harbaugh transformed Stanford from a four win team in 2007 to a 12-win team in 2010. He brought the team back to the top of the conference, and finished the season as the fourth-highest-ranked team in the nation, thanks in part to the team's Citrus Bowl win.

Following the season, Harbaugh returned to the NFL, where he served as the San Francisco 49ers' head coach. His brother, Jim, had been a head coach in the NFL since 2008 for the Ravens, and the two Harbaughs were able to take their respective teams to the top of their respective conferences.

The two coaches faced off in Super Bowl XLVII, marking the first time that brothers had squared off as head coaches in the league's championship game. Despite losing to his brother, John Harbaugh was almost able to rally the 49ers to come back from a 21-6 halftime deficit.

After four seasons in the NFL, Harbaugh elected to return to the college coaching ranks and returned to the University of Michigan, becoming the second of his family to coach for the team. Since joining the team ahead of the 2015 season, Harbaugh has had great success with the Wolverines, including seven bowl appearances in eight seasons. Through the end of last season, Harbaugh holds a 74-25 cumulative record as head coach, but a suspension due to a recruiting violation has kept the coach away from the team to start the 2023 season.

Chicago Bears, Jim Harbaugh
Chicago Bears, Jim Harbaugh / Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

As a coach, Harbaugh has been able to bring his teams to the top of their respective leagues, and Michigan seems to be on a similar trajectory. After making the College Football Playoff just a season ago, Michigan appears to be the team to beat in the Big 10, as they have beaten their rival, the Ohio State Buckeyes, for two seasons in a row.

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Today, Harbaugh may be known more as a coach than a player, and rightfully so, but it is easy to forget how dominant some of these players were back in their day. Harbaugh wasn't a world-beater by any means, especially as an NFL player, but he was able to stay in the league for a decade and a half and served as the long-time starting quarterback for two separate franchises.