Payton vs. Harbaugh

Fooch's Note: This is an excellent FanPost and I wanted to get it on the front page. Also, the 49ers coaches and players are conducting press conferences, again available at

Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers are headed to the playoffs, with a big home game coming this Saturday against Sean Payton and the two-years removed Superbowl Champion New Orleans Saints.

The match-up is interesting for several reasons - the most blatant of which is the style differences of the two teams. But it is also interesting because Payton is one of the best coaches in the league, and Harbaugh is off to a fast start in joining him. Payton, like Harbaugh, had a very successful rookie season.

This got me wondering about the history of rookie head coaches in the NFL, and which ones have had the most success. How does Harbaugh's amazing turn-around this year compare to other rookie-coached teams?

The most obvious place to start looking for successful rookie head coaching seasons is to find those won the big one; and that brings us to Don McCafferty and George Seifert - the only two men in NFL history to win a Superbowl as rookies.

McCafferty won Superbowl V with the Colts (of Baltimore) in what is regarded as the ugliest Superbowl of all time. The Colts of two years prior, under Don Shula, made it to the Superbowl as heavy favorites, but lost to Joe Namath and the Jets. The following year they finished with a winning record, but missed the playoffs. It was a disappointing season and Shula was let go, to be replaced for the 1970 season by McCafferty.

Now, McCafferty would rather have the ring than be recognized as the greatest rookie head coach of all time, of course; but the truth is that the Colts were only two years removed from a Superbowl appearance, and were already a winning team when McCafferty stepped in. Most of us love an underdog story, - and there isn't one here.

Same goes for Seifert, in my opinion. Winning the Superbowl your rookie season is impressive, but its not like you were handed the worst team in the NFL and turned it all around; you were handed a dynasty, that you helped create, and asked to shepherd it into the next decade. In that sense, not only was Seifert given a great team filled with future Hall of Famers that had just won a Superbowl the year before, but he was already a part of the coaching staff for many years.

You can only call Seifert a "rookie" head coach in the most dictionary sense of the word. It does not take away from his accomplishments, but it does shed context on our search for the greatest rookie head coaching season. If our answer is found in sheer production, than Seifert and McCafferty would take the cake because they went all the way; but I think we are more interested in hearing about the struggle. We want to see obstacles overcome, and expectations exceeded. We want to see a coach walk in and initiate some much needed change.

Maybe we will find it in the second most obvious place to look: rookie coaches who reached the Superbowl, but lost.

Unfortunately nothing here matches our Copernican criteria, either:

  • Jim Caldwell led the Colts to the Superbowl in 2009, but the Colts had been successful for several years prior under Manning and Tony Dungy, including a recent Superbowl victory.
  • Bill Callahan led the Raiders there in 2002, but lost to former Raiders coach John Gruden in what is commonly called the NFL's biggest revenge game. The Raiders were a talented squad when Callahan took over, having made the playoffs the two preceding years.
  • In 1977, Red Miller took over the Denver Broncos, who had a winning record but missed the playoffs the year prior. He led them to the Superbowl, where they lost to the dreaded Dallas Cowboys.

We are not finding any underdog stories here; and so our search needs to be confined to coaches who did not take over playoff teams, or even winning teams; but rather teams who were below .500 - and this is where the link between Payton and Harbaugh emerges:

All stats are from the beginning of the 16 game era (1978), excluding 1983 due to the '82 season being strike-shortened.

Rookie Head Coaches to Produce Winning Season When Handed a sub-.500 Team

Improvement from year prior. Name, Year and Team. Record, Result (# of prior consecutive non-winning seasons)
  • 10 game improvement. Tony Sparano, 2008 Dolphins. 11 - 5, #3 seed, lost in wild card (two seasons)
  • 7 game improvement. Jim Harbaugh, 2011 49ers. 13 - 3, ??? (eight seasons)
  • 7 game improvement. Mike Smith, 2008 Falcons. 11 - 5, #5 seed, lost in wild card (three seasons)
  • 7 game improvement. Sean Peyton, 2006 Saints. 10 - 6, #2 seed, lost in conference (three seasons)
  • 7 game improvement. Jim Haslett, 2000 Saints. 10 - 6, #3 seed, lost in divisional (seven seasons)
  • 7 game improvement. Bobby Ross, 1992 Chargers. 11 - 5, #3 seed, lost in divisional (four seasons)*
  • 6 game improvement. John Harbaugh, 2008 Ravens. 11 - 5, #6 seed, lost in conference (one season)
  • 5 game improvement. Nick Saban, 2005 Dolphins. 9 - 7, no playoffs (one season)
  • 5 game improvement. Mike Holmgren, 1992 Packers. 9 - 7, no playoffs (two seasons)
  • 4.5 game improvement. Jim Fassel, 1997 Giants. 10 - 5 - 1, #3 seed, lost in wild card (two seasons)
  • 4 game improvement. Chan Gailey, 1998 Cowboys. 10 - 6, #3 seed, lost in wild card (one season)
  • 4 game improvement. Bill Cowher, 1992 Steelers. 11 - 5, #1 seed, lost in divisional (one season)
  • 3 game improvement. Mike Munchak, 2011 Titans. 9 - 7, no playoffs (two seasons)
  • 3 game improvement. Mike Mularkey, 2004 Bills. 9 - 7, no playoffs (four seasons)
  • 3 game improvement. Ray Rhodes, 1995 Eagles. 10 - 6, #4 seed, lost in divisional (two seasons)
  • 2 game improvement. Gunther Cunningham, 1999 Chiefs. 9 - 7, no playoffs (one season)
  • 2 game improvement. Jerry Burns, 1986 Vikings. 9 - 7, no playoffs (five seasons)

In terms of garnering more wins than the year prior, the best overall performance belongs to Sparano. Boosting your team's record by 10 as a first-time head coach is a feat that will likely not be repeated for some time.

The best overall record belongs to Jim Harbaugh, having produced 13 wins. No other coach managed more than 11. The longest drought overcome also belongs to Jim Harbaugh, having finally produced a winning team after 8 consecutive seasons of .500 or worse. The asterisk by Ross' name is relevant here, as the Chargers had 10 such seasons if you do not count '87. The NFL played one less game that year. I personally would count it because it was only one game less than usual, and their record was indeed over .500.

Best playoff seeding goes to Cowher and his '92 Steelers at #1, though they failed to take advantage, losing their first game.

Jim's brother, John Harbaugh, holds the record out of our above coaches for taking his team furthest in the playoffs, working his way to the Conference Championship game as the #6 seed before losing to the Steelers. He is tied with Peyton, who made it to the NFC Championship game as the #2 seed, losing to the Bears.

From here we could narrow the field further based on whatever criteria we like, to try to figure out who had the best season. Anyone can comment on what they think, just for the fun of it; but with Harbaugh still in the middle of his first year I mainly just wanted to get this interesting information out to all of you because of its relevancy to this Saturday's match.

The clash between Harbaugh and Payton is indeed rather historic. It features two coaches who had/are having rookie seasons for the record books, and though the differences between our two teams are apparent and widely-talked about, I find the similarities very interesting as well.

Payton took Drew Brees as his quarterback, a guy who had been abandoned in San Diego. Harbaugh has taken Alex Smith under his wing, a guy who has often been abandoned by everyone from his own former coaches, to some of his team-mates, to the San Francisco fan base.

Also, they both tie for second behind Sparano with a 7 game improvement, and they both managed to gain a first-round bye. Success like this does not occur without some kind of culture change - even if, in the case of Sparano, it is only temporary. Payton and Harbaugh have both turned not just their teams around, but the franchise itself; giving fans a reason to hope and believe in future success.

It is always necessary to remember the game is played by the men on the field, not by coaches with clip-boards and playbooks - but many of us also appreciate that football is as much a game of chess as anything else. Sometimes two tough teams meet on the field of battle and beat the hell out of each other; sometimes two offensive powerhouses air it out and put up 80 points; sometimes two defensive teams struggle to a 9 - 6 ending; and sometimes two really smart, talented coaches stand on opposite sidelines and have themselves a duel. In this sense, the players on the field are more like tumbleweeds drifting across the dirt road in the middle of town, and it is the two men who face each other on opposite sides of the street who are really competing.

Payton recently praised Harbaugh, commenting on the 49ers' turn-around and saying right-out that Harbaugh should be the Coach of the Year. It was a genuine compliment. Just like when Harbaugh compliments the quarterback play of Alex Smith because Harbaugh and Smith are very similar; so must Payton understand in the back of his mind that Harbaugh has done to the 49ers what he did to the Saints: took a talented, under-achieving team and made them believe in themselves.

And on Saturday these two will go head-to-head in the first 49ers playoff game in almost a decade. On the line is a trip to exactly where Payton got in 2006: the NFC Championship game.

If they get there, Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers might just win...

... but, first, Sean Payton and the best offense in the NFL stand in the way.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors.

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