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Jim Harbaugh viewed as early favorite for NFL coaching vacancy

Jim Harbaugh just led his Michigan Wolverines to a second consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff. If Harbaugh wants to be a lifer in Ann Arbor, no one is going to stop the Michigan legend.

But for what seems to be a fifth consecutive cycle, he continues to be linked to NFL head coach openings. It seems to be a different situation in that Harbaugh has primarily been mentioned as a target for one specific team.

The Denver Broncos just fired head coach Nathaniel Hackett after less than one full season in that role. They are coming off a disastrous five-win campaign, have a new ownership group in place and want to build around future Hall of Fame quarterback Russell Wilson. It’s in this that Harbaugh to the Broncos could be the end game.

According to Broncos insider Troy Renck, this has Harbaugh as an early favorite over the likes of Sean Payon to land the job in Denver.

There’s certainly a lot of moving parts here. Denver just interviewed Harbaugh’s former assistant with the Stanford Cardinal, David Shaw, for the opening. Shaw replaced Harbaugh in Palo Alto back in 2011 when the latter took the San Francisco 49ers’ job. He just recently resigned after a second consecutive down season for Stanford.

The backdrop here is a Broncos ownership group with ties to Shaw, Harbaugh and Stanford as a whole. Minority owner Condoleezza Rice is among those who is leading the search for a new head coach. She’s the former Stanford provost and boasts a built-in relationship with the football program, including both Harbaugh and Shaw.

New Broncos co-owner Greg Penner, who is leading the search for a new head coach, graduated from Stanford.

There’s a scenario in play that could include Jim Harbaugh taking the Broncos’ head coach job while bringing in Shaw to be his new offensive coordinator. This was the same dynamic we saw during their time together with Stanford.

jim harbaugh stanford
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

From a logical perspective, Denver hiring Harbaugh instead of someone like Sean Payton would make sense. Payton will cost draft pick compensation. He’s still under contract with the New Orleans Saints, who are said to be demanding at least a first-round pick in exchange for the Super Bowl-winning head coach.

The Broncos yielded a huge bounty to acquire Wilson from Seattle last offseason and need draft picks to help rebuild a fledgling roster.

Related: Jim Harbaugh and the top NFL head coach candidates of 2023

As for Harbaugh, he’d come free in that regard. Sure hiring him would require an absolutely huge contract. But Denver’s new ownership group, led by billionaire Rob Walton, boasts one of the deepest pockets in North American professional sports.

From an on-field perspective, it’s all about finding the right mix for Russell Wilson. The future Hall of Fame quarterback put up the worst statistical performance of his otherwise brilliant career in his first season with Denver, throwing 16 touchdowns against 11 interceptions in 15 starts while boasting a 4-11 record as a starter. Harbaugh’s track record seems to suggest that he could fix this issue.

  • Jim Harbaugh NFL coaching record: 44-19-1, .695 winning percentage

San Francisco’s head coach from 2011-14, Harbaugh went up against Wilson when the two were in the NFC West. He knows full well what the former Seattle Seahawks quarterback brings to the table. This could make for a marriage made in heaven.