As Jim Harbaugh's miraculous run with San Francisco came to a sudden finish, I was left thinking how his rookie campaign as head coach compared to the greats throughout history. 

13-3 and an NFC Championship game appearance must count for something, but was it the greatest head coaching debut of all time? How did other rookie head coaches fare throughout history?

For such a daunting task, I turned, first, to the most obvious question: rookie head coaches who won the big one, the Lombardi Trophy, and that brings us to Don McCafferty and George Seifert - the only two men in NFL history to win a Super Bowl as rookies.

McCafferty won Super Bowl V with the Colts (of Baltimore) in what is regarded as the ugliest Super Bowl of all time. The Colts of two years prior, under Don Shula, made it to the Super Bowl 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 Super Bowl 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 Super Bowl 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 Super Bowl 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, then 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 Super Bowl, but lost.

Unfortunately nothing here matches our Copernican criteria, either:

  • Jim Caldwell led the Colts to the Super Bowl in 2009, but the Colts had been successful for several years prior under Manning and Tony Dungy, including a recent Super Bowl 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 Super Bowl, 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 Sean Payton, Mike Smith, and Jim and John 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 Round (two seasons)
  • 7 game improvement. Jim Harbaugh, 2011 49ers. 13-3, #2 seed, lost in Conference Championship (eight seasons)
  • 7 game improvement. Mike Smith, 2008 Falcons. 11-5, #5 seed, lost in Wild Card (three seasons)
  • 7 game improvement. Sean Payton, 2006 Saints. 10-6, #2 seed, lost in Conference Championship (three seasons)
  • 7 game improvement. Jim Haslett, 2000 Saints. 10-6, #3 seed, lost in Divisional Round (seven seasons)
  • 7 game improvement. Bobby Ross, 1992 Chargers. 11-5, #3 seed, lost in Divisional Round (four seasons)*
  • 6 game improvement. John Harbaugh, 2008 Ravens. 11-5, #6 seed, lost in Conference Championship (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 Round (two seasons)
  • 4 game improvement. Chan Gailey, 1998 Cowboys. 10-6, #3 seed, lost in Wild Card Round (one season)
  • 4 game improvement. Bill Cowher, 1992 Steelers. 11-5, #1 seed, lost in Divisional Round (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 Round (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 No. 1, though they failed to take advantage, losing their first game.

Sean Payton, John Harbaugh, and Jim Harbaugh all hold the record out of our above coaches for taking his team furthest in the playoffs, working their way to the Conference Championship games in 2006, 2008, and 2011, respectively. John Harbaugh had the toughest task, as the No. 6 seed Baltimore Ravens won two road playoff games before losing to their dreaded rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

There are many questions one could ask to try to limit the playing field from this point forward. Should miraculous seasons, like Sparano's in 2008, be looked at as sheer anomalies in light of his struggles thereafter? The Dolphins finished 7 - 9 the next two seasons and Sparano was let go. If anything, Sparano should be punished for getting the hopes up of Dolphins fans everywhere.

And what about the stories of men like Jim Haslett or Bobby Ross? Haslett took the gutter-dwelling Saints from 3-13 to 10-6, garnering the franchise's first playoff appearance and first playoff victory in the process.  But five years later, by the end of 2005, Haslett's Saints were right back where they left off: 3-13, and Haslett was fired.

Ross' story is a similar one, but marred with perhaps greater disappointment. Taking over for the 4-12 San Diego Chargers, he struggled hard through early-season disappointments to finish his last 12 games with an 11-1 record, earning a playoff spot where they would make easy work of the Chiefs, 17-0, before getting manhandled by the Dolphins in the Divisional Round, 31-0.

Ross' next season ended 8-8 and, like Sparano, he was kept on for a third try. When a coach gets you to the playoffs after years of early draft picks, you give him at least a second chance. This will be a tough bit for Chagers fans to read, but Ross led them to another 11-5 record, this time squeezing out revenge on the Dolphins in the Divisional Round, squeezing out a win over the Steelers in the AFC Championship, and then getting whalloped good-and-hard by Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX.

Utter disappointment. The rule of two chances applies again. In '95, San Diego went 9-7, making the playoffs, but losing in the first round; and in '96 they went 8-8 and missed out entirely. Ross was subsequently released.

Surely, longevity should be rewarded in hindsight? That way we know the miraculous run in the coach's first year was not a miracle at all, but merely a coming out party for what turned out to be his continued-dominance.

And it is for that reason I will withhold judgment on what season is truly the greatest. Sparano lasted three full seasons; Ross lasted five; Payton and Haslett, curiously enough, both lasted six (though we can assume Payton will be back); while Smith and John Harbaugh now enter their fifth seasons, and Jim Harbaugh enters his second.

The fate of all rookie head coaches who perform above the standard set by their most-recent predecessors is that the front office realizes the potential of the players on the team - and if you cannot consistently coach up to it, then your leash gets increasingly shorter.

So while Mike Smith and John Harbaugh are to be applauded for their historic accomplishments as rookie head coaches, they now enter their fifth seasons still Lombardi-less. If Smith falters again in the playoffs, a coaching change would not be surprising; and if (John) Harbaugh cannot overcome that AFC Title Game hurdle, then his future may be in doubt as well.

Jim Harbaugh, meanwhile, will have at least this season and next to prove to the 49ers' front office that 2011 was not a fluke. All three men have turned their franchises around, and have set the bar of expectations exceedingly high. Will any of them get their hands on the most coveted prize in all of American sports? Time will tell.