San Francisco 49ers: How Much Is Jim Harbaugh Worth?

Bryan Knowles@BryknoContributor IIIJuly 30, 2014

How much money is Jim Harbaugh worth?

The value of a coach in the NFL is a little harder to define than the value of a player, because there is no salary cap for your coaching staff.  It’s one of the few areas a big-pocketed owner can get a leg up on smaller teams—Jerry Jones couldn’t sign the entire All-Pro roster to his team, but he could sign the very best and brightest coaches and pay them 10 times as much as anyone else would.

Nevertheless, the NFL has, in general, come across a solid salary structure for coaches. 

While the official contracts for coaches aren’t released, we do have general figures for most of them.  The eight coaches who made more than $6 million last year is a list generally composed of the top-regarded coaches in the league—Sean Payton, Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Pete Carroll, Jeff Fisher, Mike Shanahan, Tom Coughlin and Chip Kelly.

How can we determine what the “going rate” for coaches is?  Coaches don’t rack up yards or tackles, so there are no statistics to compare them with and a straight win-loss comparison does not work, because teams have varying levels of on-field talent.


One of the best systems I’ve seem to compare coaches is something called the "Dungy Index," put together by Doug Drinen and refined by Chase Stuart over at  

Basically, it grades a coach on his ability to crank out positive season after positive season, avoiding the natural regression to the mean each year.  It’s hard to win 12 games every year, because players get hurt and aging happens.  Similarly, it’s hard to lose 12 games every year, because new draft talent comes in and improves the team’s prospects.

Drinen and Stuart take a team's performance in one year and then use historical averages to figure out how well a team is expected to do the next season, using something called the Pythagorean record. That's a way of trying to take luck out of the equation and just seeing how many games a team should have won, based on how many points and scored and how many points it gave up.

What the system does, then, is calculate the number of wins a team should be expected to have and then sum up how much better or worse each coach performs. 

The list spits out Don Shula, George Halas and Tony Dungy as the top three coaches, which isn’t bad at all for an objective list.  The fact that the rest of the top 10 is populated by people such as Vince Lombardi, John Madden, Bill Belichick and Tom Landry shows that it’s a fairly solid objective ranking.

Let’s put that into perspective for Jim Harbaugh.  We can go back and calculate, using this formula, how many regular-season wins the San Francisco 49ers were “supposed” to get each season and see how Harbaugh has fared against historical trends.


Jim Harbaugh Versus Expectations
YearExpected WinsActual WinsDifference

You can see that Harbaugh’s teams have consistently outperformed how good they “should” have been, based on historical trends. That implies that Harbaugh himself brings an extra level of skill as a coach. 

It’s a very small sample size, and it’s inflated due to the sheer size of the jump between the Mike Singletary team of 2010 and Harbaugh’s first season in 2011, but it does at least imply that Harbaugh gets more out of his team than a random coach would. 

It implies an average coach could be expected to go 9-7 or 10-6 with this year’s 49ers, but Harbaugh’s coaching can add at least a win or two to that number.

Again, it’s a small sample size, but it bodes well.  It puts Harbaugh’s NFL career, so far, at 9.4 wins above expectations.  By comparison, Bill Walsh’s entire career ended with 9.5 wins above expectations, so Harbaugh’s started his career in pretty good company.

Of course, regular-season wins are one thing, but the playoffs are where the great coaches make their reputations and their money.  Harbaugh has denied to Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole wanting to be paid like a Super Bowl-winning coach, but there still apparently exists a gap between Harbaugh’s value of himself and the 49ers’ value of Harbaugh or else a contract extension would already have been done.

I’m going to use a modified version of the Dungy Index to see what the going rate for playoff-caliber coaches is in the current NFL. 

Rather than use Pythagorean wins, as the index uses, I’m going use the actual number of wins in each season, plus any postseason wins.  This is because I imagine owners pay more attention to the actual performance on the field, rather than how good a team “should” have been, and they put a premium on playoff appearances and success.

Note: All salaries in this table are estimates, and some coaches simply do not have public salaries.  I’m using the estimates provided here at Coaches Hot Seat for ballpark numbers for the 2013 season; these are collected from sources around the web and should not be taken as gospel, necessarily.

Active Coaches' Wins Above Expectation
RankCoachWAE2013 SalaryRankCoachWAE2013 Salary
1Bill Belichick46.4$7,500,00015Chuck Pagano3.9$4,000,000
2Andy Reid24.0$6,000,00016Marvin Lewis3.7$3,500,000
3Sean Payton20.5$8,000,00017Ron Rivera3.7$3,000,000
4Tom Coughlin19.8$6,800,00018Rex Ryan3.6$3,000,000
5Mike McCarthy17.8$5,550,00019Chip Kelly3.2$6,500,000
6John Harbaugh16.4$7,000,00020Mike McCoy2.3$3,000,000
7John Fox16.2$3,500,00021Jason Garrett1.2$5,000,000
8Mike Tomlin13.3$6,000,00022Ken Whisenhunt0.4$5,500,000
9Jim Harbaugh13.0$5,000,00023Joe Philbin-0.1$3,500,000
10Pete Carroll9.8$7,000,00024Jim Caldwell-0.6$4,500,000
11Lovie Smith8.7$5,000,00025Marc Trestman-0.7$4,000,000
12Mike Smith8.6$4,000,00026Doug Marrone-1.4$3,000,000
13Bruce Arians7.4$4,000,00027Gus Bradley-2.1$3,000,000
14Jeff Fisher6.6$7,000,00028Dennis Allen-6.8$2,500,000

That’s a lot of numbers, but what does this tell us?

First of all, you’ll note that most of the coaches have an above-average number of wins.  That doesn’t make a lot of sense until you realize that coaches with a below-average number of wins tend to get fired pretty quickly.

Secondly, the fact that Harbaugh has already racked up the ninth-most wins above expectation among active coaches is pretty impressive, considering he’s only been in the league three seasons.  He has the most wins-above-expectation-per-season because he hasn’t had a bad year yet. 

From Harbaugh’s perspective, now is precisely the time to strike to get a new deal done before a poor season dilutes what he’s been able to accomplish so far.

Secondly, success doesn’t necessarily mean a high contract value right off the bat.  John Fox only got a four-year, $14 million deal when he joined the Denver Broncos, despite a track record of success in Carolina. Fox and Denver agreed on a new deal this past April, which pushes him up to about $5.5 million a season, according to The Denver Post.

All things considered, that seems about the right ballpark for Harbaugh at this point.  He’s worth more than the $5 million a year he’s getting now, but based on his relatively short track record, he’s probably in the Mike McCarthy and John Fox tax bracket, as opposed to Bill Belichick or Sean Payton money.

It’s tempting to look around the division and see the $7 million salaries handed out to Pete Carroll and Jeff Fisher and say that’s how much money Harbaugh should be making, but that’s not entirely fair.  By this method of ranking coaches, Fisher and Carroll are actually the two most overpaid coaches in the NFL.

Carroll’s rating is being drawn down by his tenure a decade ago with the New York Jets and New England Patriots.  You can make a strong argument that his time in Seattle, as well as his experience at USC, has made him a far different coach since then, and that’s a fair argument. 

This is a situation where the numbers don’t yet reflect an improvement on Carroll’s part, and thus, you could argue, he’s getting paid appropriately for his actual current skill set.

Fisher's salary, on the other hand, feels overpaid.  With 19 years of experience as an NFL coach, Fisher definitely has a solid amount of tenure behind him. 

However, only six of those seasons were actually winning seasons, and he hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2008.  Pointing out that Fisher gets $7 million, while Harbaugh gets $5 million, is an argument that Fisher is overpaid, not that Harbaugh is underpaid.

Of course, all this logic goes out the window if Harbaugh does finally lead the 49ers to their sixth championship this season.  In that case, yes, Harbaugh’s almost certainly worth a $7 million payday, as well as almost anything else he demands.

Without a salary cap, there’s also no harm in overpaying Harbaugh.  As long as the team remains certain he’s one of the top coaches in the league, it doesn’t really matter if they pay him $5 million or $10 million a season. 

I’d put his actual value on the free market right now at about $6 million a year, but no matter what the final price is, the 49ers should do everything in their power to lock Harbaugh up for the long term.


Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.


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