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Jim Harbaugh vs. Chip Kelly: The Better NFL Career

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Former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh has turned around the 49ers. Where does he stand against another ex-Pac-12 coach, Chip Kelly? Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Eagles coach Chip Kelly has a lot to prove in Philadelphia. When the dust settles, will he have had a better coaching career in the NFL than Jim Harbaugh? Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Chip Kelly has been in the NFL for a mere four games and already he’s fending off rumors about a potential return to the collegiate ranks, this time to fill the sideline vacancy at Southern California.

But until he jumps ship in Philadelphia, we have to assume that the Eagles head coach is looking at a long tenure in the NFL.

The same goes for his former Pac-12 counterpart, Jim Harbaugh, who has found virtual instant success in the pros.

Football.com University of Oregon beat writer John Baker and Stanford beat writer Henry McKenna discuss the question that begs to be asked: Which coach will have the more prosperous run in the professional ranks?

The Case For Chip Kelly

By John Baker

While Jim Harbaugh brings a steely resolve, toughness and no-nonsense approach to coaching in the NFL — he knows who he is and what should be successful — it is exactly those qualities that will make him an inferior NFL coach to Philadelphia's Chip Kelly when the reckoning is done.

While Harbaugh brings plenty of qualities that NFL fans will recognize, Kelly brings the approach which invites long-term success in the NFL — the ability to see beyond the norm and the conventional way of thinking in order to embrace concepts that others dismiss. In short, he's a guy who likes to be ahead of the curve.

Kelly will be the superior head coach in the NFL because he doesn't accept the proposition that things sometimes aren't possible. He likes to take the norm and turn it on its head. Innovation always has been a struggle in the cyclical stalking of the NFL. One team wins with "X" strategy, and within two years, all of the other teams around the league are trying to find their own "X" strategy. Kelly is the kind of coach who likes to take the simple arithmetic of "X" and turn it into the geometry of unique offensive play.

I like Harbaugh and was impressed with the way he changed the culture at Stanford, as well as the work he has done at San Francisco, but he's no innovator. He's a guy who tries to impose his will and philosophy through toughness and a sense of what football should be. 

Kelly ultimately will be the better NFL coach because he imposes his will through innovation and a startling disregard for the status quo. His time at Oregon was marked by the philosophy that nothing was impossible and that the statement of "we can't" was met by the question of "why not?"

When we speak of a culture change in the college game, Harbaugh change of the game at Stanford weren't nearly as dramatic as the change that Kelly made at Oregon — a change that has brought multimillion dollar upgrades to the facilities for the Ducks and huge improvements to the program.

Here's a prediction: Within two years, Kelly will acquire Colin Kaepernick to be his quarterback at Philadelphia. 

Give Kelly a few years to acquire the pieces of the puzzle that he sees forming in front of him and his early offensive success with the Eagles will be eclipsed by something special in the future. The limiting factor for Kelly could well be the roster limits that the NFL imposes, but anyone who knows Kelly knows that he will find a way to turn an apparent disadvantage into an advantage.

Perhaps that's what this argument boils down to — who seems best equipped to take advantage of the special situations and circumstances that will come up during the NFL season. Harbaugh is tough, stubborn and bends the situation to his will. Kelly simply has the resume that says when the situation won't bend, when opportunity is there and when times call for guts and creativity, he has succeeded in those situation and will be the better NFL coach over the long haul.

The Case For Jim Harbaugh

By Henry McKenna

Jim Harbaugh does what every hall of fame coach does: He gets the most out of every player. He reminds me of the Patriots' Bill Belichick, who schemes around the skills and strengths of underrated players to win games. Harbaugh has been confident in his decisions with only some minor faults. He is already one of the best coaches in all of football and is s certainly going to have a better career than Chip Kelly.

My reasoning is four-fold.

Pro Stylin’

Harbaugh ran a pro-style offense for the last seven years at Stanford. He perfected it at the college level, and while not a terribly difficult task when Andrew Luck, the best Cardinal quarterback since John Elway, is running your offense, he had swag nonetheless. He featured players like Toby Gerhart and made the fullback a Doak Walker winner, All-American and All-Pac 10 selection.

His system is proven: It’s pro-style. Kelly’s speedy offense is the NFL’s flashy new toy. While I am one of the many who think that faster offenses are the way of the future in the NFL, pro-style is the NFL’s oxford and blazer — It will never go out of style.

NFL’s Most Important Position

Harbaugh took his confidence to the pro level and made it clear right away with the 49ers that he was sticking with Alex Smith, a quarterback who had one touchdown and 12 interceptions his rookie year in 2005. In 26 games under Harbaugh, Smith threw for 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Smith's concussion brought in the Kaepernick era, which further proved that Harbaugh breathed (and drafted) depth into his roster. Though he never had a quarterback controversy, he handled the situation like a champion, made a quick decision and kept both QBs through the Niners' Super Bowl loss.

When Harbaugh shipped off the older and, frankly, less impressive model in Smith, Harbaugh had increased Smith’s value like a good investment. When Harbaugh arrived in the NFL, analysts thought he might trade or release Smith. Instead, the 49ers received a second-round pick in 2013 and a conditional second/third-rounder for 2014. Smith will never look as good as he did in San Francisco.

Harbaugh knows better than anyone else in the league in how to manage the quarterback position. He’s a "Quarterback Whisperer." It’s a skill set that had made him immediately successful in the NFL and will perpetuate his success.

Daft Drafting

Harbaugh has drafted amazing talents for the 49ers like seventh overall pick Aldon Smith while other NFL teams have hit the rim on the slam-dunk pick at No, 7 in the draft like Oakland and Darrius Heyward-Bey. But Smith wasn’t the steal of the draft. That title belongs to Kaepernick, who went 36th overall behind five other quarterbacks. The jury may still be out on the 2013 draft, as first-round pick A.J. Jenkins was just traded to the Chiefs for Jonathan Baldwin, but LaMichael James has contributed his preseason as a change-of-pace back. In this year’s class, Eric Reid has looked tough and smart thus far.

Results

Before Harbaugh, the 49ers were third in a terrible NFC West where the Rams and Seahawks had gone 7-9. I repeat, the 49ers were third in a division where the best teams were 7-9. Harbaugh has since sat atop the improved NFC West two seasons in a row where the runner-up was 11-5 and 8-8. In Harbaugh's first season, the 49ers lost the NFC Championship Game to the Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl. The Niners improved the next season by getting to the Super Bowl themselves. It’s hard to imagine San Francisco improving upon last season—yet the same was true after the 49ers had lost the NFC title game in the 2011 season. No pressure, Jim.

The Winner

Harbaugh … by a half-yard.

Kelly has the numbers (and... cough, cough ... the Nike budget) with a 46-7 record during his four-year stint at Oregon.

Harbaugh actually finished two of his four seasons on The Farm with a sub-.500 record at the Cardinal helm. But the sign of his eye for talent and ability to extract everything he could from that talent can be summed up in his fourth season when Stanford went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl. Those were Harbaugh's players and not hold-overs from the disastrous five seasons that had preceded the Harbaugh era.

In the pros, Harbaugh already has a Super Bowl appearance under his belt, having taken another hobbled Bay-area team and turned it around relatively quickly. Lest we forget, Harbaugh also has impressive family coaching lineage. Jim's older brother, John, has already won a Super Bowl with the Ravens and the siblings' father, Jack, was a renowned college coach in his own right at Western Michigan and Western Kentucky.

Kelly is an innovator. Whether his style can catch on in the pros remains to be seen. Until he gets his players in place, however, the slight nod has to go to Harbaugh.