Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron
November 20, 2011
1. Say what you will about John Harbaugh -- and this week, plenty of Ravens fans had negative things to say -- but he has three undeniable strengths as a head coach. He gets his players to buy into the larger concept of TEAM. He holds them together through turmoil. And he does a nice job of not losing sight of the big picture.
If you follow the Ravens closely, you probably noticed how tense things were following the loss to Seattle last week. Harbaugh was clearly frustrated with some of the media's questions early as we attempted to tie the Ravens three losses together as part of a larger theme, and a few times when he felt like he was being backed into a corner, he responded with snark and condescending answers.
I think it's fair to say that tactic didn't play particularly well with fans. Usually a head coach can give himself a little room to breathe by going after the media. Brian Billick, in fact, was the master of that tactic. But after the loss to Seattle, I'd say a majority of Ravens fans were so frustrated by the team's inconsistency, when Harbaugh started lecturing the media with phrases like "Anyone who understands football..." it felt more like he was lecturing Ravens fans instead of being accountable for the decisions of his coaching staff and his players' lack of focus.
But here is where I give Harbaugh a lot of credit, and why I think he's a very good coach. It was a bad loss to the Seahawks, and he knew it. He couldn't really spin it, and he didn't really know to explain it without potentially splintering his team. He didn't handle questions about it particularly well, and conceded as much later in the week, but he didn't throw any of his players or coaches on the bonfire. He didn't even sacrifice poor David Reed, who was honestly the biggest reason Baltimore lost. He didn't rip his quarterback for another week of inconsistent play. He didn't beat up his defense for failing in crucial moments. He didn't question his offensive coordinator (in public) for such a huge disparity between runs and passes.
He could have said any of those things, and they each would have been true. But would ripping someone, even himself, have ultimately done any good? Instead, he simply repeated, over and over, that it was frustrating to lose. But dwelling on it, questioning his coaching staff, and conceding the loss represented some larger truth about his team, wasn't going to happen. He had a game to prepare for.
I guarantee, in private, Harbaugh was pounding the drum of UNITY with maximum ferocity. I bet he felt like he had to. It's obvious there were tiny cracks forming in the Ravens united front. All you had to do was listen to Ray Rice and Joe Flacco talk last week. It's clear they both want the team to win, they just believe the Ravens should go about it different ways. And they both want to get paid at the end of the year.
The Ravens could have imploded this week. They could have started pointing fingers. They could have blamed Cam Cameron. The defense could have blamed the offense for wearing them out with so many wasted possessions. The offense could have blamed the defense for its inability to get off the field on 3rd down. Instead, they hung tough against a really good Bengals team, weathered the storm, and took care of business with a victory. It's hard to imagine the meltdown that might have occurred had the Ravens lost this game, but it would have been enormous. It might have fractured their season permanently. But now, not only did the Ravens hold on to win an important divisional game, they learned they can win an important divisional game without Ray Lewis in the lineup.
When the Ravens aren't playing well, Harbaugh is often the target of criticism from people who don't really understand exactly what it is he does. They take the fact that he was a special teams coordinator for so many years, and use it as a knock against him. I've always thought that line of thinking was a little foolish, because one of Harbaugh's greatest strengths is something I think he learned coaching special teams so many years. Special teams coaches constantly have to convince a group of fractured personnel to buy into a larger purpose, and talk them into working together even though there isn't a lot of individual glory in it. Most special teams players, they'd much rather be doing something else. But the units that are successful are the ones that are organized, the ones that can integrate young players into the mix and trust them immediately, and the ones that sacrifice for one another. When someone gets hurt -- and that happens a lot in the NFL -- a special teams coach often has to grab a player from offense or defense, quickly coach them up, and then plug him into the mix. The good ones don't panic. They fill the cracks with mortar.
Those concepts are why the Ravens have been successful under Harbaugh. True, his special teams haven't always been superb, but his TEAMS have typically embraced those principals. It's cliche, but it's true. There is a reason the Ravens are 15-4 under Harbaugh after a loss. There is a reason they've won 12 consecutive games after a loss, the longest streak in the NFL. You'll never get to see it, but he's very good behind the scenes at watching practice, watching film, and suggesting and making tweaks. There aren't many coaches in the league with a broader base of knowledge than Harbaugh. He may never have called plays in the NFL, but he's one of the few coaches who could watch a quarterback's mechanics and recognize exactly what's gone wrong, and then do the same thing after watching a free safety's drop. The Ravens may not always make perfect in-game adjustments, but under Harbaugh, few teams adjust better week-to-week.
He has his flaws. He's probably a little too emotional, both in victory and defeat. Criticism probably bugs him a little too much. And he's loyal as hell -- if you want to call that a flaw -- which is part of the reason he won't criticize any of Cameron's decisions in public. (In private is a different story.) But he's also held a few flawed teams together and weathered a number of storms.
When the Ravens stomped Pittsburgh in Week 1, I think it shifted the expectations for this year's team into hyper-drive. I don't think this group was ready for the pressure they were suddenly facing. We all knew the 2011 Ravens were going to experience growing pains when they decided to jettison a group of veterans once the lockout ended, when they decided to revamp their offensive line, fire their quarterbacks coach and promote a new defensive coordinator. But for the most part, we completely forgot about it after just one week. After one emotional win, expectations changed. It wasn't a mistake to cut those vets, everyone just needed to be realistic about what it meant: Higher highs, and lower lows.
Harbaugh has a phrase he likes to use that I love for its imagery: "In competition, we're refined by the fire, and purified by it." He used it to describe Torrey Smith earlier this season, when he dropped multiple balls, then came back and caught the winning touchdown against the Steelers. And in some ways, you might apply it to the entire team this season. They haven't been perfect, far from it, but the hope is they've been refined by the fire. And after 10 weeks, despite some stumbles, they're 7-3 and in first place in their division.
It's only the second time they've ever been 7-3 in team history. The other time was last season.
"I think you learn from everything," Harbaugh said. "It's a situation where there's always going to be trends. There's always going to be challenges and obstacles that you have to overcome, and we understand that. It can be taken as criticisms, and that's kind of what you look at. There's always going to be something thats an issue that you have to deal with, and you have to find a way to overcome it. Sometimes you can do that in one week. Sometimes it takes a few weeks, and it's like 'Why can't we get past this thing?' But, then you work to improve in that area, and something else pops up. You know, the other teams are getting better too, and they're attacking you. That's the beauty. It's the ebb and flow of the National Football League. Really, in the end, you just have to find a way to win on Sunday. Most weeks we have, but some weeks we have not. Now, we have to go to the next one and try to figure out a way to win the next one. That's really the best you can do."