Now that the Ravens have made their second major coaching change in two years, the team’s main focus in 2023 should be the direction of the program under head coach John Harbaugh.
At the end of last season, the Ravens replaced defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale with Mike Macdonald. On Thursday, they announced that offensive coordinator Greg Roman had departed four days after a 24-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC wild-card round.
Next up is Harbaugh.
It’s part of the NFL protocol. When coordinators depart, it’s time to take a hard look at the head coach. It’s not strange territory for Harbaugh. Once a coach enters his ninth or 10th season, team owners should always take a hard look to see if he has indeed “lost his voice” and needs to reinvent himself.
Harbaugh just finished Year 15 with the Ravens. He has a 158-104 record, including a 11-9 record in the postseason and a Super Bowl championship in 2012, but he’s gone just 2-5 in the playoffs since that title run. Combined with the recent exodus of coordinators, it’s time to put the head coach under the microscope.
It’s hard to tell if that will happen, especially after Thursday’s lovefest news conference. By the assessments of both Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta, Harbaugh loves quarterback Lamar Jackson, and so does DeCosta. Not to be outdone, Jackson apparently loves Baltimore and did everything he could to return to the starting lineup after he sprained his knee against the Denver Broncos in Week 13.
The only thing missing were boy scouts sitting around the campfire roasting marshmallows while singing “God Bless America.” It was like the old car salesman telling you everything is great about the vehicle even though there are problems with the tires, motor, transmission and radiator.
That session was all about pumping up Jackson’s trade value. If the Ravens get a good deal for him, the trade will be made. If not, and he settles for something less than a fully guaranteed deal, then he might return.
That’s another reason to take a good look at Harbaugh. First of all, he’s a victim of his own high standards. He advanced to the AFC championship game in his rookie year in 2008, then did it again in 2011 and won a Super Bowl the following year while creating a strong work culture. Players had to meet those expectations or hit the road.
But that team work ethic has started to fade, some of it caused by the significant amount of player injuries in 2021. Some fans have suggested that Harbaugh looked exhausted by the end of the season, which happens to most coaches at that time of year.
But Harbaugh was also exhausted by Jackson, and so are a lot of people in the organization. Harbaugh has had to coddle the star quarterback and put up with the videos of Jackson driving 105 mph, jumping over a jet ski and playing pickup basketball on a cement court, as well as Jackson’s awkward and sometimes vulgar tweets. He’s also rescheduled training camp practices in part so Jackson could get proper rest and then had to deal with him not playing the last four games in the 2021 season and the last six in 2022.
It’s easy to understand why Harbaugh was so curt to reporters when questioned about Jackson’s sprained knee in recent weeks.
This isn’t just about Jackson, but also Harbaugh’s aggressive approach to gamble on fourth downs or 2-point conversions, relying more on analytics than the situation and common sense. It’s also about his poor clock management near halftime or the end of close games.
There were instances in which players like cornerback Marcus Peters and running back J.K. Dobbins openly criticized Harbaugh or his staff. Was there a control problem here?
Then there is the hunt for a new offensive coordinator, which hasn’t been a Harbaugh strength during his tenure in Baltimore. He has gone through six, and the best was Gary Kubiak in 2014, whom Harbaugh was forced to hire by the team’s front office.
Despite it all, Harbaugh remains a good coach. A major strength of his is building teams and establishing a strong team chemistry. Has he lost his voice on this team? I didn’t see that happening this year, but it’s something to keep an eye on. He’s loyal to this organization and a fierce competitor. If I had to start a team or prepare one in a short week for a game, I’d pick either Harbaugh or the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin.
Harbaugh can certainly do other things besides coach. He has strong social skills and can work a room like a skilled politician. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti likes continuity, especially in coaching, and Harbaugh’s contract goes through 2025.
Harbaugh, though, has a future in television and he could easily replace a commentator like Terry Bradshaw, 74, or Jimmy Johnson, 79. He has options, or he could remain Ravens coach for several more years.
Regardless, he’ll be under scrutiny in 2023. The head coach is always next in line in the food chain after the coordinators.