After Jason La Canfora announced back in November that the Baltimore Ravens and head coach John Harbaugh would mutually part ways, the team announced earlier this week that they were working on a contract extension. In all fairness to La Canfora, the Ravens were 4-5 at the time, and it seemed like their season was over. Fast-forward to the Holiday season and the Ravens are 9-6 and likely headed to the post-season with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson under center. Is re-signing Harbaugh the right move? Let’s take a closer look.
Is Baltimore Making the Right Move by Re-Signing John Harbaugh?
Firstly, it has to be said that John Harbaugh is an exceptional coach. Easily the best in franchise history, a Super Bowl Champion, and 31 games over .500 on the career. He has as many Super Bowl rings as he does losing seasons, and he’s been vital in keeping the Baltimore Ravens relevant and competitive. Every time his Ravens have made the playoffs, which has been in six of his ten full seasons, they’ve won at least one game.
Having said that, his team hasn’t been the same since they won Super Bowl XLVII. In the first five years of the Harbaugh Era, the Ravens made the playoffs every season and had a combined record of 54-26. In the five years since, they’ve only made the playoffs once, and they have a record of 40-40. Maybe they were hampered by Joe Flacco’s contract, maybe they’ve been missing the leadership of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, or maybe the Ravens were just unlucky, but they’ve been pretty mediocre since they won that Super Bowl.
NFL means “Not For Long” and everyone, even the greats, get fired eventually. Bum Phillips once said, “There’s two kinds of coaches, them that’s fired and them that’s gonna be.” Bill Belichick was fired by the Browns, Jimmy Johnson was fired by the Dallas Cowboys, Marty Schottenheimer was fired four times, Andy Reid was fired by the Eagles, and even though they said it was a mutual decision, the New York Giants fired Tom Coughlin.
Andy Reid was the best coach in Eagles history, but it wasn’t until he was fired that the franchise was able to win a Super Bowl, ironically, with his protege Doug Pederson. Don’t feel too bad for Andy, he’s transformed the Kansas City Chiefs into one of the AFC’s elite and likely the conference’s first seed. Sometimes a chance of direction can benefit both the coach and the team.
Since La Canfora reported Harbaugh’s demise, the Ravens are 5-2, boasting wins over the Oakland Raiders (3-11), Cincinnati Bengals (6-9), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-10), Atlanta Falcons (6-9), and Los Angeles Chargers (11-4). Chargers win aside, those aren’t exactly impressive victories.
The difference between Harbaugh losing his job and returning for at least one more year is a rookie quarterback that averages 156 passing yards a game, four wins over teams that are closer to the first overall pick than the playoffs and a fumble from Antonio Gates. That’s not a knock on Harbaugh or the Ravens, he doesn’t make his schedule and that Chargers win was very impressive.
However, it’s not a stretch to say Lamar Jackson saved John Harbaugh’s job, and as linked as he was to Flacco, the rookie he drafted in his first year as head coach, he’s equally linked to Jackson now. Here’s why that worries me.
All The Eggs in One Basket
This is an unpopular opinion, but I have my concerns about the sustainability of Lamar Jackson as a franchise quarterback. So far, he’s been a galvanizing force for Baltimore, giving the team a new identity and a second life in 2018. After struggling to find a running game with Flacco under center, the Ravens are averaging 218 rushing yards a game with Lamar. With Baltimore’s defense playing lights out, Jackson has managed to balance time of possession with big explosive plays. It’s a great formula, but not one without risks.
Over that span, Jackson has ran the ball 99 times. That’s 17 times a game, which is only six less than his average number of passes a game (23). Lamar Jackson is only listed at 212 pounds, and despite the reported efforts of Robert Griffin III, he refuses to slide. If he’s going to keep taking this kind of punishment, his body simply won’t hold up.
Brothers in Arms
For perspective, Griffin only ran the ball more than 10 times on five occasions, never trying more than 13 in a game. Before the end of the season, the wear and tear on Griffin’s body ended up being too much, hampering his development as a passer and ultimately sidelining his career.
To some, the Jackson and Griffin comparison might be a silly one, but it’s really not. The quarterbacks are almost the exact same size, both boast impressive arms and exceptional speed, and the team utilizes a kind of read option to simplify the offense. Frankly, Griffin might’ve done it better, especially as a passer. This is going to be a huge off-season for Jackson to develop as a passer.
Good Coach, Bad Coach
As great as John Harbaugh is at stressing fundamentals and coaching well-prepared teams, he’s struggled to develop Joe Flacco. Maybe that’s Harbaugh’s fault, maybe Flacco just isn’t a great quarterback, but the Delaware grad never made the jump as a franchise quarterback. He has one 4,000 yard season in 11 years and he’s never thrown for more than 27 touchdowns in a year, and this season is the first season in which he didn’t have double digit interceptions (he only started nine games).
Harbaugh, who has gone through five offensive coordinators since 2012, hasn’t really taken any responsibility for Flacco’s lack of development, and it’s worth noting that it’s much easier to make a pocket passer sustainable than someone as dynamic as Jackson. Moving forward, Harbaugh is attached at the hip to Jackson. If Jackson plays well and the Ravens win, Harbaugh’s job is safe. If he struggles and the team falls apart? He’s right back on the hot seat.
And that’s the thing for new general manager Eric DeCosta. He’s trying to fill the legendary Ozzie Newsome’s shoes, and since he took Jackson with a first round pick, he’s also handcuffed to the rookie quarterback. With a quarterback genius like John DeFilippo on the market, wouldn’t you want to consider taking over and getting someone who specializes in developing young quarterbacks?
A big argument for why the Baltimore Ravens should hold off firing John Harbaugh? Coaching consistency. John Harbaugh is a good coach. Good coaches are hard to find, and while a change could help both parties, there’s one major argument for keeping a coach through trying times.
There’s no question that stability breeds consistency and creates a more nurturing enviroment for any business. Need proof? Which franchise has enjoyed the most success in the NFL’s history? Easily the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have the most Super Bowl victories (six) and post-season wins (35) in the history of the league. How many coaches have the Steelers had in the last fifty years? Just three.
Chuck Noll coached the team from 1969 to 1991, winning four Super Bowls. When he retired in 1991, spittin’ Bill Cowher stepped up, coaching until he retired in 2006 after winning a Super Bowl. The current head coach, Mike Tomlin, stepped in immediately after, winning a Super Bowl himself back in 2008, boasting the best win percentage of the three (.659%).
The Steelers endured 10 losing seasons over that span. That’s right, over the course of 50 years, the Steelers have had only three coaches, and they’ve only had ten losing seasons. If that doesn’t tell you how good keeping a coach can be, here’s another stat.
The Raider Method
Since the year 2000, the Oakland Raiders have had 10 head coaches. Over that same span, they’ve endured 12 losing seasons. That’s right, the Raiders have had more losing seasons since 2000 than the Steelers have had since 1969. And you’ve gotta think part of that is the annual coaching purge that completely resets the rebuild.
Ironically, the Raiders are about to give us a case study on coaching consistency, as they’re pretty much stuck with Jon Gruden until 2028. For Raider Nation’s sake, let’s hope that pans out.
The Cincinnati Method
There is one more team to consider is the Cincinnati Bengals, and their attachment to head coach, Marvin Lewis. Marvin Lewis has been the Bengals head coach since 2003, and believe it or not, he has a winning record. That’s pretty impressive when you think about it. Few coaches enjoy careers that long, and many don’t have more wins than losses.
The big problem with Lewis? He’s never won a playoff game with the team. In seven attempts, Lewis’ Bengals have lost every game. He’s won the AFC North four times, and has three wild card teams under his belt, but he’s been one-and-done every single time. Lewis is almost definitely gone after this season, and you’ve gotta think the Bengals wish they could get all the years they wasted accepting Lewis’ mediocrity back.
They Made the Right Call
Ultimately, the Ravens are making the right move by holding onto Harbaugh. He’s not the best coach in football, but he’s pretty great, and in a year where there are many very attractive coaching jobs being made available, the Ravens might struggle to land a big fish.
Assuming the Browns don’t retain Gregg Williams or promote Freddie Kitchens, the group of Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Myles Garrett, and Denzel Ward will be very enticing. Not to mention, someone out there will get to be Aaron Rodgers’ head coach up in Green Bay as well. The Baltimore Ravens could fire Harbaugh, a coach that’s taken them to the playoffs a half-dozen times, and won a Super Bowl, and then end up settling for the third or fourth best coaching option.
If the Ravens struggle next year, they can always fire Harbaugh. That’s the most important thing, the Ravens can sign Harbaugh to whatever kind of contract they want, and if things fall apart, they can get rid of him and look for a new coach then. However, obviously they can’t un-fire him. If they end up with a bad coach, or Harbaugh goes to say, Green Bay, and wins a Super Bowl, they can’t take it back.
Re-signing Harbaugh is smart, safe, and the only thing the franchise really can do. Sure, there are probably coaches out there that could develop Lamar Jackson better than John Harbaugh, but the thing that really sunk Joe Flacco? The reason he really struggled? Was because he had so many different offensive coordinators. He had to re-learn a new offense every single year and it really stunted his growth. Another year in the same system can only be good for the young gun.