Harbaugh hears his critics, but believes in his staff

Ravens coach knows fans have been upset over play calls, but also has faith in direction of the team

December 18, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

Even in victory, John Harbaugh looks weary these days.

He tries not to give off that impression. The third-year Ravens coach craves discipline and control. He hates to lose his temper in front of a microphone. He tries to project confidence and optimism each time he speaks, and knows he's as much a CEO as he is a football coach. But if you look closely at his face, at how tired and drained he looks in difficult moments, you can begin to understand the mental burden an NFL head coach carries on his shoulders each week.

His team hosts the New Orleans Saints — the defending Super Bowl champions — Sunday, in what, given the teams' records, should be billed as a game between championship contenders. The Ravens, with 9 wins and 4 losses so far this year, are in the leagues' upper tier, on the verge of clinching a third-consecutive playoff berth.

But you'd hardly know it by listening to the fans – at least the most vocal ones. The Ravens fans calling into sports talk radio shows, or writing comments on the internet, are frustrated, disappointed and discouraged by a team they feel isn't playing up to its potential. To believe all the clatter is to think the teams' days as a vaunted defensive terror are over; its efforts to build a championship offense a bust. And that the coaching staff deserves much of the blame.

Harbaugh, however unlikely, finds himself at the sharp end of it all — the winning coach, on the defensive.

"Every now and then I'll read something that makes sense," a tired-looking Harbaugh said last week. "Something along the lines of what you're thinking. And I'll think 'That's fair. That makes sense.'

"Most of the time you read it and it's just absurd," he continued.

He's heard the fans who say the team needs to keep it simple, to run the ball more and try to control the pace of the game. He's also heard those who want a more aggressive approach, with long passes down the field.

"Well, of course we can all make that argument," he said. "But so much more goes into it than that."

A bit of an edge

Shortly after wrapping up a practice, Harbaugh stood in the hallway of the Ravens football complex in Owings Mills, removed his hat and leaned against a wall just outside the locker room. He spoke with The Sun about the delicate balance an NFL head coach has to strike between sticking up for his staff and acknowledging the passionate concerns of a fan base with high expectations.

"Nobody is more critical of us than we are," Harbaugh said. "We look at everything. If anything, we're overly critical of ourselves

"The hard thing to do is not overreact and make too many moves. Sometimes you've got to stay the course. It's like the Biblical passage about the reed in the wind. [Luke 7:24] The wind can blow you every which way if you allow it. I'd rather be standing firm and believing what we do is right."

Harbaugh says he understands that he'll be criticized. But he's human, and as much as he might like to, he can't block everything out. There are times, even, when he'll read a critique of a decision he's made, or a decision someone on his staff has made, and feel like it's a valid point.

A growing number of fans seem, however, to be directing their anger at his assistants, particularly offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. There is an edge to Harbaugh's tone when he feels like he's being asked to defend the people on his staff.

On his radio show two weeks ago, a frustrated caller suggested that defensive line coach Clarance Brooks should be fired based on the slow development of rookie nose tackle Terrence Cody, who has earned scant playing time this year. Harbaugh struggled to keep his cool defending Brooks, then suggested if the caller wasn't proud of the team, he could "find another team to root for."

Fan reaction was so vicious, Harbaugh felt compelled to issue a statement clarifying his comments, saying they were directed at that specific caller, not the entire fan base.

"The fans just went ballistic on me," Harbaugh said. "I was stunned by that."

Criticism not unusual

On paper, a lot has gone right in 2010. The Ravens have clinched a winning season for the third consecutive year, the first time that's happened in franchise history. They have a young quarterback in Joe Flacco who, at least statistically, is one of the best in the league. Their four losses came by a total of 16 points. If they played their best football over the next two months, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them reach the Super Bowl.

But eight times this year, they've blown a fourth quarter lead. Four straight games, the Ravens have failed to score a touchdown in the second half. And the way they've lost has led to a lot of fan fingers being pointed at Cameron and Mattison. They have been accused of making conservative or passive play calls in big moments, especially after emotional losses to New England, Atlanta and Pittsburgh.

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