Five Things We Learned in the Ravens 31-24 win over the Bengals

November 21, 2011|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | The Baltimore Sun

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. 

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