Count John Harbaugh as one of the best

February 09, 2012|Mike Preston

There are few times when questions about the Ravens cause me to pause, but there was one last week which was simple, yet so intriguing.

A fan wanted to know if John Harbaugh was a good coach. That was surprising considering Harbaugh has a 49-24 overall record in four years as the Ravens coach, and played in two AFC championshipgames.

But the more I thought about it, I kept wondering why Harbaugh has never been a serious candidate for Coach of the Year. The record is impressive, but Harbaugh's name is never mentioned in the same breath with a Bill Belichick of New England, New York's Tom Coughlin, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin or Green Bay's Mike McCarthy.

They've all won a Super Bowl or two, but Harbaugh's younger brother Jim was named Coach of the Year after turning San Francisco around in his first season, and he appears to be on track to become the next great "head coach."

What about John Harbaugh? Can he coach?

Oh yeah.

He already has beaten the best, including Tomlin twice last season, but Harbaugh gets left out because of the stigma attached to being a longtime special-teams coach, and he also happens to be the coach of one of the NFL's most dominating personalities, inside linebacker Ray Lewis.

Until No. 52 retires, this will be Ray Lewis' team, and no one else's. Harbaugh might call the shots, but Lewis is the face of the organization. Bigger than general manger Ozzie Newsome. Bigger than Harbaugh.

Almost bigger than life.

When the Ravens have a big win, the national media likes to point to the defense and Lewis. When the NFL wants a player wired for a game or a voice-over for a commercial during the Super Bowl, they call on Lewis.

Players throughout the league call on Lewis during personal crises, and former Ravens assistants turned head coaches like Marvin Lewis, Jack Del Rio, Mike Singletary, Mike Smith, Rex Ryan, Mike Nolan and Chuck Pagano all owe Lewis "Thank You" cards.

Lewis' shadow over this franchise is so huge, few can escape, even Harbaugh.

And then there is this stigma of being a special-teams coach, which Harbaugh was for nine years in Philadelphia. For the most part, they are to the coaching staff what kickers are to the players: wired, weird and a little eccentric.

Except for those in the organization, most don't take them seriously, which is why when Harbaugh got the job in Baltimore, there wasn't nearly the media attention there was when Brian Billick was hired.

Billick was the brain behind Minnesota's record-breaking offense. He had pizazz and charisma. It's the same for defensive coaches who become head coaches, like Tony Dungy before he went to Tampa Bay and Indianapolis.

But a special-teamsguru? Ho-hum. Boring. Harbaugh is a manager of everything these days but specializes in nothing, which probably hurts him when it comes to notoriety.

Yet in four years, Harbaugh has been outstanding. He has gone to the playoffs every year. He has won with Joe Flacco, a fourth-year quarterback, drafted out of Delaware, and an offensive coordinator who was under tremendous scrutiny this past season. In addition, the Ravens have changed offensive-line and quarterback coaches during Harbaugh's time here.

Under three defensive coordinators, the Ravens have remained one of the top defenses in the league, even with two aging superstars in Lewis and safety Ed Reed.

Critics will point out that Harbaugh is weak on clock management, and that's legitimate. They'll point to the Ravens' subpar play on special teams, where Harbaugh has expertise. Harbaugh can be paranoid and impulsive, which hasn't always made him endearing around The Castle, but that's life with an NFL head coach.

They'll also point out that Ravens haven't made it to the Super Bowl yet.

But if not winning a Super Bowl is what keeps a coach from being considered one of the best in the NFL, then maybe there ought to be some other criteria.

Two years ago, the Ravens should have beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC divisional game, but turnovers and dropped passes caused them to lose. A few weeks ago, receiver Lee Evans dropped a potential game-winning pass in the end zone and Billy Cundiff whiffed on a potential game-tying field goal in the closing minutes.

Those can't be blamed on Harbaugh.

In both of those games, the Ravens were prepared well and should have won. For the past two years, they have had the best team in the AFC but been eliminated in the postseason.

Maybe it's fate or being unlucky, but Harbaugh isn't at fault. Overall, he has been just as good as any other head coach in the NFL; he just hasn't gotten the recognition.

A good coach?

One of the best.

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