In a town that reveres their sports heroes in the same air as the country’s Founding Father’s, John Harbaugh belongs amongst that rarified air in blue collar Baltimore.
The 15-year head coach has won 138 games, four division titles in the brutal AFC North and one Super Bowl. He earned the respect of a fanbase that was accustomed to taking their cues from a big personality like Ray Lewis. He’s also reinvented himself a few times along the way, going from the stereotypical hard-nosed dog curser, to a player’s coach with a fatherly lean.
A big part of that change came with the respect that he had earned, and it’s reached a new zenith with a next generation of players that have come in since 2018, led by Lamar Jackson. Despite Jackson and some of his young compatriots changing Baltimore’s fortunes on the field for better, though, it felt like no amount of the franchise’s historic identity had been lost.
After a drastic change at quarterback from the staid and unspectacular Joe Flacco, retaining that identity was no small thing, and neither was said success on the field. The Ravens have now won 38 games over Jackson’s first four seasons and counting. Most of these wins came in his first three years when he was fully healthy and the team around him was playing like their typical bruising selves.
However, since the beginning of the 2021 season, something has been markedly different. While many would harangue the teams of Jackson’s early career for not finding any playoff success, the ugly truth is that since the beginning of last year, the Ravens are 8-6 in games that Jackson starts. Over his first three seasons, they were 30-7.
It may not be an entirely fair comparison, as you’re talking about a small sample size against a pretty big one. After yet another baffling loss that calls to memory many of the collapses we saw in 2021, though, it may be time for the Ravens to start doing some soul searching. While defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald (as well as his stable of players that failed to execute) should shoulder most of the blame for this loss to Miami, the responsibility of conducting a successful soul search falls to one person: John Harbaugh.
At 34-years-old, it’s not inconceivable that Macdonald was going to struggle at times as he adjusts to a big job. This is doubly true when you consider the injuries he was dealing with in the secondary, as well as a lack of competent communication between the players who were out there. This isn’t to absolve Macdonald or the defensive backs who are very much responsible for Sunday’s choke job, but to make the point that some struggles (particularly early in the year) probably should’ve been in the budget.
More than anything, it’s to say that the man who fired a very accomplished defensive coordinator, Don “Wink” Martindale, to bring in his young replacement should be tasked with ensuring it works out. The jury isn’t out on Harbaugh’s gamble despite what the doomsayers among the fanbase may say, but the Ravens head coach is revered around the league for his culture of accountability. After a struggle like we saw this week, that will very much be put to the test. Macdonald replaced Martindale to ensure that late game collapses would be a thing of the past and the cupboard in the secondary was re-stocked to set him up for success. So far, the results aren’t promising.
Ditto can be said for a running game that looks nothing like the ones we saw in Jackson’s early seasons — that could grind the clock and close out games against supposedly inferior teams. It’s hard to put much blame on a Ravens offense that scored 31 points (and were spotted an additional seven courtesy of special teams), but the fact that they couldn’t muster anything from their running game is probably part of why Baltimore’s defense was so gassed.
Jackson led the way for the Ravens rushing attack with 119 yards, 79 of which came on one play with 26 seconds left to go in the third quarter. That should’ve ended the game as it sent Baltimore into the fourth quarter with a three touchdown lead. Their defensive collapse of epic proportions is partially due to the fact that Justice Hill was the team’s second leading rusher with three carries for 16 yards, emblematic of a rushing attack that simply can’t sustain drives.
“Nasty, mean, rough, tough, physical” are buzz words that Harbaugh loves to use when talking about the type of team that he likes to have. Through two games, Baltimore’s offense has been feast-or-famine, living and dying by the deep shot, and not dictating the game’s pace outside of when they do hit on those big plays. As much as offensive coordinator Greg Roman deserves some blame for not raising the floor of this rushing attack, as he’s often credited for being able to do, part of this has to fall to Harbaugh as well. The Ravens longtime gipper wants to establish the run on offense and he’s stuck with Roman through thick and thin because of it.
Somewhat related to this lack of power presence in the running game is another (more recent piece) of the Ravens identity that is currently nowhere to be found: decisiveness, and success as a result of it, on fourth down. With Jackson entering the lineup and the punishing rushing attack along with him, Harbaugh has brought a rambling, gambling attitude to Ravens games. This was sorely needed after several years of watching an injured Flacco try to eke out wins in an inoffensive manner.
Without over explaining something that should be fairly easy to comprehend, I’ll let the below tweet from WNST’s Luke Jones speak for itself.
Not including the final Hail Mary, the Ravens ran 10 plays where they needed one yard for a first down or touchdown. They converted three of them.— Luke Jones (@BaltimoreLuke) September 18, 2022
This is a coach-quarterback pairing that cemented themselves as a dynamic duo after a gutsy fourth down call got them a win on the road in Seattle three years ago. Now, they’re struggling to gain one yard at home after investing heavily along the offensive line this offseason. Simply put, it’s not good enough and not representative of what this team purports itself to be.
While some of the more reactionary voices amongst this fanbase may be reading into it in such a way, this is not call for anyone’s job. It’s not for Macdonald’s, who has some rope to work with, nor is it for Roman’s, who doesn’t have as much goodwill on his side at this point. Despite the fact that this article may read as a pointed critique against him, it’s not a call to fire Harbaugh now, or later either.
Instead, look at this as a call to action. Harbaugh allowed some malaise to seep into this operation following some down years with an injured Flacco. Then, the wily veteran coach flipped the script on what looked like a dwindling tenure by drafting Jackson and building to near perfection around him. Despite some claiming that it’s only the quarterback who deserves any credit for that turnaround, Harbaugh does too for changing his philosophies and well-established schematics on the fly.
However, here’s one hard truth for Harbaugh to think about tonight as he sits and stews over today’s loss: through two games, Jackson is the one currently carrying this football team. The 25-year-old has commanded this offense with aplomb while passing and running his way into the record books, already. That the team’s overall record is 1-1 instead of 2-0 is a shame and something that Harbaugh would be wise to understand the weight of.
Fair or not, as the team’s stalwart leader, that weight falls to him to carry. Whatever needs to happen for Macdonald get his defense back on track, Harbaugh has to help facilitate it. The same should be said for getting this offense back to a place where it can generate clock killing chunk plays on the ground.
While there’s much more football left to be played this season, there’s also a lot of hard work outstanding to ensure it’s played up to the Ravens historical standards. Harbaugh has proven himself to be more than capable of bouncing back from adversity in the past. The problems the Ravens are facing have a systemic, deep running feel to them, though.
If he can right those wrongs over the course of 2022, Harbaugh will have yet again authored an admirable turnaround. For the sake of not wasting what could be a historic year for Jackson, let’s hope he’s able to do so.