Since winning the Super Bowl in 2012, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has been at the center of many of the team’s shortcomings over the last decade. Even in seasons marred by injuries with little to no chance of deep post-season success, the Ravens still managed to find themselves in the playoff picture. Nonetheless, fans and pundits still questioned whether the third longest tenured coach in the NFL had run his course in Baltimore.
Being a head coach in the NFL has always been a precarious spot for good and bad teams. If you’re winning, the players get most, if not all the credit. When you’re losing, you typically shoulder most of the blame. In the case of John Harbaugh and the Ravens, the team has been in a winning position more than most teams in his tenure. However, Harbaugh, more often than not, has been a victim of his own success.
Winning so many playoff games in his young career set the bar extremely high. This has led to outrage in seasons where the Ravens didn’t make deep postseason runs. Have there been questionable coaching decisions on his part? Of course, but what coach hasn’t? The presumable “best coaches” of our generation have all gone through difficult stretches. Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots have been a shell of themselves since the departure of Tom Brady. Andy Reid’s Chiefs are struggling this year in their first season without now Commanders offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy. Mike Tomlin hasn’t won a playoff game since 2016. All three of those coaches will be in Canton one day. Why? Because winning playoff games and Super Bowls is hard! Like Harbaugh, they have generally captained successful teams with their full body of work outweighing any one stretch. Apart from 2016, a season where nearly all of Baltimore’s notable players suffered season ending injuries, Harbaugh has churned out a winning record. This is despite major roster turnover, a large Joe Flacco contract that restricted team improvement, and countless injury marred seasons.
It should be clear at this point that Harbaugh gets the most out of his players. The Ravens rarely, if ever get blown out, have won the second most games in football behind the Chiefs since Lamar Jackson was drafted, and have been in position to or made the playoffs the last two years despite Jackson missing time down the stretch. Obviously, Jackson has a lot to do with that. However, it can’t be ignored how the team consistently comes ready to play, regardless of who is playing. In last year’s playoff game at Cincinnati, I’m not sure of many teams in the league who would’ve given the Bengals that kind of game without their star quarterback.
In 2023, the Ravens entered the season with lofty expectations, and in almost every way, have surpassed them. They’ve been in position to win every game they’ve played this season and it wouldn’t be outlandish to say this team could be undefeated right now if it weren’t for self-imposed blunders.
Normally, a team with the best record in the league would have a coach in the running for Coach of the Year. Why isn’t Harbaugh? Because this is the standard for the Ravens. Seasons where the team doesn’t win playoff games are viewed as failures. It’s a testament to the culture Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta, and Harbaugh, amongst others, have built. Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mike Tomlin consistently gets praise for churning out 9-8 seasons, and while his streak of non-losing years grows more impressive by the day, the Steelers have played second fiddle to Baltimore for the last six years. The difference lies in Harbaugh’s willingness to adapt, particularly when Lamar Jackson has been the quarterback. He supported building an offense around Jackson’s rushing strengths, and when it became apparent that Jackson was ready to handle a pro-style offense, switched from Greg Roman to Todd Monken. On defense, the team parted ways with Don Martindale, who is generally considered one of the better defensive coordinators in the league, for arguably the best in the league in Mike Macdonald.
The point is, even when the team has been in good positions, the Ravens and Harbaugh shoot for the moon. Would they be in a winning position with Greg Roman and Martindale right now? Probably, but not nearly as much as they are now. It’s a testament to Harbaugh and the philosophy of the organization to blend an old-school playing mentality with fresh and evolving schemes. John Harbaugh once again has the Ravens in position to make a playoff run in the first season in a few years where they’ve had a relatively healthy unit. He is one of the best head coaches in the league, is beloved by his players, and deserves the credit and respect of the Ravens fanbase and NFL as a whole.