ATLANTA — I’ll be spending the weekend covering the NFC Championship Game, but before I get too heavy into Niners-Falcons, I wanted to write about the most under-appreciated single person of the NFL weekend: John Harbaugh.
Maybe I don’t hear the tributes for The Other Harbaugh. Maybe they’re out there, and I’ve just missed them. But the more I watch the Ravens — with four defensive coordinators since Harbaugh got the job in 2008, changing the offensive coordinator with three games left in this season, with a defense of constantly interchangeable pieces, with having to take back the locker room from a willful defensive core and making it a more balanced team — the more I think John Harbaugh’s one of the best coaches in the league. And a steadying asset in a sea of consistent change in Baltimore.
The Ravens have made the playoffs every year he’s coached them and have won at least one playoff game in each of those years. That’s five seasons out of five with one playoff win or more. Bill Belichick has led the Patriots to at least one playoff win in seven seasons out of 13 in New England. Belichick, of course, has three Lombardis and Harbaugh none, so that outweighs everything else. But check out the winningest coaches over the last half-decade, since Steve Bisciotti surprised the football establishment and hired the Eagles’ special teams coordinator to be his coach in 2008:
You wouldn’t think Harbaugh would be that close to Belichick, would you?
When Harbaugh was hired, Bisciotti chose him over Rex Ryan. At the time, the great unspoken thing around the team was that it was a defense-driven team, with Ryan’s marauding and intimidating troops leading the way for an offense that always lagged behind. Bisciotti wanted a more balanced team — and he preferred Harbaugh over then-offensive wunderkind Jason Garrett of the Cowboys. Bisciotti also was tired of his team having a reputation for thuggery, and he wanted that to change. Two years into his team makeover, Harbaugh got ticked off when we at Sports Illustrated alluded to its roughhouse element, and he called me, angry, though I hadn’t written the item that angered him, and he said, “Do you know how hard we’ve worked to eliminate that image?”
On Saturday, in the 38-35 win at Denver, the Ravens played 87 defensive snaps. The defense was called for one late hit, with corner Chykie Brown hitting Peyton Manning too late after he’d released the ball. Nothing else. No taunting, no cheap shots, nothing after the whistle. After the game, I’d heard about a text message Bisciotti sent to Harbaugh in the fourth quarter, a message Harbaugh didn’t see until after the game but felt like he wanted to share with the team. I asked Harbaugh exactly what it said. “Here,” Harbaugh said in his stadium head coach’s office after the game in Denver. “Read it.”
The Bisciotti text: “Never texted you during a game before. We are down 3528 [sic] and I think it’s the best I’ve ever seen us in the playoffs since 2000. Win or lose I am so proud of this team.”
“There’s something about this team,” Harbaugh said. “I love this team. I don’t want to get all religious on you, and I know people don’t want to hear that …”
Just then, as if on cue, team chaplain Rod Hairston walked into the room. Harbaugh hugged him, and they prayed together for a few moments. “Faith. Trust. That’s how I feel about this team.”
Harbaugh has built a strong bond in the locker room. Now we’ll see if it can survive another test in Foxboro, where the Harbaugh-led Ravens have lost three out of four games — by 6, 3 and 3 points. It should be a great game.
Another good effort could go a long way to changing the type of interactions Harbaugh had two years ago, when he was walking out of the team hotel in Pittsburgh, on the way to the Steelers-Ravens regular-season game there. Harbaugh overheard a couple of hotel workers talking. One of them said, “Hey, that’s the Baltimore coach, right?” His buddy said, “Yeah. Jim Harbaugh. That’s Jim Harbaugh.” Respect is coming, one day.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
LaMichael James, running back, San Francisco (No. 23). James has started to emerge from Frank Gore’s shadow after a mostly quiet rookie year. He’s run it 10 times in the last two Niners games for 70 yards, and he’s a good fit for the read-option run by quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Just a hunch this weekend that, on the fast track of the Georgia Dome, you’re going to see James’ speed be a factor.
Five Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. Nothing open. Absolutely nothing. Covered this league for 29 years. Never remember on championship Sunday the job market being totally closed down. Assuming the Jets hire a general manager Friday, then there’ll be no head coach openings, no GM openings. When the biggest piece of news on big game weekend is who the Raiders are hiring as offensive coordinator, it’s time to curtail the pregame show viewing.
2. Cries of foul. With the NFL now 13 of 14 in hiring white head coaches and GMs this month, I expect African-American coaches and the watchdog Fritz Pollard Alliance to condemn the overall hiring this weekend.
3. Brady-Flacco. Since January 2010, the two quarterbacks have split four meetings, and in the last three, Flacco has a seven-to-two touchdown-pass edge. Flacco won’t be cowed by the road crowd or weather. Brady’s not cowed by anything.
4. The legend of Colin Kaepernick. Amazing that a guy with seven NFL starts is generating this much buzz. But Kaepernick is the “it” guy of the weekend. All eyes will be on how many times he leaves the pocket — and how often anyone in a Falcons uniform can catch him.
5. The bell tolls for whom? This is Ray Lewis’ last season, and so he may be playing his last game. This is probably Tony Gonzalez’s last season, and he may be playing his last game. It’s not often we might say goodbye to two of the all-timers at their positions on the same day.
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