Bisciotti and Harbaugh walk ‘arm in arm’ into 2009 Festivus

December 29, 2008 | Nestor Aparicio

What a difference 52 weeks makes. It will be a year ago this Wednesday — on New Year’s Eve — when Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti walked into Brian Billick’s office and abruptly fired the head coach who led his franchise to its only Super Bowl win. It was the biggest story in the city for weeks, and many folks were surprised and many questions were asked. For me, it wasn’t so much the actual firing of Billick as much as the “I changed my mind” reasoning so closely removed from a 13-3 season and the fact that Ozzie Newsome was clearly kept out of the decision. At the time I was a loud critic of the move, especially considering that Bisciotti didn’t have a clear vision of where the franchise was headed or who he wanted to hire as a head coach.

The thinking was this: Who is Bisciotti going to hire who is better than Billick?

Three weeks later, after getting turned down by Dallas offensive coordinator Jason
Garrett and eliminating defensive coordinator Rex Ryan from contention, Bisciotti turned to a “low mileage” young special teams coordinator whose QB brother was far better known not only in Baltimore but throughout the league and in college circles as the head coach at Stanford.

Bisciotti, who is a self-made billionaire and who did it by hiring great people, was pretty offended last winter at the mere notion that his decisions and pick to lead the organization on the field would be questioned. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever seen him publicly “chippy.”

Harbaugh and Bisciotti celebrate Festivus

Harbaugh came to this job as a universally revered “coach’s coach,” the son of a football coach and the brother of a very successful NFL quarterback. I had at least 20 NFL “insiders” who immediately called me and told me that Harbaugh would be a “great” NFL coach. Harbaugh had ZERO detractors. Even Brian Billick privately applauded Bisciotti’s choice to replace him as being “a great move.” Yesterday, as the clock struck zero and Harbaugh had led Bisciotti’s franchise full-circle and back into the NFL postseason, the two men embraced in as genuine a lock as you’d ever want to see on the field at M&T Bank Stadium. You can see the moment on video here… and it was celebrated with the fans.

We can revisit all of the details of last January’s semi-bizarre job search and all of the possibilities and permutations and fallout of a bloody, unexpected firing of a Super Bowl champion coach amidst a locker room full of revolt, dissent and mouthy and aging players. All of my January Bisciotti/Garrett/Harbaugh blogs are still here in the archives if you care to read them.

Here’s the point: Bisciotti has made three MAJOR calls in 2009. First he fired Billick, while owing him $18 million, a ballsy and risky move if there ever was one. Then, he hand-picked unproven John Harbaugh to lead his football team in January. And finally — you might never get anyone to admit this on the record within the franchise — Bisciotti absolutely JUMPED on the table in the draft room in April and insisted that Ozzie Newsome trade up into the 18th pick to take a New Jersey kid from “small school” University of Delaware named Joe Flacco to be his franchise quarterback.

Considering our history with sports franchise poobahs in Baltimore (think Irsay, Jacobs, EBW & Abe Pollin), we’re far from believing that owners should get overly involved in the day-to-day operations of a sports franchise in most circumstances – and this is your chance to fill in the holiday Peter Angelos joke of your choice right here – but obviously an NFL owner’s choice of a head coach and a franchise quarterback has never looked better than it does this morning, exactly 52 weeks to the day that Bisciotti was clearly shaken by the removal of Billick, whom he had deep affection and respect for as a person and a leader of men.

If you’re excited about the Ravens this week and you’ve got purple fever, sure it’s fashionable to give all of the credit to Flacco and Harbaugh (as well as Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Le’Ron McClain, Cam Cameron, etc.) but today is a day we should consider giving the credit to the “mastermind” of several of the most significant 2009 calls that have landed the Ravens in the postseason and headed to Miami this Sunday at 1 p.m.

Steve Bisciotti has played a MAJOR role in the Ravens’ turnaround by making moves that have been greeted with at least extreme “curiosity” inside his own building and amongst his experts. Who would’ve thought that Rex Ryan could get passed over for the head coaching job here for a special teams coordinator and respond in a fashion that has made him the front-runner for the St. Louis Rams job 52 weeks later? Human nature might’ve said, “You can’t bring Ryan back as defensive coordinator” given the strange circumstances.

But over the course of his life, Bisciotti has shown an uncanny ability to find and retain quality people as employees. It’s his “gift” as a business owner, bringing in people who he’ll brag are “better” than him. He’s always told me that it’s the secret of his success.

Sure, he subtracted Brian Billick who I clearly think is one of the better people I’ve met on the planet and a person that I’m supremely thrilled to have on my WNST.net team, but he also added another quality guy in John Harbaugh — as well as a new staff — and the change has obviously worked out fabulously in Year 1. (For the record, Billick had Cam Cameron flying into Baltimore to be his offensive coordinator a year ago today as well, had he not been fired…just a fact!)

The firing of Billick was a change, as I stated last Janaury, that I wouldn’t have made. Many concurred with my assessment. But that’s why he’s Steve Bisciotti and that’s why he’s worth a billion dollars. As the old Indiana Jones movie said, “He chose wisely.”

Many NFL jobs will begin popping open today. Brian Billick might even get another shot to lead an NFL franchise at some point in the next few weeks. Of course, he might be enjoying his quality of life watching football on Fox and doing radio shows and writing a blog here at WNST.net while building his life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

But 363 days later, you would be hard-pressed to make the argument that Billick might’ve gotten this team to 11-5, with or without a quarterback like Flacco. Or maybe not. But at this point, that’s not an argument anyone in Baltimore wants or needs to make. In reality, we’re all in a better place 52 weeks later.

The NFL job carousel will get crazy this week. I’m glad we’re on the other side of this one this season covering a playoff team instead of a job search and all of the messiness involved. Phil Savage is the first of many fired friends of mine this week.

For now here in Baltimore, it’s Festivus for the rest of us.

Bring on the Fish…

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