Harbaugh’s handling of C-Mac situation is suspect

October 23, 2008 | Nestor Aparicio

So this is where new head coach John Harbaugh is learning the pain, instead of the joy, of being an NFL head coach.

There are only 32 of these jobs in world – captains of America’s favorite sports teams – and each of them brings a unique management structure and issues way beyond football. It’s about a LOT more than just drawing up the X’s and O’s and having a whistle on a string and being a gameday strategist.

It’s truly a VERY-high profile corporate C.E.O. (and babysitting) position and when this week’s “off the field” activity of Chris McAlister and Terrell Suggs has led to the “on the field” benching of the team’s highest-paid player and resident passive-aggressive cornerback, unlike at Legg Mason or Aerotek, the media asks the questions the fans (customers) want answers to and they expect a straight answer.

Or, like the other night on WBAL, some big-monied sponsor can call in directly to the coach to try to get an honest answer.

And, honestly, as much as we realize the Ravens do have some rights to the privacy of their employees and how it’s handled, we don’t want to be lied to either. I get that discipline should be a private matter, but don’t pass off the disciplining of a player as an injury, a lack of talent or a dress code issue.

Sure, if you’re Harbaugh or Joe Six Pack Ravens Fan, you’d like to think that guys who are making millions of dollars as players and have all of the talent in the world would just show up and graciously do their jobs. Especially for the amount of dough and the lifestyle they get to live. Forgive us for thinking that they’d actually consider 100% effort and winning football games the REAL priority in their lives. But, as my 24 years of doing this professionally as a media member has taught me, that’s not always the case.

Unfortunately, Harbaugh didn’t inherit a room full of professionals and choir boys when Brian Billick was fired. He inherited every problem Billick had and is doing the job for a third of the price and without nine years of experience dealing with it and trying to overcome it.

And Harbaugh is doing it pretty well if the only thing matters is the record: they’re 3-3, which is plenty good enough for me.

But the same problems that Billick dealt with differently or privately are now – as predicted here months ago –squarely onto the new rookie coach’s shoulders to address. The radio shows, the mudslinging, the “X” factor of off-the-field shenanigans along with Ray Lewis in his walk year thinking money, a rookie quarterback who’s learning as he goes, the various injuries, personnel issues, egos, etc. All the same crap that goes on in YOUR office, except that these guys aren’t as smart as they think they are, all are making a lot of money and are famous and every week a three-hour soap opera plays out on Sundays and you either win or lose.

And the city all talks about it (which is why they make the big bucks) and asks lots of questions, some of them a little “uncomfortable” for private matters such as human resources and employee behavioral issues.

And, as the coach, you have to answer for EVERYTHING. That’s the deal.

The NFL’s pretty straightforward like that. Win, and all is well. Lose, and well you’re where Mike Nolan or Brian Billick or Scott Linehan or Lane Kiffin are and where Marvin Lewis and some others might soon be.

Oh, and the owner is ALWAYS right. Just ask Al Davis or Dan Snyder or Jerry Jones.

The Ravens are 3-3 and playing decently for the most part, especially considering the injuries, rookie quarterback and lack of depth combined with aging players in key spots. I’m a HUGE Ravens fan. I’m perfectly pleased with where the team sits at this point. As a matter of fact, I’m more than mildly shocked that it’s gone this well.

Harbaugh has done a nice job by any measurement. The team is fun to watch, like a box of chocolates, Flacco is likeable, Ray Lewis is playing his ass off…it’s been a fun year so far!

So far, they’ve played five very good games and laid one turd. The turd just happened to be a road game in Indianapolis (and if you’re from Baltimore just the word “Indianapolis” has its own connotation) against the best player in the league in Peyton Manning. It happens. Many of the “good” teams in the league have gotten walloped already.

The team could easily be 5-1. But they’re not. They’re 3-3 and in decent shape to make a surprising playoff run over the next few weeks if they can beat some turd teams (Oakland, Cleveland and Houston). These are winnable games against current 2-4 teams. If they are going to go 10-6 and be a wild card, they’ll need to win at least two of these three. With the pending matchups against stronger NFC East teams at the end (not to mention Steelers and Jaguars), the wins must come now for any hope. The colder it gets the harder the schedule gets.

So it’s here where Harbaugh’s leadership is going to make or break the season. It’s not even Halloween but the cat’s out of the bag and the malcontents and loose-lipped rabble rousers are coming back to the forefront by saying and doing stupid things. Billick, essentially, was fired for this stuff happening (and the offensive woes, of course).

Chris McAlister not wanting to work out and/or practice and have the ability to run loose in Baltimore or miss meetings on road trips.

Terrell Suggs going on radio shows and throwing the starting quarterback under the bus.

Ray Lewis screaming for money. (We’re about 10 weeks away from that…trust me!)

It’s Harbaugh’s baby to deal with now, and despite the relative prosperity of 3-3, the baby is crying so to speak.

I think we’re all hard-pressed to believe that with Frank Walker and Fabian Washington as starters in the secondary for the remainder of the season, the Ravens will finish 10-6 and be a playoff team.  And we’re not at all hard-pressed to think that they’re not “outworking” or “outhustling” or “outstructuring” McAlister from Monday through Saturday.

McAlister is a pain in the ass to manage for them, no doubt, but he’s one of the most significant players in the organization. How do I know? Well, they’re paying him $8 million so I’m assuming they think he’s significant, too.

In my opinion, thus far Harbaugh has really botched this McAlister situation and continues to show his “green” side with every answer to the media. He seems as though answering these questions is a field of mines. And perhaps, if you keep changing your story every other day, it is.

Either Harbaugh’s getting bad advice or isn’t taking the good advice he’s been given. On Sunday after the game, it seemed like he didn’t even consider that the question was coming about McAlister when by the organization’s own admittance, he knew this was coming last Wednesday.

So, now four days later, we in the media have heard more conflicting stories, excuses, doubletalk and curious explanations to fill any reporter’s notebook (or fans’ water cooler) with head-scratchers.

If the Orioles gave answers like these – and they have before and apparently will continue to do so as well – I’d be laughing. Or writing these blogs of criticism/straightforwardness.

I don’t understand why there wasn’t just one story: the truth. And that is that McAlister is acting like a turd and isn’t doing what he’s supposed to be doing so he isn’t playing. Oh, and it’s a PRIVATE matter. He’s been bending team rules and we’re spanking him until he gets his act together.

There? Is that so hard? Some old-fashioned, “Hard Ass” love for the baller from Pasadena!

They didn’t fine him. Or suspend him. And they certainly didn’t want the NFLPA breathing down their necks like what’s happening in Cleveland with their resident talented malcontent, Kellen Winslow. (The league seems full of them, with PacMan Jones, Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens, etc…I guess if they “shut up and played” perhaps we’d have less interest?)

But I certainly can’t ignore what I’m hearing and seeing this week.

So far, we know:

* McAlister didn’t like Harbaugh’s practices in Westminster and there were reports of some words
* McAlister had a knee injury – or not – during training camp
* McAlister played pretty decently the first four weeks of the season (certainly nothing to think he was benched solely on “merit” for the first five games)
* McAlister allegedly missed a meeting in Indianapolis on Saturday, Oct. 11
* McAlister played “below par” in Indianapolis on Sunday, Oct. 12 (but so did the whole team)
* McAlister was told on he wouldn’t start in Miami on Wednesday, Oct. 15
* McAlister was inappropriately dressed (among other things) before the game in Miami on Sunday, Oct. 19
* McAlister played sparingly against the Dolphins on Sunday, Oct. 19

There are various other factors, rumors and pretty-well substantiated issues regarding McAlister’s off the field activities and work ethic. And the show he put on in the lobby of the team hotel with those three girls in front of $18 million dollars worth of corporate sponsors was biblical. Only a fool could be around the team a significant amount of time and not notice people’s whispers and gossip. It’s just a fact of life. His teammates have gone to media members (and each other) at various points for years with negative comments about him, his work ethic and chicanery.

He’s a super smart guy but a bit of a Lone Wolf. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with him (I actually kinda like him for the most part although I wouldn’t hire him to work for me) but I’ve known better than to ever count on him. I’ve enjoyed our conversations over the years because I think he’s so intelligent. And I’ve clearly known how other people feel about him. Most would just say he’s “unreliable” or “inconsistent.” But I wouldn’t say he’s a “bad person” at all. But some have questioned his character, for sure.

But the answers and the list of reasons the team has given to the media for him not being on the field on Sunday – not just me or WNST but the entire media position on this – has smelled like four-day old fish.

It’s more weird and kinda paranoid than anything I’ve seen recently and I’m kinda shocked that Harbaugh hasn’t been more transparent.

Geez, if they’re actually disciplining Chris McAlister for his off the field behavior there are many in the organization would say: “It’s about time!”

On Sunday, the question was: “Is Chris being disciplined?”

Harbaugh said:

“No (he was not being disciplined). Not at all. Chris has played well. I’ll tell you what, Chris has really worked hard this year to work through the knee. We’ve talked about the knee a lot. It hasn’t been a situation where it’s an injury but it is a knee that has had some wear and tear on it. And we think if we can manage the packages from here on out…It’s not a matter of starting or not starting it’s what packages we put him in where he can be most effective for us. Which helps his practice reps a little bit which keeps him as effective as he can be on Sunday because you’ve got to practice all week to be effective on Sunday. But we can’t overload that knee. Whatever package we’re in next week, he could be out there starting next week. And that’s what it really comes down to. We’re always going to put our best package on the field.”

Later, when pressed ever-so-gently by Brent Harris:

“Chris is a professional. Chris is always going to want his role to be expanded and there’s no reason to think that next week his role won’t be expanded. It’s going to be whatever Rex determines it’s gonna be as far as what’s best for our football team…Chris is a good example of what happened to our football team (after Indy loss)…Chris came back and had a great week of practice last week and there’s no reason he’s not going to have a good season this year.”

On Monday, he told WBAL this:

“I can’t speak to stuff in the past. I’ve had a chance to get to know Chris over these months that I’ve been here. Chris is a good person. We’ve got a really good relationship and I respect him a lot. As far as the dress for the bus it was wrong. It was a mistake. It’s been addressed.”

Being asked about playing vs. the Dolphins:

“He WAS playing last week. The term ‘benching’ I’m not sure exactly what that means. He was in our packages last week. We talked about it yesterday and it’s obvious and clear cut. You put the best 11 players out there for the package. We put the best players out there in the coverages . That’s what a football decision is.”

So, McAlister isn’t one of the best 11 players on the defense? C’mon, Harbs?

I just wish that Harbaugh would give me and you and everyone one story: the truth.

He’ll learn that the truth ALWAYS comes out and making the media “guess” or thinking we’re not going to ask questions (or that the fans won’t ask questions) about his $8 million a year franchise starting cornerback being on the field for eight plays in a pivotal road game is just foolish.

So, it’s kind of a “pick three” message from Harbs:

1.    (Miami Sunday) McAlister is injured, but he’s not really injured.  But it’s not a discipline issue. And he’s practiced and played really well. But he’s not one of our best 11 players.
2.    (WBAL Tuesday) He should’ve dressed better in Miami but I like him a lot. Rex Ryan made the decision. He wasn’t “benched” after starting for nine years in the league, but he only played eight plays.

Or, perhaps the truth:

3.    He’s not doing the stuff that we need him to do or living his life in a fashion that we agree with and it’s contributing to hurting our team overall even though he’s one of the most important guys on the team. We can’t have him acting like a jack ass any more. It’s hurting the team. And sitting his ass out ought to be a message to him – and the rest of the team — to shape up or ship out. The team comes first and we can (and will) win without him!

Or at least they’ll try to if they can’t get him to fall in line. Which is, I guess, where they are now. They’re going to try to win without him. Or not. But maybe that will change before Sunday, who knows?

This is Coach “Hard Ass” – and I say that as a compliment, in some respect — doing it HIS way. And, apparently, Rex Ryan is also at the heart of this decision.

Let’s see if it works.

Because, in the end, what he tells the media and the fans doesn’t have anything to do with whether they’re going to win football games over the next 10 weeks.

Or does it?

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