Despite admittedly being a history buff, John Harbaugh was in no mood to reflect on the past less than 48 hours after the Ravens’ 30-17 first-round playoff win over Pittsburgh.
The seventh-year head coach tied Tom Landry and Tom Coughlin for the most road playoff wins (seven) in NFL history on Saturday as the Ravens matched the Green Bay Packers for the most postseason road victories (10) in league history. Harbaugh has guided Baltimore to at least one playoff win in six of his first seven seasons as well as a Super Bowl title and three conference championship appearances.
“It’s great after you do it, but it doesn’t mean much for the next game,” said Harbaugh when asked to reflect on his postseason achievements. “We’re excited about the challenge — looking forward to New England.”
With the Ravens defeating the Steelers in the playoffs for the first time in four tries, it would be difficult to deem this season as anything but a success regardless of what happens against the Patriots on Saturday. And with the well-documented adversity the Ravens have experienced from the Ray Rice saga to 19 players landing on season-ending injured reserve this season, a simple question must be asked.
Has this year been Harbaugh’s finest coaching job?
It’s tough to argue against his 2012 campaign in which the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII after changing offensive coordinators in the middle of December. And his 2008 debut season garners strong consideration after the Ravens had finished 5-11 the previous year and went all the way to the AFC Championship with a rookie quarterback named Joe Flacco starting all 16 games and also having 19 players on IR.
But the adversity has never been greater than it was this season as the Ravens dealt with off-field turmoil that brought the entire organization under fire as well as a plethora of injuries while maintaining an impressive level of focus en route to a 10-6 regular season. Countless players have credited Harbaugh’s encouragement and ability to keep the focus on the task at hand as major reasons why they’ve overcome so many trials.
“Just like any teacher, if you’re proud of anything, you’re proud of the accomplishments of your students,” Harbaugh said. “You’re proud of the fact that you’re associated with them and you get to be a part of their journey. That’s the most important thing for a coach or a teacher.”
Like any head coach, Harbaugh isn’t perfect as his in-game decision-making and clock management often come under scrutiny, but any suggestion that he has simply been along for the ride — a phrase his biggest critics have had the nerve to utter — is absurd after such an extended period of success. Many questioned the team’s leadership after the retirement of Ray Lewis and the departure of Ed Reed, but Saturday’s playoff win in Pittsburgh — something neither future Hall of Famer accomplished, mind you — suggests the Ravens continue to be in good hands moving forward.
Even if the former Philadelphia Eagles special teams coordinator lacks a perceived expertise on either side of the ball, he’s proven himself to be an excellent motivator and delegator, traits that a successful NFL head coach must have. Harbaugh has also done an exceptional job of assembling and restocking his coaching staff over the years with a few assistants moving on to become head coaches elsewhere.
Asked to react to longtime Cleveland sportswriter Tony Grossi’s proclamation over the weekend that the Ravens have the best overall coaching staff in the NFL, Harbaugh showed self-deprecating humor in his response that should also serve as a dig to his harshest detractors.
“Well, then I’ll try not to drag us down too much, you know?” said Harbaugh as he laughed. “Hopefully, they’ll carry me. We have a great staff. They do a great job.”
Harbaugh was unsure if his younger brother Jim would be accompanying the Ravens to Foxborough, but it was clear he was appreciative of the new University of Michigan head coach’s support in attending Saturday’s playoff game in Pittsburgh.
It had to be a surreal feeling for the former San Francisco 49ers head coach wearing Ravens gear less than two years after falling to them in the Super Bowl, but the older Harbaugh saw an extra perk with his brother being on the sideline.
“I told him, ‘That’s probably pretty good recruiting, you know?’” John Harbaugh said. “You tell those guys, ‘You want to play in the National Football League, come to Michigan.’ That’s a recruiting pitch, right?
“It was great to have him there, and it seemed like he enjoyed it. He was able to enjoy the environment. When you are coaching, you don’t really enjoy the environment that much. I saw him looking around up at the crowd and the players and interacting with guys, and that stuff was neat to see.”
Several Ravens players commented on how fresh defensive tackle Haloti Ngata appeared to be in his return on Saturday, but it was apparent that his head coach had no interest trying to glean any positive from his four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
“We don’t have the ‘fresh leg’ meter to give you an empirical answer to the question,” Harbaugh said. “I’ll just go with what the players saw. They probably have a pretty good eye for that.”
The five-time Pro Bowl selection Ngata played in 50 of 75 defensive snaps against the Steelers, finishing with two tackles, a sack, and a pass breakup in his first action since Nov. 30.