Football players can’t change much, but a coach sure can.
Can John Harbaugh change?
Those are all fair questions now as the Ravens are in the midst of only their second 3-game losing streak in Harbaugh’s outstanding 6-year run as Baltimore’s NFL coach.
First, let’s get this straight from the start: In and of itself, a 3-game losing streak is NOT a reason to panic. It’s NOT a reason to change the great things you’ve done. And it’s NOT incumbent upon one person to say, “I’ll fix this whole thing…”
That said, when you’ve been around for five-plus seasons, any significant bump in the road – and a 3-game losing streak, to a high-level franchise like the Ravens, is SIGNIFICANT – has to be looked at by the head coach as an opportunity to evaluate himself and his work.
I hope John is doing that today in Owings Mills.
Anyone who has read my work here or listened to my radio show knows what I think about John Harbaugh. For the record, again, I’ll simply say this: John is an outstanding football coach. He’s an equally outstanding “man”. He’s a champion. And, of course, he still has plenty to learn in his profession.
I’ve been around athletes for the last thirty years of my life and one thing I can say for sure is that players rarely change their own style. They can’t, really. They are what they are. If you’re a striker in professional soccer and you’re a right footed player with little or no ability to play left-footed, you’re always going to be a player that goes to his right and uses his right foot to pass or shoot the ball. The same goes for a basketball player who’s a “right sided” player. You’re going to your right, virtually every time, and that’s just the way it goes. You do what got you there, for lack of a better term. Football players are the same. Their style is their style. Some of that is predicated on things outside of their control — size and speed are two factors — but for the most part, a pro football player is going to use the tools that got him there in the first place.
Coaches are different.
They can change.
That doesn’t mean they have to undergo a wholesale change that comes across as “obviously phony”.
But, a coach who’s soft can develop a new, stronger edge and a coach that’s known to be a drill sergeant can soften his edges and learn to be more accomodating with his players. The most obvious NFL example of the latter is Tom Coughlin in New York, who has worked hard over the last five years to listen more and yell less. It’s worked, of course. He’s a 2-time Super Bowl champion and likely headed for the Hall of Fame someday.
I’d ask John Harbaugh to go through the same self-evaluation as Coughlin did five years ago.
I’m not TELLING John to change. That’s not the point of this.
I’m simply suggesting to the coach that now, season six of his tenure, might be the time to carefully evaluate his style to see if it still works with this group of players he has in Baltimore.
One thing I know for sure. If John Harbaugh thinks his style can be tweaked, improved or altered and doing so would help the team win, he’d surely consider doing it. Another thing I know without hesitation: No one on the football team or football staff wants to win more than Harbaugh. No one. He’d sell his mother to win a football game. And then he’d pay double to get her back afterwards. He wants to win, badly.
Then again, the players want to win, too. How you get them to win, though, is the challenge. As someone in the Ravens organization said to me last week, “We have an interesting collection of players. Some of the veterans need an ass-kicking and some don’t. Some of our young players get it and some of them don’t. Usually, the vets don’t need to be reminded to take every snap seriously and the kids do, but our locker room is a unique blend of guys, for some reason.”
One of those veteran players who needed an ass kicking got it last week. Michael Huff was sent packing after three months of showing little desire to do anything except pick up a paycheck. Marcus Spears was also let go, but that was much more about his degenerative knee condition limiting him, physically. Cornerback Asa Jackson returns this week after his 2nd run-in with the league’s Substance Abuse Policy. He’s on life number eight of his nine lives in Baltimore. Will he take advantage of it or will he fall from grace the way most people in Owings Mills assume he will?
And, how does John Harbaugh go about his own business now, dealing with a locker room that’s reeling with three straight losses and has both sides of the ball stinking it up at crucial times during the games? A fractured locker room is a bad locker room. Once the offense and defense start taking up sides, you’re in big trouble. I can only guess there’s an element of that existing right now at 1 Winning Drive, but that atmosphere likely exists in most locker rooms of 3-5 teams.
This, again, is on Harbaugh’s shoulders right now.
Is he working with a depleted roster, minus eleven critically important players from a season ago?
If you suddenly re-inserted these jerseys in the Ravens locker room, would the team be a lot better? Dennis Pitta, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Cary Williams, Brendon Ayanbedejo, Anquan Boldin, Matt Birk, Bryant McKinnie, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe.
Answer, of course: Yes.
But, that was then, this is now. Those guys are gone. And this new edition of Ravens football might not react to the head coach the way the championship team did a season ago.
Is John just going with his style because it’s his style or is willing to look at himself and say, “For this team, now, I might need to change the way I do things?”
More bible verses? Or less bible verses?
Harder practices? Lighter practices?
More hugs to the special team players…the fringe guys? Or less hugs and more questions like “Are you ever going to be good enough to start in this league?”
More critical analysis of his coaching staff? Longer days? Shorter days? More “come to Jesus” meetings with position coaches who see their own struggling game in and game out?
More thorough review of John’s own in-game style and strategy? More of a gambler? Less of a gambler?
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions and I’m not suggesting any, honestly.
I’m merely asking the coach if his style, the one that has made him a champion, is etched in stone and non-negotiable?
Or, like the truly GREAT coaches in all sports, can he re-invent himself and use his strengths to mold a new character that changes with the seasons and the players he leads?