The Ravens didn’t need to win Sunday’s game, evident by the decision to sit MVP favorite Lamar Jackson and five other Pro Bowl selections after clinching the AFC’s No. 1 seed the previous week.
Sure, finishing a franchise-best 14-2 regular season, extending their team-record winning streak to 12 games, setting a few more records, and knocking AFC North rival Pittsburgh out of playoff contention were attractive carrots before the first-round bye, but none of those feats improved their chances of winning the Super Bowl, the ultimate goal for the best team in football. Sunday could have amounted to nothing more than three hours of holding your breath hoping Baltimore wouldn’t sustain any injuries that would harm a playoff run, and such a mindset would have been perfectly understandable.
But the 45 players who took part in Sunday’s game didn’t see it that way, perhaps the best testament yet to the culture overseen by head coach John Harbaugh — one that began being shaped years ago.
It would have been easy to coast in a game of no tangible consequence. Established veterans who did play could have taken exception to not being anointed as someone valuable enough to hold out. Young players could have lacked focus seeing Jackson and other veteran leaders in street clothes.
The Ravens not only won, but they flattened a Steelers team that had everything to play for. To perform in such a way without several of their best players should serve as an emphatic period for Harbaugh winning the NFL Coach of the Year award for the first time — in case you needed more convincing.
However, a look at recent award winners suggests Harbaugh probably isn’t the slam-dunk choice he should be with voters. The award is often bestowed on the coach who oversaw the most improvement in the win-loss department from the previous season — usually a difficult one — or who endured a degree of adversity that shapes a compelling narrative. How else do you explain Bill Belichick winning only three times in his two decades in New England?
On the surface, the Ravens’ four-game improvement in the win department from last year pales in comparison to Kyle Shanahan and San Francisco going from a 4-12 record in 2018 to a 13-3 mark and the top seed in the NFC. Baltimore lost several key veterans in the offseason, dealt with its share of injuries early on, and looked quite mortal after back-to-back losses in September to fall to 2-2, but Sean Payton navigating Drew Brees’ six-game absence and other injuries to a 13-3 record for New Orleans makes for a more compelling story.
Shanahan and Payton are two of several candidates worthy of consideration, but anyone trying to shortchange Harbaugh’s case on the grounds that he has the best team in the league, the overwhelming MVP favorite, 12 Pro Bowl selections, two coveted coordinators, and a highly respected front office is to ignore the process that brought Baltimore to this point as one of the best regular-season teams we’ve seen over the last three decades.
Even if you want to chalk up Jackson’s transcendent play to other teams simply being blind to his upside and impressive drive to be great, Harbaugh and the Ravens embraced his unique skills, promoted Greg Roman to offensive coordinator, and rebuilt their offensive system from the ground up this offseason to cater to his strengths even after a surprising 6-1 finish and trip to the playoffs last year. After Harbaugh spoke of an offensive revolution that drew plenty of skepticism this offseason, Baltimore rewrote the franchise record book, set a new NFL single-season rushing mark, and became the first team in league history to average more than 200 passing yards and 200 rushing yards per game. The Ravens used play fakes and pre-snap movement better than anyone in the league to put additional pressure on a defense already trying to account for what could be the greatest rushing quarterback in NFL history who also showed substantial improvement with his accuracy this season.
“John is the one who really orchestrated the vision for this offense and kind of set us on our way to do it and painted the perimeters and painted a picture of what he wanted it to look like and let us do our job,” said Roman, who’s now drawing interesting as a potential head coach elsewhere. “That speaks highly of a leader. But really, the three years I’ve been here, it’s all about football. It’s all about getting better, and that serves us all. We don’t waste time.”
Harbaugh also doesn’t waste in-game opportunity, which is why the football analytics community continues to praise the Ravens coach for his grasp of win probability and leverage on fourth downs in an age when so many coaches are still more concerned with merely prolonging the game or keeping the score respectable with conservative decisions rather than giving their teams the best chance to win.
It isn’t just about redefining offense in the NFL or going for it on fourth-and-short in their own territory, however. For years, Harbaugh has consulted with a leadership council of veterans to monitor potential issues in the locker room or to simply gauge when it might be time to take the foot off the gas for a given practice. Sometimes it’s a gesture as simple as allowing players to play music in the pre-game locker room to ease anxiety or to invite the families of coaches and players to spend time at the training facility.
This all goes into the culture that’s been shaped for years and has gone to new heights with the transcendent Jackson leading the way on the field. You don’t absorb as many newcomers on defense as seamlessly as the Ravens did in the middle of the season without talented coaches and a healthy locker room to make it work and to reap the rewards for a defense that’s become a very worthy partner to a record-setting offense.
Such an environment helps explain why the Ravens played with such tenacity in a game that didn’t mean much for their ultimate goal. Many within the organization have had important roles in creating that atmosphere over the years, but Harbaugh’s day-to-day vision has put the Ravens in position to do something special in 2019 with more to come in the new year.
“I wasn’t afraid to talk about this in March or April or May or June or July or August or September, and we got laughed at quite a bit, you know?” Harbaugh said. “But that’s OK. If they aren’t laughing at you, your dreams aren’t big enough. We’ve got big dreams, big goals, big ambitions, big faith, ‘big truss,’ alright? That was not planned either.
“We’re not afraid to step out there and speak from the heart on those kinds of things.”
That mindset and the success that’s followed make Harbaugh the right choice for NFL Coach of the Year, whether voters ultimately see it that way or not.