John Harbaugh – When A Great Coach Is Greatly Flawed

News just broke today that Marlon Humphrey will miss at least a month rehabbing foot surgery from what has been described as “a lingering issue”.

With this news, Humphrey now joins nearly the entire depth chart at cornerback in the training room. If you’re a Baltimore Ravens fan this should sound familiar because it happens nearly every off-season to this position group.

I mean at the end of the day it’s an ongoing issue for the entire team which repeatedly deals with strings of serious injuries, to key players, either before or during the season.

At some point, it has to be fair to wonder if it’s the fault of decisions being made at the top and there is no doubt that the top is John Harbaugh.

Two Things Can Be True At Once

I’m not saying that John Harbaugh is a bad coach. In fact I think he’s proven to be, at times not just a good, but a great coach. I never hear the hype that he’s a Hall of Fame coach, but if I had a vote he’d get it. He’s a Super Bowl champ, a Coach of the Year, and has great overall winning percentages both regular and post-season.

However, two things can be true at once. That’s actually one of my favorite sayings. It perfectly describes anomalies in the complicated world we live in. Where good people can do bad things, or good things can have bad consequences… like eating too much chocolate, a vice I know too well.

So I believe that for as great of a coach Harbs can be, he also has some tendencies that hold the team back from the level of success that they should be capable of. There’s several reasons I believe this to be the case. In this article I’ll name just two that I think have flown under the radar both nationally and amongst the local fanbase.

Harbaugh’s Loyalty to Bad Ideas & It’s Impact On Injuries

To me this has been at the top of my list of grievances with Harbaugh for a long time. Fostered by decisions like not firing Strength & Conditioning Coach Steve Saunders who clearly overworked the team consistently and eroded the bodies of the athletes he was hired to keep healthy.

John Harbaugh was so irrationally loyal to Saunders that he didn’t relieve him of his duties despite him being responsible for a covid outbreak in 2020 that cost the team games. He also ignored the fact that under Saunders watch the Ravens have been the NFL’s most injured team but possibly worst of all he ignored his players, who we now know had been privately expressing serious issues with Saunders and were begging for a change. Former Raven Derrick Wolfe holds Saunders personally responsible for ending his career by pushing him to overwork himself while he was suffering from a serious hip injury.

For more proof of how serious this issue was, one only needs to point to Saunders own comments on a recent podcast where he quoted Harbaugh as not listening to players who thought Steve’s workouts were too tough. Saunders remarks that John wasn’t too keen to believe his players, because Harbaugh himself was trained by Saunders and believed that if he could handle the intensity of the workouts then the players should be able to as well.

Ultimately, it’s a case of it’s not too hard, you’re just too soft. To me that’s offensive and ridiculous. The shape that Harbaugh is in at his age to go through an NFL workout is incredible but he isn’t taking the field Thursday, Sunday or Monday and subjecting himself to hits that cause physical damage often compared to repeated car accidents.

Clearly, the players knew their bodies and they took the opportunity to make it known that they didn’t appreciate their treatment by giving the Ravens organization with the worst ranking of all 32 teams in the Strength and conditioning category in an NFLPA survey of league conditions. Not to mention the tweet storm by former players like Matt Judon and current player Rashod Bateman.

Unfortunately, judging by this off-season so far, I’m not sure much has changed. I can only hope it’s a coincidence this time and not a result of the fact that the new coach has been with the team the last five years and may be studying the same practices. Hope is all I have.

Lack of Offensive Vision

Then there’s the teams repeated issue with the offensive side of the ball in the Harbaugh era. For a coach that is so good, and have done such a good job motivating his team and navigated through (self inflicted) injury issues, John Harbaugh clearly has no idea what makes offense good or bad. I’m not sure what his offensive philosophy is or what he truly wants to accomplish on offense as a coach.

I know that his coach speak is consistent in one area which is the focus on toughness. However in reality that’s his goal for every position and every facet of the team. He once said that he wants defenses to have to guard every blade of grass on the field. That to beat the Ravens a defense needs to be prepared to be stretched sideline to sideline as well as vertically.

We also not that Harbaugh would like to sustain the only offensive identity the Ravens have ever had, which is a strong running game. One just has to wonder how often Harbaugh purposely buries his head in the sand, forcing himself not to see how much the league has changed. I often wonder, how it can be that a team that studies so hard and puts so much resources into the defensive side of the ball, consistently finding ways to attack offense, doesn’t have a better vision of offensive football.

For example, how does a team that ran the Cover Zero blitz as much as did in 2021 under then Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale, not have the answers on how to beat that defense? Which they showed they had no answer for in an embarrassing loss to the Miami Dolphins that year that ran the coverage the most times in NFL history. Seriously, you have to know how an offense can beat Cover Zero before having the confidence to run it, the offense must practice against it, if you run it so much and yet they have no answer for it.

Things like this often make me assume, that the approach on offense is often so nonsensical that it must be negligence if not purely purposeful. It makes one wonder how he could suffer from the Greg Roman era, specifically from 2020 – 2022 and even remotely think that goal was being accomplished.

This highlights one of the core issues with Harbs. He is loyal to an absolute fault, and practically unwavering in the eye of criticism no matter how clear it is to everyone that a philosophy, or personnel needs to change. This has led to several offensive coordinators being employed at least a year longer than they should. If you want an example of how bad his coordinator hires have been? Consider that the majority were never offensive coordinators in the NFL again.

Lets go over them. First is Cam Cameron, never coached another down of NFL offense. His next coordinator and one of the few good ones, Jim Caldwell became head coach of the Colts. He was followed by Gary Kubiak, possibly the best coordinator the team ever had but he came at a time when Harbaugh was wrestling for unchecked control in the organization and it’s been highly publicized he didn’t want Kubiak in Baltimore. The relationship would be short lived as Kubiak would move on to the Vikings.

His next two hires were comically bad. Marc Trestman was supposed to help bridge the Kubiak system and the “Ravens Offense”, as Harbaugh often called it, to whatever wonky vision John had which appeared to be more focus on a West Coast-style short passing game. The result was a passing offense that poorly fit then-quarterback Joe Flacco. Once Trestman was finally fired he left Baltimore as possibly an even worse coordinator than Matt Cavanaugh, the architect of the horrible Brian Billick era offenses. Of course, he was never an NFL Offensive Coordinator again.

Also, a side note, I’m all but certain that the power struggle that was Gary Kubiak’s attempt to totally revamp the zombie of the Cam Cameron offense the team was running and Trestman’s attempts to appease Harbaugh by making it a more traditional West Coast system is what lead to the mess that is currently being scrapped by Todd Monken.

Trestman was succeeded by Greg Roman, possibly the man who accomplished the most with Baltimore offense ever, but simultaneously found a way to accomplish very little and divide the fanbase like never before. As a Ravens fan you either believe Roman ran the only system that Lamar Jackson could effectively run, or he held back the entire offense with his extremely complex running game that lacked any creativity or even basic concepts for the passing game. No matter which of these you believe, all Ravens basically agree on one thing… John Harbaugh kept Greg Roman employed at least two years longer than he should have.

As of this writing Greg Roman is not an offensive coordinator for any team, meaning he joins Cam Cameron, Marc Trestman and Marty Mornhinweg on the list of former Ravens coordinators that never held a significant offensive coaching job in the NFL again after their tenure in Baltimore. That’s four out seven coaches (57 percent!) that were never given a second chance at NFL play calling after stops in Baltimore under Harbaugh.

Conclusion

So what is the point? Well as I said in my intro I’m not saying that John Harbaugh isn’t a good NFL coach. I’m not saying that he doesn’t deserve to be in his position. I’m saying that the injuries and overall underachieving of this team is something that is solely on him, his decision making and how that favors loyalty to people and ideas that are showing clear signs of not working. Ultimately, I think it all adds up to a potentially Hall of Fame coach that may never be named amongst the greats because of his own tendency to self sabotage. I can only hope as a Ravens fan that new Strength and Conditioning Coach Scott Elliot and new Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken can prove me wrong and if not, one must wonder when owner Steve Biscotti’s loyalty will finally run out.

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