When John Harbaugh exited Paul Brown Stadium a year ago, about an hour removed from a season-ending loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, he turned the page on what some around the team said they believed was one of his best coaching jobs.
Three seasons after Harbaugh guided his team to a victory in Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens went 5-11. But the hard-driving head coach kept the team together and in virtually every game despite a hellacious wave of injuries to top players, and an alarming lack of talent and depth at key positions. So appreciative of how Harbaugh supported the players, veteran leader Marshal Yanda addressed his coach after one practice late last season and thanked him in front of the rest of the team.
Harbaugh and the Ravens are back in Cincinnati on Sunday and are again playing out the string on their third nonplayoff season in the past four years. At 8-7, they have three more wins than they did at this time last season, and were nine seconds and maybe one yard away from defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers last week for a chance to secure the AFC North title with a win over the Bengals.
Yet, the scrutiny on their ninth-year coach, regarded by many around the league as one of the NFL's best, is as high as it has been in years. His aggressive in-game decisions earlier this season backfired on a few occasions. His inability to fix a static offense, or find somebody who can, is viewed as a blemish on his otherwise strong coaching record. The Ravens have been one of the league's most penalized teams and have blown second-half leads in five of their seven losses.
A growing group of frustrated and vocal fans have even begun to call for the Ravens to move on from Harbaugh after the season, although such a move appears highly unlikely.
"I don't think there's anybody in this locker room or in this building that feels like his job is in jeopardy," Ravens veteran tight end Dennis Pitta said. "We understand the things that we've been able to accomplish with him and under him. We feel like he's definitely a great coach and the guy for the job. Any talk otherwise is kind of crazy in our minds."
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti hasn't given any public assurance that Harbaugh will be back next season, but that's not his way and there has been no indication the head coach's job is in jeopardy. Harbaugh had a year added to his deal last offseason, meaning he's under contract through 2018.
Bisciotti, who doesn't speak to the media during the season, is scheduled to talk about a week after the year ends at the annual State of the Ravens address. General manager Ozzie Newsome, team president Dick Cass and Harbaugh are expected to join him at the front of the auditorium that day.
The four men were instrumental in building an organization and a roster that went to the playoffs in each of Harbaugh's first five seasons, starting in 2008, and won the franchise's second Super Bowl at the of the 2012 campaign. However, in four seasons since, the Ravens have a 31-32 record, have been to the playoffs just once and have yet to win another AFC North crown.
Why coaches get fired
Bisciotti and Harbaugh have strong convictions and they're not afraid to challenge one another, but they maintain a solid working relationship by all accounts. Bisciotti has shown his support for the head coach by adding a year onto his contract after each of Harbaugh's two nonwinning years.
Bisciotti, though, has made it clear on several occasions that his patience is not unlimited. That was evident in his parting with former coach Brian Billick after a 2007 season in which the Ravens went 5-11. Billick was a year removed from guiding the Ravens to a 13-3 mark and signing a four-year contract extension, and seven years removed from helping the organization win its first Super Bowl.
In his final four seasons before being fired, Billick was 33-31, slightly better than Harbaugh's record during that same time period. Both obviously faced different circumstances and challenges.
"There's a constant evolution of the team. From the energy point of view and from the creativity point of view, that's what you have to watch from a coach," former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. "Why didn't you succeed? How much of it was injuries? How much was it that the personnel isn't good? How much of it is coaching? You have to look at all those things. The record to me sometimes is inconsequential because how did you get there? How you got there is what's going to sustain you going forward."
Casserly, now an analyst for NFL Network, praised the job Harbaugh has done and attributed the Ravens' recent struggles to a flawed roster, which lacks a No. 1 receiver and standout pass rusher in their primes. If Harbaugh were available, Casserly predicted he would have another head coaching job "before he got home."
Harbaugh's teams have consistently been well-prepared and competitive even when injuries have hit. Six of their seven losses this year have been by eight points or fewer. Nine of their 11 losses last season were decided by one possession. Even Harbaugh's most ardent critic would have a hard time finding instances when the Ravens looked disinterested or defeated.
"Coaches coach, players play and players have to get better," Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. "The coaches have prepared us each week, especially Coach Harbaugh. He's one of the best in this league, in my opinion. He's honest, he's genuine, he's loyal. He wants everyone to do good."
However, the Ravens are always in close games because they've struggled to consistently put together a full 60-minute performance. The defense has faltered late in games with last week's devastating loss to the Steelers serving as the latest example, and the offense has struggled throughout.
Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator Marc Trestman after a Week 5 loss to the Washington Redskins and replaced him with Marty Mornhinweg. But some of the same problems the team had under Trestman — a lack of big plays, an abandonment of the run, spotty fundamentals by quarterback Joe Flacco — have persisted.
Mornhinweg is the Ravens' fifth offensive coordinator in as many seasons and the Ravens will likely be searching for another one this offseason. While Harbaugh can't be faulted for the departures of Jim Caldwell and Gary Kubiak for head-coaching jobs, the lack of offensive stability and consistency has been a constant in recent years. However, Flacco said it's unfair to blame that on Harbaugh.
"We're all in this together," Flacco said. "It's a tough time right now. It's our job as football players to be tough in these situations and to get through them. Obviously, we're going to be disappointed for a whole offseason, but we definitely have a positive mindset."
Shelf life of a coach
Late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis said the shelf life of an NFL head coach in one place was about 10 years. He concluded that was long enough until the coach's message grew stale and players stopped responding. He moved on from legendary coaches John Madden and Tom Flores after 10 and nine years, respectively.
Harbaugh will be entering his 10th season with the Ravens next season and he'll become the longest-tenured head coach in franchise history. Only five NFL coaches have been in their current jobs longer than Harbaugh.
"We're building something here that's going to come to fruition," Weddle said. "It didn't happen this year, but you can see the progress. We just came up a little short."
Weddle said he has seen some of the outside speculation about Harbaugh's status, including one story in the Los Angeles Times that discussed the possibility of the Rams trying to trade for Harbaugh. He said Harbaugh leaving has "never crossed my mind or anyone's mind."
The focus of Harbaugh, meanwhile, is on beating the Bengals on Sunday and trying to fix the problems that have kept the Ravens out of the playoffs far more often in recent seasons than anybody in the organization is accustomed to.
Asked Friday what's on his list of New Year's resolutions, Harbaugh said, "Win more games — a lot more."
Staying a while
John Harbaugh, who has been at the Ravens' helm since 2008, is the sixth-longest-tenured head coach in the NFL. With the Ravens missing the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, there have been some questions about his future.
Coach, team; Seasons; Record; *Playoff appearances; Playoff wins; Super Bowls;
Bill Belichick, Patriots; 17; 200-71; 14; 22; 4;
Marvin Lewis, Bengals; 14; 117-103-3; 7; 0; 0;
Mike McCarthy, Packers; 11; 113-61-1; 8; 8; 1;
Mike Tomlin, Steelers; 10; 102-57; 7; 6; 1;
John Harbaugh, Ravens; 9; 85-58; 6; 10; 1;
Ron Rivera, Panthers; 6; 53-41-1; 3; 3; 0;
Note: *- Includes this season. McCarthy's Packers will return to the playoffs with a win Sunday.
John Harbaugh was atop the NFL coaching profession when he guided the Ravens to a Super Bowl XLVII victory after the 2012 regular season. However, maintaining that success has been a challenge. Below are the team's numbers since the Super Bowl compared to its AFC North foes:
Reg. season record; Playoff appearances; Playoff record; AFC North titles;
Steelers; 39-24; 3; 1-2; 2;
Bengals; 38-23-2; 3; 0-3; 2;
Ravens: 31-32; 1; 1-1; 0;
Browns; 15-48; 0; 0-0; 0;