In the fourth quarter of the Ravens' Week 1 victory over the Steelers, there was a moment I'm not sure any of us could have imagined, or even fathomed, a year ago.
Baltimore was putting the finishing touches on a therapeutic beat down of its archrival, and "Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes was thumping over the stadium speakers. Typically, when sports teams adopt pop songs as their unofficial anthem, it's a little embarrassing. (My ears are still bleeding from the year the Mets decided to blare "Who Let The Dogs Out?" after every victory, a decision made infinitely worse when they decided to replace the word "dogs" with "Mets.")
But "Seven Nation Army," which was released in 2003, might contain the greatest underlying riff since Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean." Whenever I hear it, I cannot resist bobbing my head to the rhythm of Meg White's simple but effective drum beat. Jack White is a musical genius, but I'm not sure he'll ever make music as raw and as real as he did with his ex-wife Meg.
It turns out that I have a kindred spirit in John Harbaugh, because during a timeout, while I was busy drumming on my notebook with a pen, I looked up and realized the Ravens' head coach was caught up in the moment as well. He was waving his arms, bobbing his head and imploring the thousands of Ravens fans to get on their feet and let loose a primal roar. In four years, we'd never seen anything like that from Harbaugh. This is a man who typically stalks the sidelines with the seriousness of a police officer walking his beat in East Baltimore. But for one moment, he lowered his shield and made an appeal to 71,000 Ravens fans to celebrate what they were seeing on the field.
The crowd, of course, went bonkers. And as the guitar riff of "Seven Nation Army" faded out, and the roar and the blowout continued, I couldn't help but wonder if maybe that was the moment Ravens fans finally fully embraced Harbaugh as one of their own.
For a coach who has been nothing but successful since he arrived in 2008, Harbaugh hasn't exactly engendered a ton of warmth from the Ravens' fan base. Maybe getting to the AFC Championship game in his first season with a rookie quarterback set unrealistic expectations, but I think it's fair to say Harbaugh has received far more criticism than you'd expect, considering he's guided his team to the playoffs three straight years.
You started to hear the grumbling during his second season, in 2009, when fans blamed him for the Ravens' lack of discipline, for his loyalty to Cam Cameron, and for Greg Mattison's vanilla defense. He's too corporate, went the talk radio caller refrain. He's just a special teams coach, claimed the message board experts. He doesn't realize we don't want to hear him talk about how hard the team played after a deflating loss to the Steelers or Patriots, argued the fan at the end of the bar.
Meanwhile, all Harbaugh and his staff did was work hard and win more games than they lost.
The fan frustration seemed to reach a bizarre fever pitch last year when he momentarily lost his cool on his radio show and told a surly fan, who had just suggested defensive line coach Clarence Brooks be fired, that he was welcome to root for another team. Harbaugh said later his comment was intended specifically at that caller, but damage was done. Fans erupted in frustration, lighting up Ravens blogs and message boards and ranting on the radio about how insulted and angry they were. Maybe Harbaugh wasn't the problem, the loudest critics conceded, but he was far too loyal to his staff.
The grumbles were so loud, I had to sheepishly pull Harbaugh aside in the hallway after practice one day after a narrow win over the Texans -- the Ravens blew a big second-half lead -- and ask him how he felt about the fact that the entire town seemed to be calling for Cameron's and Mattison's heads. (The Ravens, by the way, were 9-4 at that point.) Harbaugh took off his hat, leaned against the wall and rubbed his forehead. He looked like he hadn't slept in days.
He and I both seemed to realize how absurd it was that I was essentially asking him to defend a team that was clearly headed to the playoffs for the third straight year, but the fact that Harbaugh wasn't defensive or angry when answering my questions showed just how aware he was of the mounting fan frustration.
The Ravens beat New Orleans that week, and the frustration abated. But it returned when the Ravens blew another fourth-quarter lead to the Steelers in the regular season, and then again in the playoffs. When owner Steve Bisciotti gave Harbaugh a three-year contract extension, fans certainly weren't upset, but you didn't sense a celebration, either. No matter how foolish that may have sound -- who wouldn't want to extend a coach with three playoff berths under his belt in three seasons? -- it was the reality.
It's probably true that, when you try to gauge fan opinion, the vocal minority always has more weight attached to their voice than they probably deserve. But I think it's fair to say, through three years, that Harbaugh was the target of far more criticism than most successful coaches.
Sunday's win over the Steelers, however, seemed like a validation of all Harbaugh's off-season decisions. When 2010 ended, he came out immediately and said he was keeping Cameron as his offensive coordinator, and in Week 1, the Ravens offense looked better than ever.
He promoted Chuck Pagano to run his defense, and it looked as aggressive and fast as it has in years.
When 2010 ended, Harbaugh stated -- in a very public way -- that he wanted to be more involved in the process of building the team the Ravens put on the field every Sunday. And while it was ultimately Ozzie Newsome's decision to release Derrick Mason, Toddy Heap, Kelly Gregg and Willis McGahee, it's easy to imagine Harbaugh being completely on board with the decision to get younger and faster. Even if he wasn't, and even if he privately fought it, he and his staff deserve credit for getting players like Ed Dickson and Cary Williams ready to step in and play at a high level.
"As a coach, you are always greedy," Harbaugh said. "I want them all. As a coach, you want the older guys and you want the younger guys. You want to build as much depth into the whole thing as you can, and the financial reality is that it just can’t work that way. Then you have to take a step back, become a business man, look at the bottom line, look at the spreadsheet and say, ‘OK, what combination of players and dollars and cents gives you a chance to put the best football team out there.’ I think that is a collaborative effort with Ozzie, Steve [Bisciotti] and with [vice president of football administration] Pat [Moriarty] and with [director of player personnel] Eric [DeCosta] and [director of pro personnel] Vince [Newsome]. Everybody that is involved in that.”
It's just one game, of course. The whole town is probably guilty of getting swept up in the emotions of the Ravens' victory over the Steelers. This team won't go 19-0, and when they do lose, the critics will likely resurface.
But the image of Harbaugh energizing the crowd in Week 1 with The White Stripes blaring -- while the Steelers licked their wounds -- is going to stick with me for awhile.
"To me, it’s a fun stadium, you know?" Harbaugh said. "I guess, you want the fans to continue to grow that way. We’re here to have a great time, man. So, if we get some good music and we get some good football and the fans get into it, the players and coaches love that. ... I’m inviting the fans to do that, so that’s what it was all about. They were pretty willing; we have great fans. It was awesome.”
Maybe this is the team Ravens fans have been waiting for. Maybe this is the year Baltimore finally embraces Harbaugh as a man in full.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun