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Caught a break

The Baltimore Sun

Not that Jason Garrett isn't making enough money now, but the Ravens should send him a bonus. A thank-you for not taking the head coaching job. A token of appreciation for sparing the franchise a big potential headache and, possibly, for opening the door to a better candidate.

How much better a candidate John Harbaugh might be is not clear. He might not be any better at all, actually, because his track record, his path to one of the only 32 jobs like it on the planet, is nearly as sketchy as Garrett's is.

But the Ravens caught a break when Garrett maneuvered himself right into the position he coveted most - one with a head coach's salary, profile and visibility with none of the responsibility. A lot has been said, in the nearly three weeks since the Ravens began looking to replace Brian Billick, about what the Ravens don't need. A coach as manipulative and self-serving as Garrett proved himself to be should have been at the top of that list.

And a coach whose legend preceded him - but was miles ahead of his actual accomplishments - should have been next.

Now the Ravens have handed the reins to Harbaugh, and though it is not as big a gamble as Garrett's hiring would have been, it's still a gamble. Yes, one can cherry-pick the league's history and find coaches who have come from virtual anonymity and the lower reaches of someone's staff to win Super Bowls. But for every Chuck Noll and Joe Gibbs, there are 10 Chris Palmers and Marty Mornhinwegs. Coaches who rise from nowhere to scale the mountaintop are rare gems. Those who rise from nowhere and quickly return there are a dime a dozen.

In the Ravens' favor is that the last coach they hired was also a fast riser in the ranks, impressive over a short span and coveted by many despite little experience as a coordinator and none as a head coach at any level. That would be Billick. The Ravens have a good batting average, and not just because they haven't had many at-bats. They've earned the benefit of the doubt on this one.

They also could end up happier in the long run. It's up to Harbaugh to justify their faith in him, a 45-year-old coach who has never been a coordinator on offense or defense (although, to be fair, he held the title of special teams coordinator with the Eagles, not a position most teams grant), who has been in the league for 10 years, whose father and brother made careers out of the game and out of coaching, and who got excellent reviews from others in the NFL before, during and after his first interview at the Castle.

Harbaugh is in position to follow a grand tradition in this and many sports: proving that being something other than the first choice doesn't make him the wrong choice. Consider this: He is young but not as young as Garrett, 41. Harbaugh is lacking in experience, but not as much as was Garrett, who has been coaching in the NFL (and has been done with playing) for just three years.

And he became a hot commodity largely because of the mentorship and advocacy of one man, which is often how commodities get hot - because one prominent person champions them, and the league's copycat nature takes over. Harbaugh's big supporter was his head coach in Philly, Andy Reid.

That's preferable to Garrett's benefactor. If it weren't for Jerry Jones nurturing him for as long as he did, from the days Garrett was backing up Troy Aikman during the Super Bowl era, who knows whether Garrett's name would be on the minds of every owner and GM with an opening? And, while we're at it, who knew that once groomed for the top job, Garrett would then choose to remain on the hip of Jones and hold out for the one job, passing on all the rest, no matter how scarce they are?

Harbaugh needs a lot more going for him than the fact that he's not Jason Garrett. He reportedly blew them away at the Castle, positioning himself as the acceptable backup plan, assuring Steve Bisciotti, Ozzie Newsome and Dick Cass that they wouldn't be sorry if they had to go to him as their fallback.

Now Harbaugh has to prove himself, and them, correct. He'll have to deal with the legacy of success here, the quest to contend for a Super Bowl every year, despite the obvious roster flaws that contributed to Billick's departure. He has to prove that he's wise beyond his years. He has to prove that the team was justified in passing on an accomplished, deserving, popular in-house candidate in Rex Ryan.

Eventually, when Garrett gets the head coaching job he staked his reputation to get, Harbaugh will have to prove that he's the better man then, too.

That might not be as hard as you think. Just because he came in behind Garrett doesn't mean he'll stay behind him.


Listen to David Steele at 9 a.m. Tuesdays on WNST (1570 AM).

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