John Harbaugh was exactly the leader the Ravens needed

If you follow the Ravens at all, you know this was the season John Harbaugh pushed all the right buttons — and pushed himself into the top tier of NFL head coaches, too.

Wonder why so many of these guys burn out? Think about all the challenges Harbaugh faced in his fifth year running this team. Every NFL season is an emotional rollercoaster. But the ride Harbaugh and the Ravens took to their Super Bowl win was as exhausting and as exhilarating as any in recent memory.


It started around the April draft when the Ravens learned that Terrell Suggs, their best pass rusher and the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, had torn his Achilles tendon.

Sure, the big linebacker blustered about coming back as early as October or November. And eventually he made good on that. But at the time, the Ravens had no way of knowing he'd return.

Conventional medical thinking was this: it took a full year to rehab a torn Achilles — even if you were Superman. And now the Ravens were looking at a killer schedule without their best defensive player.

But Harbaugh handled it well. He didn't downplay the loss of Suggs — that would have been insane. But he didn't go all wobbly in the face of it, either.

Instead, he stayed relentlessly positive and the Ravens dusted off their famous "next man up" mantra. Veteran Paul Kruger and rookie Courtney Upshaw got the bulk of the work at Suggs' rush linebacker spot — with varying degrees of success early — and the Ravens got on with the business of getting to the Super Bowl.

Six games into the season, though, the Ravens were slapped with more bad news.

In a narrow 31-29 win over the Dallas Cowboys in mid-October, Lardarius Webb tore his ACL and Ray Lewis tore his triceps.

Just like that, the Ravens' best cover corner was lost for the year. So, apparently, was their great inside linebacker and spiritual leader.

The Ravens were 5-1. But now it was a defense with no Suggs, no Webb, no Lewis, a banged-up Haloti Ngata and an Ed Reed well past his prime, nursing lingering back and neck issues.

But Harbaugh stayed calm and helped his team keep its focus, even as the pundits predicted doom.

Suggs stole a line from Muhammad Ali and said he "shocked the world" by coming back Oct. 21 in an ugly Ravens' road loss to the Houston Texans. But his presence was a shot in the arm for the entire team and the Ravens reeled off four wins in a row after that to go 9-2.

Two losses in a row — to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins — had the radio talk shows and message boards lighting up and Ravens' fans howling. At The Castle, there was a palpable air of concern, too, despite the Ravens' brave talk at the time.

But it was at this point that Harbaugh made one of his best moves of the season.

After that 31-28 overtime loss to the Redskins, he made the painful decision to fire his offensive coordinator and long-time friend, Cam Cameron, tapping quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell to take Cameron's place.


It was a gutsy thing to do. Who fires a coordinator that late in the season? But Harbaugh felt it had to be done. The offense was stagnant, not nearly ready for a deep run in the playoffs, never mind a spot in the Super Bowl.

The move didn't pay off immediately — the Ravens' lost 34-17 to the Denver Broncos the following week. But a 33-14 rout of the New York Giants signaled that Caldwell was getting comfortable in his new role. And by the time the playoffs rolled around, the offense was playing with a balance and a swagger Ravens fans hadn't seen in a long time.

Just as gutsy was Harbaugh's decision to put Bryant McKinnie back at left tackle in Week 17 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

McKinnie, overweight, out of shape and battling nagging injuries, had seemingly taken up permanent residence in Harbaugh's doghouse.

But after McKinnie requested a clear-the-air meeting with his coach and proved he could be effective again, Harbaugh shuffled three-fifths of the offensive line to get the big man back in the starting lineup.

Who gives their offensive line line a nearly complete make-over going into the playoffs? But the move immediately stabilized the line, and the protection for Joe Flacco was outstanding the rest of the way.

Give Harbaugh credit: he coached his tail off this season. And he held this team together through a ton of adversity.

"It was a masterful job," owner Steve Bisciotti said at the recent "State of the Ravens" news conference.

Yes, it was.

I don't want to make Harbaugh sound like Winston Churchill here. But in some of the Ravens' darkest hours, he was exactly the leader they needed.


Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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