It is the unwritten rule that almost everyone seems to accept as fact: If John Harbaugh’s Ravens do not make the playoffs, he will be fired as head coach.
That might be true, but with a caveat: If the Ravens get into the playoffs and lose ugly in the first round, Harbaugh could be fired, too.
That makes more sense.
A similar scenario played out last season when the Tennessee Titans lost in the divisional round to the New England Patriots and head coach Mike Mularkey was replaced by Mike Vrabel.
Of course, the conditions were different. Mularkey was completing his third season with the Titans and Harbaugh is in his 11th with the Ravens, but both owners want to see improvement from year to year.
And that’s the problem so far with the 2018 Ravens. They have improved from a year ago, but it’s not significant. In fact, it’s the same act from the past couple of years, where the Ravens play and beat the average and poor teams but lose to the top contenders and fail to make the playoffs.
We’re here again.
The Ravens have won four of their past five against bottom-feeding teams such as the Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to climb back into playoff contention. But in that stretch, they lost in overtime to the 11-3 Kanas City Chiefs.
Next up are the touted Los Angeles Chargers (11-3) before the Ravens close out the regular season against the stubborn and competitive Cleveland Browns (6-7-1). Maybe the Ravens will dominate both teams and then go on a run deep into the playoffs.
If that happens, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti might offer Harbaugh a two- or three-year extension. Certainly Bisciotti doesn’t want to burn himself like he did in 2007 when he signed former Ravens head coach Brian Billick to a four-year deal. Bisciotti fired Billick one year later and had to pay off the $15 million remaining on the contract.
A long-term deal with Harbaugh would be risky, as it would be for any NFL head coach who has been in the same place for 11 years. Coaches’ messages, philosophies and mannerisms become stale.
Plus, Harbaugh didn’t like it at the end of last season when Bisciotti said he thought about firing him. He felt slighted and unsupported. Regardless of what happens, Harbaugh might feel it’s his time to move on and not honor the last remaining year of his contract.
The real question, though, is if this team has gotten any better through this season or is still stuck in the quagmire of NFL mediocrity?
There are some who suggest this is Harbaugh’s best coaching effort, even better than 2012 when he led the Ravens to the Super Bowl XLVII title. They have the league’s No. 1 defense and have restructured the offense around rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has started the past five games, winning four.
That it’s one of his best coaching jobs is true to some degree, and Harbaugh and his staff deserve credit for converting from a passing offense to a running one. But let’s be honest. The Ravens were forced to make the move because of the injury to veteran starter Joe Flacco, not because the brain trust came up with a new innovation.
Harbaugh is a good coach, one of the top 10 in the NFL. His Ravens teams are always well-prepared schematically, and they practice and play hard. He is well-organized, promoted team chemistry, has a strong work ethic and you can never count out his team regardless of the score or their record.
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But his teams haven’t been to the playoffs in four of the past five years. Some might point to the Ravens’ average draft record during that time or that the decision to sign Flacco to a six-year, $120.6 million contract in 2013 handcuffed the team, making it difficult to sign or retain high-profile free agents.
Harbaugh, though, had input in those decisions, especially the draft where the Ravens started going more with overachievers. There will also be one other major factor in whether Harbaugh returns. Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta will replace Ozzie Newsome as general manager at the end of the season.
Several former and current coaches agreed that Harbaugh and DeCosta aren’t close, and that new general managers want their own people in place. If he continues to win, Harbaugh might want more power than DeCosta is willing to give.
These final two games will be interesting. Besides the team’s play on the field, Bisciotti will have to take into account Harbaugh’s message and how he is viewed around the building.
He isn’t particularly liked, but few head coaches are. Those 16-hour work days can turn them into cranky, moody, impulsive, nasty and belligerent individuals. Bisciotti will also have to evaluate Harbaugh’s coaching staff, which has lacked a lot of high-profile assistants in recent years.
But Harbaugh’s journey in Baltimore will probably be determined the most by success in the playoffs if the Ravens make the field.
If they don’t get in or don’t stay alive long, his time in Baltimore will likely end.