Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about signing a four-year contract extension through the 2022 season. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
Ravens coach John Harbaugh does not anticipate a substantially different working dynamic with Eric DeCosta as general manager.
Harbaugh said the transition from Ozzie Newsome to DeCosta has been so seamless as to be almost unnoticeable. That’s not surprising considering all the key parties have worked together for the past 11 years.
But there was some thought that Harbaugh might leverage his negotiations for a contract extension — announced Thursday — into a greater say on personnel decisions. He debunked that theory, saying he never sought an expansion of powers.
“It’s the same [role],” he said Friday. “That's all we ever wanted. That's all I ever wanted. I have great confidence in the way the organization’s built, the way it’s been built from the beginning. This has never been an organization that’s about lines or silos or anything like that. This is an organization that works together, and we cross paths and we’ve talked everything out — football, scouting, medical, weight, strength and conditioning, everything you can think of.”
Harbaugh, Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti have long described their three-way communication as essential to the franchise’s stability and success. DeCosta, as Newsome’s top lieutenant, was always a key party to the dialogue.
Though Harbaugh said stability will reign, he went out of his way to praise DeCosta — who was in the room and will hold his own news conference Wednesday — during his opening remarks.
“You know, Eric’s energy and his passion and his ideas have just — it's exciting,” Harbaugh said. “So it’s a new start, but you know, we've been together, side by side, for 11 years, so we've got all that behind us. We're standing on that, so I'm really excited about that, and our coaches are, too.”
We saw a hint of Greg Roman’s offense last season, but only a hint.
Harbaugh said the Ravens will rebuild their offense from the ground up, much as they did with their defense when Don “Wink” Martindale took over as coordinator after the 2017 season.
“The offense that we’re going to put together is going to be very diverse,” he said. “It’s going to include elements that weren’t in there this year that wemaybe weren’t there with, or didn’t get to or hadn’t learned about yet.”
Harbaugh promoted Roman to offensive coordinator because of his expertise in designing a running attack, which he demonstrated while working under Marty Mornhinweg in the second half of this past season.
Many of the concepts Roman rolled out with Lamar Jackson at quarterback will remain integral, and Harbaugh expressed faith that they will continue to work, even as defenses adjust.
“It’s going to work if we call it at the right time against the right defense and build the right system around it, where we get the right play when we want it, against the right defense,” he said. “They can’t stop everything. If you think there’s a defense that’s going to line up and stop Lamar running plays and us executing really well, that’s just not the case.”
But as he did throughout the stretch run, Harbaugh acknowledged the Ravens will have to improve their passing efficiency and their quick-strike capabilities.
He said Roman, quarterbacks coach James Urban, tight ends coach Bobby Engram (whom he described as a future head coach) and others will collaborate on a passing attack that will start with play-action designs and expand to include more drop-back sets. It’s not clear if he’ll bring in another coach to fill the passing-architect role he offered to Mornhinweg (who declined to remain with the Ravens).
Fans will remain skeptical until they see Jackson leading a more balanced offense in real games. But at least Harbaugh made it clear that more of the same won’t be good enough.
The Ravens are all in on Lamar Jackson as their franchise centerpiece going forward.
Harbaugh’s decision to promote Roman also amounted to a full-throated endorsement of Jackson’s potential. The Ravens’ offensive rebuild is not an abstract exercise but an attempt to get the most out of the second-year quarterback’s unusual skill set.
Harbaugh is aware of concerns that the Ravens will stagnate because of Jackson’s inconsistent passing or that he’ll get hurt because he carries the ball too often. But he argues that such worries pale in comparison to the problems a developing Jackson will pose for opponents.
“I think there's just as much fear on the other side that he's going to take the thing to the house when he gets out and runs,” he said. “So we'll live in that world as opposed to the other world. I think Lamar is just a heck of a player and he's a threat every time he touches the ball — run and pass. Certainly, as a coach, you're excited to have a guy like that playing quarterback.”
Again, the Jackson skeptics will remain skeptics until he proves them wrong over a full season. Just know that Harbaugh has bet his own legacy on the young quarterback.
Under NFL rules, the Ravens can’t supervise Jackson’s offseason development program, but Harbaugh clearly expects his quarterback to return this spring as a more polished passer and ball handler.
“I’ll leave that up to him to answer if he wants to answer, but I’m quite sure that he’ll be working at it really hard and he already is, and throughout the course of the offseason he’s going to throw the ball a lot,” he said. “He’s going to have his receivers to throw the ball to, he’s already told me that. All those other things. He should come back, I expect him to come back a better quarterback skill-wise than he was when he left, and he’s determined to do that.”
Harbaugh hopes to bring most of his defense back.
For all the talk about Jackson and rebuilding the offense, the Ravens have more work to do on the defensive side of their roster. Linebackers C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith are free agents, and defensive backs Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and Eric Weddle could be cut to create salary-cap space.
Harbaugh acknowledged the complexities of offseason roster construction, but suggested that in an ideal world, he’d like to have most of those players back. It’s understandable, considering the Ravens finished first in total defense and second in scoring defense.
Harbaugh and Martindale have made no secret they want the 26-year-old Mosley to remain at the heart of the defense, and Harbaugh offered an optimistic take on the middle linebacker’s free agency.
“There are limitations with money, but C.J. wants to be back and we want him back,” he said. “I think that’s a really good formula for a player coming back. I’m just not even going to entertain the possibility right now that that wouldn’t happen. I’ll just assume that’s going to happen.”
The 34-year-old Weddle is under contract for 2019, but the Ravens could save $6.5 million in cap money by cutting the Pro Bowl safety.
When Harbaugh was asked about Weddle and guard Marshal Yanda, who’s also entering the last year of his contract, he gave no indication the Ravens are looking to move on.
“I think that'll play out in the next couple of months, but I want them both back, for sure,” he said. “Everybody does. Eric does. Ozzie does. There's nobody that doesn't want both those players on our team, so we'll do everything we can to make that happen and we'll see what happens.”
Will the Ravens try for the same formula that took them to playoffs in 2018 — a veteran defense combined with an offense finding its identity around Jackson? Or will they go for a broader overhaul?
That big-picture question will frame their entire offseason.
Harbaugh did not see the Ravens’ season-ending loss as an indictment of their preparedness.
Harbaugh last spoke to reporters immediately after that 23-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. So until Friday, he had not faced questions about the Chargers’ claims that they anticipated many of the Ravens’ plays based on left tackle Ronnie Stanley’s stance.
He responded that such adjustments are part of every NFL game, especially a rematch from just two weeks earlier.
“I promise you that we saw plenty of tips on their offense that we used,” he said. “We knew if it was run, pass, which way the run was going, what the pass protection was, which way the center was going, who the back was blocking, whether the back was releasing, splits told us what routes were going to be run. That's part of football. If you're good at what you do, that's part of football.”
Harbaugh said the Chargers outplayed and outcoached the Ravens. He simply did not see the play-tipping intrigue as a major reason.
“They deserve all the credit in the world and we didn’t do a good enough job attacking what they did that day,” he said. “What they did that day is not going to work next game. But we have to be ready for the next thing that’s coming, just like they have to be ready for the next thing that’s coming. That’s the great thing about it.”
Harbaugh’s essential point is correct. The Chargers didn’t win because of a gimmick; they won because they made fewer mistakes, executed a smart tactical adjustment to contain Jackson and beat the Ravens in individual matchups. But that’s cold comfort to fans who watched a visiting team comprehensively outperform the Ravens in the most important game of the season.