The unexpected news came on the eve of a vital game against the Los Angeles Chargers, which could determine whether the Ravens will miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. It abruptly cut off speculation that the franchise might move on from the most successful coach in its history.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said he considered making a coaching change after last season, when the team’s playoff hopes were dashed in a New Year’s Eve loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Many took that to mean Harbaugh, 56, needed to make the playoffs this season or look for another job.
When the Ravens dropped to 4-5 going into their Week 10 bye, new reports swirled suggesting Harbaugh was in jeopardy. Since then, the Ravens have won four of five games and executed a sweeping transition in offensive philosophy with rookie Lamar Jackson at quarterback.
That transformation has put them in position to claim either an AFC North title or the second AFC wild-card berth. And it apparently secured Harbaugh’s future with the team he’s coached for 11 seasons. Harbaugh’s record stands at 102-72 and with eight wins already this season, he’s guaranteed to finish at least .500 for the 10th time in 11 tries. He’s guided the Ravens to the postseason six times and to victory in Super Bowl XLVII.
Several players, including defensive linemen Patrick Ricard and Chris Wormley and safeties Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle, quickly took to Twitter to express support for the announcement that Harbaugh will stay in place.
Jefferson wrote, “dasssss Mah coach! Congrats.”
“Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” Weddle replied.
The team didn’t release statements from Harbaugh or Bisciotti on Friday. But Harbaugh previously brushed past reports that he might be on the hot seat.
“I’ve never been someone who’s worried about keeping a job,” he said after the Week 9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. “It’s always been, for me, [about] doing the job. I’ve got a bunch of great coaches and a bunch of great players that bust their tails every day to do the best job they can. I feel really good about the way this team has been coached for the last 11 years, and for the last number of weeks we've been in the season. So, there are no regrets. Never been any regrets here with me.”
The Ravens began a transition this year when longtime starting quarterback Joe Flacco went out with a hip injury after that Nov. 4 loss to the Steelers and Jackson, the team’s dynamic first-round draft pick, took over the offense. That transition will continue at the end of the season when general manager Ozzie Newsome steps aside and hands control of the team’s front office to his right-hand man, Eric DeCosta. Many fans and analysts assumed a new coach might be part of the rebuild.
But Harbaugh adeptly managed the switch from Flacco to Jackson. He went with the more polished veteran to start the season, but even as the Ravens jumped to a 4-2 start with a pass-first attack, Harbaugh’s offensive coaches, Marty Mornhinweg and Greg Roman, worked to install creative running schemes built around Jackson’s talents.
As a result, the Ravens hardly skipped a beat when Jackson took the starting job in a Week 11 victory over the Bengals. After struggling on the ground early in the season, they’ve run for at least 194 yards in each of Jackson’s five starts.
“It’s very difficult,” Harbaugh said of the midseason change the team pulled off. “But I also think that it wasn’t something that was impossible for us. Normally to do what’s been done would be basically impossible — except for the fact that we’ve already built that into our offense. So, we were working the blocking schemes all along in practice, in training camp and all that.”
When Flacco was healthy enough to return to action last week, Harbaugh did not let speculation about a quarterback controversy linger. He announced before the team’s Wednesday practice that Jackson would remain his starter.
Harbaugh has often demonstrated a talent for adapting to in-season difficulties. A late slump prompted him to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron 13 games into the 2012 season. The Ravens responded with a startling run to the Super Bowl, carried by the best stretch of Flacco’s career under new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. Two years later, Harbaugh helped stabilize the franchise as it coped with Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice’s self-inflicted downfall.
Harbaugh built a close relationship with Bisciotti and Newsome as the Ravens’ decision-making triumvirate. One of the indelible images from the Super Bowl celebration in February 2013 came when the Ravens owner pulled his coach in close for a private exchange as the team whooped and hollered around them.
Bisciotti took a risk after the 2007 season when he fired another Super Bowl-winning coach, Brian Billick, and replaced him with a relatively anonymous assistant from the Philadelphia Eagles who’d never worked as a head coach at any level or coordinated an NFL offense or defense. To the casual fan, Harbaugh was better known as the brother of longtime NFL quarterback and then-Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh.