The Ravens entered the offseason last year with a daunting workload. They needed to build an offense around the unique talents of second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson. On defense, they had to replace cornerstone veterans from one of the NFL’s toughest units.
In coach John Harbaugh’s 12th season in Baltimore, the Ravens didn’t just defend their AFC North crown. With an empowered coaching staff and an accountable locker room, they became one of the franchise’s most impressive and balanced teams ever. And on Saturday, Harbaugh was honored as NFL Coach of the Year, with the award presented during a ceremony at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center.
Harbaugh, who was in attendance for the NFL Honors event, earned 27 first- or second-place votes from a nationwide panel of Associated Press voters, nearly double that of second-place San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan received 14 1-2 votes. Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur got three votes, while Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Buffalo’s Sean McDermott got two. The other vote went to Sean Payton of New Orleans.
Harbaugh is the first Ravens coach so honored; the Baltimore Colts’ Weeb Ewbank (1958), Don Shula (1967, 1968) and Ted Marchibroda (1975) also were named NFL Coach of the Year.
“This is football, and these are really team awards, none more so than this award, right here,” he said Saturday. “We’ve got some special people. They’re a joy to work with every single day and an honor to be around. Players and coaches, you make it happen. Thank you very much.”
Before a stunning loss to the Tennessee Titans in their playoff opener, Harbaugh’s Ravens won a franchise-record 12 straight games to close the regular season and earn a No. 1 seed for the first time in Baltimore football history. Their 14-2 record was the NFL’s best and set a franchise record for wins, topping the 2006 team’s 13-3 mark.
“I felt like … we were the best team we could be this season,” Harbaugh said at his season-ending news conference last month. “All things considered, where we were at, with our team, with our roster, with our youth, with our experience, all the things that we had, with our coaches, we were the best team during the season that we could be.”
Entering the season, the Ravens weren’t even favored to repeat as division champions. While Jackson had helped lead the team to a second-half turnaround in 2018 and its first playoff appearance since 2014, there were questions about his passing ability. And the defense, which had led the NFL in yards allowed per game, had parted ways with inside linebacker C.J. Mosely, pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith and safety Eric Weddle.
Piece by piece, Harbaugh’s Ravens came together. According to analytics website Football Outsiders, the Ravens finished the regular season as one of the NFL’s most efficient teams ever, ranking first in 2019 in offensive efficiency, fourth in defensive efficiency and 10th in special teams efficiency.
“He’s a very good leader," said Bill Cowher, an analyst for “NFL Today” on CBS and former coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "He’s very consistent. I think we get to see that week in and week out. He has a great understanding of the game. He’s very passionate about the game, and I think his players reflect that.”
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While offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale called plays, Harbaugh’s influence on the team’s game plan was evident. After the 2018 season, he’d promoted Roman from assistant head coach to the coordinator post. Even as offenses across the NFL adopted increasingly pass-heavy schemes, Harbaugh believed in the potential of Roman’s run-first approach. On Saturday, Roman was named the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year.
In the Ravens’ season opener, they set a franchise record for points. That set the tone for a dominant season. Jackson, who earned NFL Most Valuable Player honors Saturday, broke Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback and finished first in the NFL in passing touchdowns. The Ravens also eclipsed the 1978 New England Patriots’ single-season rushing mark, finishing with 3,296 yards and averaging over 200 per game.
With Harbaugh’s embrace of analytics, the Ravens became one of the NFL’s boldest and most efficient offenses. They not only led the NFL in fourth-down conversions (17) but also conversion rate (70.8%). A Week 7 game against the Seattle Seahawks reflected Harbaugh’s trust in his team: Rather than attempt a field goal, Harbaugh agreed with Jackson to go for it on fourth-and-short. Jackson scored on the play, and the Ravens won easily.
Defensively, the Ravens overcame a slow start to emerge as one of the NFL’s top units. Bolstered by coordinator Martindale’s aggressive schemes — no one in the league blitzed as often — and important midseason acquisitions that complemented an elite secondary, they held their final 13 opponents, including the Titans, to 347 yards or fewer. After Week 4, no regular-season opponent scored more than 30 points, and only three finished with more than 20.
Overall, 13 Ravens were named to the Pro Bowl, tied for the most in NFL history, while six were AP All-Pro selections. After a Week 17 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in which several Ravens stars were inactive, defensive tackle Brandon Williams honored Harbaugh with a game ball.
“We have the best head coach,” Martindale said last month. “We have the best personnel, and most importantly, we have the best group of players assembled in that locker room that lift each other up.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this report.