BALTIMORE — Bill Belichick is by far the most accomplished coach in the NFL — and in NFL history, for that matter. But if you had to vote for the second-best coach in today’s NFL, who would it be?
Andy Reid? Pete Carroll? Sean Payton? Mike Tomlin?
How about John Harbaugh?
The Ravens' 12th-year coach is perhaps the most underappreciated and underrated sideline boss in the business. A Super Bowl winner with a 115-74 lifetime record entering Thursday night, Harbaugh’s patient handling of the Ravens has been at the heart of the team’s consistent success under the former special teams coach.
Belichick is the only multiple Super Bowl winner among today’s coaches — he has six rings as the Patriots’ coach and another two as the Giants’ defensive coordinator. But Harbaugh has positioned the Ravens for a second title run with an electrifying young quarterback in Lamar Jackson and a terrific defense that has overcome the loss of several key players, including pass rusher Terrell Suggs, linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Eric Weddle.
The Ravens entered Thursday night’s game against the Jets with an 11-2 record, the best in the AFC. If they maintain that lead, the AFC’s road to Super Bowl LIV goes through Baltimore.
Harbaugh has been mostly terrific since coming to the Ravens from Philadelphia in 2008. He’s had just one losing season (5-11 in 2015) and this will be his eighth trip to the playoffs. He’s 10-6 in the postseason, winning it all after the 2012 season, when he beat brother Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
It’s an impressive resume by any measure, and Harbaugh is highly regarded by the NFL’s coaching fraternity. But there’s one guy who is reluctant to sing his praises: Harbaugh.
Harbaugh, 57, would much rather deflect the credit and point to those around him as the reasons for the team’s success.
“It’s a tough league and it’s hard to win,” Harbaugh said. “I do think this. Football is the ultimate team sport. It takes a bunch of team players working together in every area — players, coaches, scouts, administrators, everybody. To me, that’s the main thing.”
But Harbaugh clearly is adept at bringing it all together and having the wisdom to carry out his vision. He showed patience with former Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco during his early years, nurturing the young passer and seeing the fruits of his development with a Super Bowl championship in Flacco’s fourth season. And when it was time to make the transition from Flacco last year, Harbaugh showed the courage of his convictions by finding a way to incorporate the unique talents of Jackson into the offense.
When a hip injury knocked Flacco out of the lineup midway through last season, Jackson took over and took the AFC North by storm. He went 6-1 as a rookie, rushing for 695 yards and throwing six touchdown passes to lead the Ravens to the playoffs. He struggled in a 23-17 loss to the Chargers in a first-round game, but it was Harbaugh who didn’t flinch by giving in to the fans’ desire to have Flacco replace Jackson in that game.
Harbaugh made it clear after the game that Jackson was his guy moving forward. Jackson has rewarded that confidence with an MVP-caliber season in 2019, throwing for a league-high 28 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He ran for a whopping 1,017 yards in his first 13 games, and with a 5-yard carry early in Thursday's game, surpassed the 1,039 yards by Michael Vick in 2006 to set a new single-season record for most rushing yards by a quarterback.
Jackson is proving to be a much better quarterback than Vick, who eventually developed as a pocket passer, but not to the level that Jackson already has reached. Credit Harbaugh with finding a way to harness Jackson’s immense talents.
“He’s gotten better in every area, and he continues to improve,” Harbaugh said. “Like a lot of guys in this league, the maturing process between year one and year two, across the board, is what it’s all about. It requires so many skill sets.”
Jackson has been particularly effective in recent weeks, as the Ravens have beaten Super Bowl contenders New England, San Francisco, Houston and the Rams. While the record says the Ravens are the team to beat, Harbaugh won’t.
“We don’t look at it like that,” he said. “That’s all outside stuff. We just try to get better every day. To me, that’s the only way to do it.”
Not surprising Harbaugh chooses not to engage in pre-playoff bluster.
He’d rather the Ravens do their talking on the field. It has served him well over the years and might just lead to a second Super Bowl title.