Stop me if you’ve heard this before: two brothers, both named Harbaugh, have their respective teams on the brink of a trip to the Super Bowl. The fact that they’re back is part luck, part skill, and all parts amazing. Sound familiar? John & Jim, the brothers Harbaugh, have, in their own individual ways, redefined what it means & what it takes to be a coach in the NFL. So, who’s your pick? If you could only have one of the Harbaughs coaching your team, which one would you want?
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a Ravens fan. However, I also live in Northern California, so it feels like I’ve been surrounded by all things Harbaugh when it comes to football for quite awhile. Each has their pros & their cons, but nothing takes away from the fact that they’re both fantastic coaches.
John: I’ll start with John because I was raised a Ravens fan. I’ll be honest, I was very “who?” when the Ravens plucked the elder Harbaugh from Andy Reid’s coaching staff in 2008. Formerly the Eagles’s special teams coach, there was a lot of skepticism among the fans about bringing him into the fold of a team with so many personalities when he had no heading coaching experience. John will forever be linked with ’08 top draft picks Joe Flacco & Ray Rice, with good reason as all have achieved success. Many people forget that Joe wasn’t even supposed to start his rookie season. Only after injuries & illness sidelined incumbent Kyle Boller (a name that still causes Ravens fans to shudder-a rare draft miss for Ozzie) & backup Troy Smith was the rookie Flacco shoved into the lineup. The team came amazingly close to the Super Bowl that year, losing in the AFC Championship Game to the rival Steelers, but the fact that the Steelers swept the three games the teams played showed that the Ravens still had a ways to go.
Over the past 5 years, the Ravens have played to a record of 53-25, made the playoffs every year since 2008, including three trips to the AFC Championship Game. There are the constants, Lewis, Ngata, Suggs, Reed (the latter 3 with no Super Bowl rings). Joe Flacco & Ray Rice have become stars, and the pieces, Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, Marshal Yanda, Justin Tucker among many, have been put together or come into their own. The crew came tantalizingly close to the Super Bowl last year, with the now maligned Lee Evans dropped pass & Billy Cundiff shanked kick all that stood in their way. As a Ravens fan, watching the faces of the players as they saw Billy’s kick sail right was up there with the most heartbreaking moments I’ve ever seen.
Jim: Coach-wise, you’d be hard pressed to find a more polarizing figure from the past two years than Jim Harbaugh. His rise from the University of San Diego to Stanford to the 49ers is nothing short of incredible. Ironically, Jim was QB of the Ravens the year that Ravens Stadium (now M&T Bank Stadium) opened in Baltimore (1998). He was only a Raven for one season, but he has made his presence known in the Bay, transforming a team that had been floundering into a fast, hard nosed, hard hitting, defensive machine. The Ravens have a #52 named Lewis, and the Niners have their own #52, Patrick Willis. While many were expecting the Niners to be a project, Jim came in & completely transformed the schemes, attitude & overall perception of the team. They came within one muffed punt of defeating the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants with a QB many thought had been a #1 pick bust, Alex Smith, in last season’s NFC Championship, after an amazing & slightly unexpected 13-3 season.
Over the past 2 seasons, the Niners have a record of 24-7, two NFC West titles, and uncovered a gem this season, Colin Kaepernick. His uncanny ability to run when plays fall apart is only part of the reason Jim made the brash decision to keep in as the starter after Alex Smith came back from his concussion this season.
While we may not Jim kissing the head of a player like John did after Justin Tucker’s field goal went through the uprights last week, we’ll probably never see John getting quite as heated as Jim did last year in the infamous “handshake” debacle with Detroit’s Jim Schwartz. They both have an understanding of the type of coaching that works for their teams.
Verdict: Honestly, I have no idea who I would pick. At the risk of sounding like a total Ravens homer, I love John. He inherited a veteran-laden team full of leaders with big personalities. The team could have fallen apart, he could have cracked under the pressure of trying to deliver another championship before the window closes. The offense has been inconsistent, the defense hasn’t gotten younger. But, somehow, they’re back. Jim’s gutsy call to continue starting the unproven Kaepernick even after Alex Smith recovered could have backfired. Jim ran the risk of losing the confidence of the team after the amazing cohesiveness they created last season. But, somehow, they’re back. They respect the game & each other.
I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know how the championship games are going to pan out this weekend. Matt Ryan finally has the “he can’t win in the playoffs” monkey off his back. Will that propel the Falcons past San Francisco or will the Kaepernick Express drive them all the way to New Orleans? Tom Brady looked cool as a cucumber against Houston, even after losing star tight end Rob Gronkowski to another broken forearm. Does Baltimore have enough “Ray Lewis is retiring” magic left in their tank or will Hurricane Brady blow the Ravens out of Gilette Stadium? By the way, that’s Jim in the middle messing around with the camera back in ’98 during a Ravens practice.
The Ravens fan in me picks John, I admire the work he’s done to keep the train rolling for a city that cherishes their football team. But, the football fan in me picks both Harbaughs. I pick both Harbaughs, because the NFL is better for their love of the game, their life-long respect for the culture, and the impact they’ve had on each player they’ve touched. I will be thrilled if Super Bowl XLVII is the 2nd edition of the Har-Bowl, because it will be a heck of a fight.