The case for and against the Ravens firing John Harbaugh
The hot start that made the Baltimore Ravens playoff contenders and AFC North front-runners has dissipated in recent weeks. The team has lost four of its last five games, including their last three. As a result, head coach John Harbaugh has found himself in the crosshairs of both fans and the national media.
One doesn’t need to look far to find an article questioning Harbaugh’s job security. CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated, The Ringer, and other outlets have discussed the matter over the past week, while the veteran coach’s name has come up on numerous sports talk shows during the same time frame. While public scrutiny doesn’t automatically result in a coaching change, the Ravens’ failure to reach the postseason the previous three years has given teeth to the calls for Harbaugh’s firing.
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But like all major decisions, the Ravens won’t determine Harbaugh’s fate in a vacuum. Many factors require consideration when it comes to firing a head coach, and the case for retaining him carries as much water as the one for letting him go.
Case for retaining Harbaugh
Harbaugh doesn’t just hold the Ravens’ franchise record for wins in both the regular season and playoffs, but he ranks as one of the best coaches in that regard across the league. Part of that success derives from the strong rosters general manager Ozzie Newsome has provided, but Harbaugh runs the team like a CEO, one that puts his subordinates in position to succeed and knows when and when not to intervene. That sort of coach often doesn’t garner enough credit for his team’s success, but their value often becomes evident after they leave.
While issues do exist with the Ravens coaching staff, Harbaugh can theoretically make the necessary adjustments this offseason and keep the pieces that have done their job. Baltimore has one of the NFL’s best defenses and defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has helped the unit make tremendous strides in his first year in that role. Retaining Harbaugh almost certainly means retaining Martindale while providing the opportunity to locate a better coordinator to run the offense.
And while most of the top offensive play-callers will look for head-coaching gigs, several lesser-known coaches could come to Baltimore for the chance to work with Lamar Jackson, the team’s second first-round pick this past April.
Zac Taylor could rank No. 1 on the Ravens’ wishlist. Currently the Los Angeles Rams’ quarterbacks coach, Taylor has spent the past two seasons under the tutelage of Sean McVay, one of the premier head coaches and offensive minds in football. Getting the chance to utilize those lessons with a talented offense could put the 35-year-old Taylor on the fast track to a head-coaching job of his own.
While changing offensive coordinators doesn’t guarantee success, neither does swapping head coaches. Even if the Ravens identify the right candidates, the rest of the league will offer competition for their services, potentially hiring away the best options.
Case for replacing Harbaugh
The case to replace Harbaugh looks fairly straightforward. The veteran head coach offers multiple strengths for an NFL team, but he has virtually no experience developing an untraditional quarterback like Jackson. While Flacco did turn into a Super Bowl MVP on Harbaugh’s watch, the drop-back signal-caller didn’t have to adjust his game too significantly for the NFL. That made him an easy fit for Harbaugh’s staff but not necessarily useful precedent for Jackson.
And Jackson could prove to be a transformational player if handled correctly. The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner possesses boundless athleticism and regularly put his play-making skills on display at Louisville. Those attributes made him a first-round pick, but he also requires tweaks in order to translate his potential into quality NFL play. Jackson has struggled with ball placement and getting in rhythm as a passer during his rookie season and could benefit from a coaching staff better suited to his skill set.
Several coaches seem capable of helping Jackson realize his potential. John DeFilippo, the offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings and previously the quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, has established a strong track record of improving his passers and appears capable of catering his offense for his roster. The New England Patriots’ Josh McDaniels has a well-earned reputation as one of the premier offensive minds in football, though his decision to back out of the Indianapolis Colts’ head-coaching job could turn off the Ravens. If team owner Steve Bisciotti decides to open up his wallet, Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley makes the most sense given his work with Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, two QBs that share a handful of traits with Jackson.
Every decision the organization makes over the next year has to take Jackson’s maturation into account. Harbaugh could rearrange his coaching staff to accommodate his young quarterback’s needs, but would a quality offensive coordinator join Baltimore knowing that his head coach could get the ax less than a year later? Perhaps, but the safer approach (and the one less likely to result in three offensive changes in Jackson’s first three years) involves hiring a new head coach this offseason.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at NFL.com, SB Nation, Sports Illustrated, and other outlets.