Ravens Need to Find the Winning Edge
If football had Grandmasters like Chess does, Bill Walsh would be one of a few. Some people are innovators. Walsh was more than that. Walsh is the guy the modern football mastermind, Bill Belichick, would learn a lot from. Would model a lot of what he does around.
Walsh wrote a book in 1997, co-authored by former Ravens Head Coach, Brian Billick, called Finding the Winning Edge. It’s regarded as a bible, required reading for people in football, and useful for anyone put in a position of managing people, or structuring an organization within, or even outside of football. Billick is part of the Walsh coaching tree through Dennis Green during his time in Minnesota. Green was Walsh’s running backs coach at Stanford (77’-78’), special teams coach with the 49ers (79’) and would come back as his wide receivers coach (86’-88’).
Also worth noting that while Billick is twice removed from Walsh through Green, John Harbaugh, former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, and current OC Marty Mornhinweg are all three times removed from Walsh in the legendary coaching tree.
Bill Walsh -> Mike Holmgren -> Andy Reid -> John Harbaugh
Bill Walsh -> George Siefert -> Mike Shanahan -> Gary Kubiak
Bill Walsh -> Mike Holmgren -> Steve Mariucci -> Marty Mornhinweg
If John Harbaugh or Marty Mornhinweg ever needed to look at their mentors for advice, odds are it’s going to be advice handed to them that was created by Bill Walsh.
One passage from the book was a quote Walsh gave to Forbes Magazine. It really resonates with me here as the Ravens seem to be spinning their wheels and are resisting change. Some calling what the Ravens have been in for four and half seasons, purgatory. Mediocrity. Not bad enough to recognize a problem and not good enough to win on a more consistent basis. This one passage is going to be the focus and something I reference in the rest of this article.
“Probably the toughest thing a manager has to do with a winning team is to assess the strengths of those who got you there. Ironically, some of the best performers may not be the ones destined to continue to achieve. They may be coming off a career season. Everyone loves them. Making changes with people like these, at a time when loyalty might seem the natural human response, can appear almost incomprehensible to close-knit staffs and to the outside world. But they are part of the hard task of adapting to and confronting the success syndrome.”
—Bill Walsh, September 13, 1993.
Confronting the success syndrome. That is an interesting way to put it. Success Syndrome is when you achieve wealth, power, fame. Achieve victory, gain control and influence. Simultaneously with the glamour and spoils comes the burdens, the expectations of remaining at the high level you have attained. The syndrome is the depression that ensues when you don’t reach those higher bars that you have now set. With great power comes great responsibility. Mo money, mo problems. That type of thing.
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Let’s apply this to football Bill Walsh had worked his way up through the coaching ranks of football starting at the University of California in 1960. Some 20+ years later he was engineering a football dynasty in San Francisco. In addition to Head Coach of two Super Bowl winning teams (1981, 1984), he was serving in dual roles as team President. Walsh had been very successful for a very long time. But 49ers Owner, Eddie DeBartolo gave Walsh his demotion from team President against the words of everyone else in the front office. His demotion to solely Head Coach following the 87’ season shook the team.
Bill Walsh was already a master of the game. But, “…just worry about the Xs and Os,” DeBartolo told him.
This was three seasons removed from his second Super Bowl victory for San Francisco. This was in the midst of six straight playoff appearances (not including the 82’ strike season). Fans in a lot for cities would die for that right about now. But the bar had been set by Walsh so much higher than that. Playoff appearances were not enough as they didn’t win any playoff games in the three years since his second title. This was also one year after making a bold choice within the most important position on the team. Quarterback.
Reread that entire quote again and see how it applied to Bill Walsh. The man who found Joe Montana and knew he could be a steal in the third round the draft, knew no one would take him earlier than the fifth round. A man who found Dwight Clark to be something special with zero teams interested in drafting him after catching just 12 balls in his senior year in college. The guy who found Jerry Rice and was thought of as crazy to draft him in the first round out of a tiny school with a 4.59 40-yard dash time at the combine. That guy, that mastermind, was stripped of his presidency title in short order despite loyalty, despite the incomprehension from the outside world.
You can also apply this quote to the 49ers new President at the time, Carmen Policy and his shrewd decision later to trade Joe Montana to Kansas City in 1993. Bill Walsh, out of football in 1993, delivered this quote five months after the trade. 49ers fans booed the successor, Steve Young, for simply not being Joe Montana. This was after the fact that Montana missed all of the 1991 season, and most of the 1992 season with an elbow injury and it was quite clear Steve Young was the guy they were moving forward with. No one wanted to see Montana lose his job because of injury. Montana even requested the trade. It didn’t matter. You would think football didn’t exist in San Francisco until 1981. It’d be like the Ravens trading Ray Lewis in say, 2007. Baltimorians would want the head of whoever was responsible, on a stick, and the incoming middle linebacker had no chance of meeting expectations or pleasing Baltimore’s court of public opinion.
Perhaps Walsh already believed in his quote above, before being stripped of his presidency. Maybe he was ready to make the tough decisions against everyone’s input if he thought it would confront the success syndrome. Go back to 1987, while he is still 49ers team President, looking for a way to make the team better by any means necessary.
Leading up to the 1987 draft, Joe Montana was going on the trade block by Walsh. He had won two Super Bowls for Walsh by the time 1987 came around. But Walsh thought Montana was softening. Often injured. Some of the hits Montana took were brutal and legal in those days. Walsh sat down with his coaches and went around the room asking each one what they think they would take in trade for Joe Montana. No one answered. It felt rhetorical because you just don’t trade a Joe Montana. He was serious though and no one spoke up. He passed around pieces of paper so it would be anonymous if anyone had the guts to think such a thing. No one in that room budged. You just don’t do that. But the mastermind had other ideas. Walsh was publicly shopping Joe Montana.
No deal was able to be made to trade Montana, instead Walsh traded for Steve Young. Young was traded for a second and fourth round pick from the Buccaneers just a week before the 87’ NFL Draft. Rumors of Montana being dealt swirled for a long time. Young wasn’t a clipboard holder. He wanted to play. He was very vocal about that too. There was nothing cordial about his relationship with Montana. Walsh also never hid from the fact they had a quarterback controversy. He accepted it and didn’t commit to either guy. In 1987 with Montana struggling against the Vikings in the divisional round of the playoffs, Walsh benched one of the greatest quarterbacks in history for Steve Young. Mind you, Steve Young wasn’t close to the hall of fame talent we would come to know him as the years went on. Young led a comeback but the 49ers would come up short once again. Walsh’s demotion from President wasn’t far behind.
In 1988 for 11 games, Walsh would play both Montana and Young. Sometimes equally, sometimes starting one over the other. Taking a hot hand approach to it, evaluating the matchups. Both are competitors, neither wanted to sit. Young would say that when Walsh sat him and Montana down in a meeting for game planning, that if Walsh said “I’m starting Steve,” you’d look over at Joe and had there been a knife in the room, there would have been problems. Montana, job in jeopardy, pissed off, motivated, elevated his game as the season went on and eventually won the starting gig back after a 6-5 start to the Niners season. He led them down the stretch of the season, all the way back to Super Bowl where they would beat the Bengals in one of the most memorable drives in the sports history.
Creative tension, is what Bill Walsh called it. Creative tension is how they won the Super Bowl with the 1988 team. With two quarterbacks, two egos, two guys who you’ll be hard pressed to this day to get in the same room together. It was after that title that Bill Walsh called it quits himself. Three Super Bowl titles, a demotion, managing the most famous QB controversy in history. He learned you don’t stay atop the mountain forever. He got out on his terms. Success syndrome might have bit him once, but not twice.
It was creative tension that raised Young’s and Montana’s games up to a level to where it used to be. It was creative tension from Eddie DeBartolo that got the very best out of Bill Walsh again. It was creative tension that guided Joe Montana ahead of Young in 1988 and on through 1989 where he would win league MVP going 14-2 on the season. Montana would set the record for best passer rating in a season at the time, and become the first player to win Super Bowl MVP three times, winning his fourth title in eight years. Doing it in a 55-10 dismantling of the Broncos and throwing for five touchdowns in the game.
Creative tension is one of those things that Bill Walsh loved, and that the Patriots today use in a masterful way. The Patriots never shy away from trading or cutting a player a year too early rather than a year too late. When you hear about the tension and differences between Owner Bob Kraft, Head Coach/GM Bill Belichick, and QB Tom Brady, people start trying to read between the lines. But in the end where do they end up? Usually as one of the last two teams playing for the Lombardi trophy. More often than not, they hoist that sucker too. Creative tension between Montanta, Young, and Walsh led to what? Winning a championship.
Bringing this around to the Ravens. The first time I think creative tension was felt in Baltimore under John Harbaugh was when he arrived on the scene. Harbaugh had to give Ray Lewis the leeway he earned as the team leader. No one is bigger than the team, but Ray Lewis may be the exception. Harbaugh wanted to shut down Ray’s iconic stadium entrance. The one that fired up the crowd like no other. Harbaugh felt no one is above the team. But the team didn’t want Ray to stop. Lewis is the type of guy though that if Coach said, “no more entrances,” Ray would say. “okay Coach.” The team wanted Ray to do it though. So Harbaugh conceded. In Harbaugh’s early years here, it was clearly a team led by Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, some real alpha dogs like Anquan Boldin and Bernard Pollard. Harbaugh had to manage that tension of still being the authority figure in that locker room that really wasn’t his until the heart of the team, Lewis, would move on. Harbaugh cleaned house of these alpha mentality guys and Ray Lewis retired. It was Harbaugh’s team now. The tension was gone. So has been the success since then.
Our second look at creative tension on this team came in the 2014 season when the Ravens brought on Gary Kubiak for the Offensive Coordinator job. Kubiak was not on John Harbaugh’s list of candidates. Kubiak and Harbaugh aren’t pals from coaching days past. Can you blame Harbaugh for not wanting Kubiak lurking? On the surface, Cam Cameron was never going to be an NFL head coach again. Jim Caldwell earned the coordinator spot after his interim role led to a Super Bowl run. Wasn’t a real threat to Harbaugh though after his head coaching skills looked weak with Peyton Manning at the helm of his offense. Since Kubiak moved on to the head coach gig in Denver, replacement Marc Trestman was never going to unseat Harbaugh. Marty Mornhinweg will 100% never be a head coach at any level. These are guys not a threat to Harbaugh’s job. That’s why he likes them. Harbaugh is comfortable with Mornhinweg under him. Kubiak on the other hand was a direct threat to Harbaugh’s job. He had the experience. He had the pulse of a team and it’s most important player, the quarterback. He got the most out of Joe Flacco. He was a Bill Walsh kind of guy.
It was public knowledge that Harbaugh wasn’t keen on Kubiak and lobbied for Jim Hostler, the in-house wide receivers coach. The front office hires Gary Kubiak anyway so their relationship is already starting off on an awkward foot. There is already tension building. Kubiak wants to succeed and show he can be a head coach again. Harbaugh wants to succeed so he doesn’t lose his job to a more than worthy candidate now just one door down. No interview process needed. In 2014, they did that. They succeeded in a big way for the Ravens teams that were never known for offense. Even the championship teams had their stinker of a game offensively, or five games if we’re talking the 2000 team. If the 2014 team had half a defense, they slay the beast in New England, in January, again. The offense was as legitimate a threat as the Ravens ever had with Kubiak. Jim Hostler on the other hand has been on a couple different teams in smaller roles. He’s currently the Passing Game Coordinator in Green Bay, but never on the radar for an offensive coordinator position.
Creative tension takes you out of your comfort zone. John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco have been way too comfortable for way too long.
Baltimore is in the early stages of looking at options to possibly replace Joe Flacco, 33, still under contract through 2021. They made that evident by trading up into the end of round one this past draft to select Lamar Jackson. Flacco, who brought joy to this town for a long time, a championship, has come up well short of late. A lot shorter than Joe Montana ever did. But does Jackson “push” Flacco? Is it a wake-up call? Does it make Joe Flacco pissed off for greatness?
“If you aint pissed off for greatness, that means you’re okay with being mediocre. Aint no man in here okay with being just basic.”
According to what I’ve seen this year, no, it hasn’t made Joe Flacco pissed off for greatness. Flacco was never one to buy into Ray’s rhetoric either.
The drafting of Jackson wasn’t enough to motivate, to threaten Flacco given his play recently. His presence isn’t creating tension. Flacco’s numbers say he’s better this year, but everyone is better with defenses able to do less and less. Joe Flacco is still in the bottom third of the league ratings and efficiencies. He’s still making boneheaded decisions out there.
The first part of Walsh’s creative tension was acquiring Steve Young. It wasn’t until he played Young against Montana that either guy really started to assert themselves. For the Ravens, the drafting of Lamar Jackson is only half of the exercise. The other half, well, you’re going to have to do the unthinkable and bench beloved Joe Flacco. Walsh benched Joe Montana in a playoff game, so literally no one is off limits. Maybe Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees. But everyone else should pretty much always be a bad half of football away from the rest of the day off. Until then, Flacco is comfortable being the franchise quarterback and counting his millions. Jackson is comfortable knowing his role, for lack of better terms. Holding the clipboard, running his handful of RPOs when called upon. But the mindset that he could seize an opportunity to unseat Joe Flacco won’t blossom until you plant that seed, by giving Jackson a start. Or at a minimum, giving Jackson a chance in a game Flacco struggles in with enough time for Jackson to get into a groove. You have to see how Jackson and Flacco both respond, and seeing who elevates their game because of the creative tension building between the two.
The idea that Flacco could be cut or traded, contract wise, is a reality come 2019. But can Ravens management do such a thing? Can you let the creative tension run through 2019, 2020? Young and Montana were paired for six seasons. A couple of those Montana was injured before he ultimately asked out of San Francisco in 1993. What’s a year or two to see if either, or both Flacco and Jackson elevate their play?
Is Eddie DeBartolo’s relationship to Bill Walsh comparable to Steve Biscotti’s with John Harbaugh? Sure. Problem is a demotion for Harbaugh means the end of his tenure in Baltimore because he doesn’t have dual roles like Walsh did.
Bisciotti became a minority owner in 2000, and didn’t purchase the Modell’s portion until 2004. John Harbaugh was the first, and to date, only head coach he has hired. Harbaugh brought him and Baltimore five straight playoff appearances ending with a Super Bowl trophy in 2012. Since then, the Ravens have one playoff appearance to show for their efforts and Harbaugh’s job security is in legitimate question. Harbaugh was asked about it in his postgame presser following a 23-16 home loss to the Steelers this past Sunday. Their third straight loss dropping them to 4-5 going into their bye week. The week where moves can typically be made. It’s easy for fans, folks on message boards, bloggers, talk show hosts, to just say “clean house, start over”. But put yourself in Bisciotti’s shoes. If you’re Bisciotti, you are not a football guy. You rarely meddle like the Jerry Jones’, Mike Brown’s, Al Davis’ to a negative degree in his later years. You look at that Lombardi trophy, wear that championship ring, and you have to consider firing the guy that brought you that.
It has to be hard, even for business man like Bisciotti, who is very loyal, maybe to a fault. But being hard is nor excuse.
Going back to Walsh’s quote. What do you do when your best performers, John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco, may not be destined to continue to achieve? When loyalty to the people that have brought you wealth and success for the better part of a decade is the natural human response? When everyone in the organization might love Harbaugh and Flacco, don’t want to be reminded of a time when you relied on a Kyle Boller, and there are plenty of people outside of the organization who believe players need to play better and it’s not so much at the feet of Harbaugh when someone drops a pass in the end zone or misses a kick? Can you fire the longest tenured coach in franchise history? Only the third head coach in a franchise that has been around for all of a sudden, it’s 23rd season. If Harbaugh makes it one more season, he’ll have coached the Ravens for half of their history.
What do you do?
Well, Bill Walsh, or Eddie DeBartolo for that matter, would fire John Harbaugh. Probably two years ago if we’re being brutally honest, and Lamar Jackson is starting games by now. It would be a hard task, but a necessary one.
I’d wonder how long Walsh the head coach would ride with Flacco. How long he would put up with Flacco through the ACL tear, the back foot throws before being really comfortable in the pocket again. The back injury that seemingly lingered through 2017. When would Walsh come to the realization that Flacco is no longer destined to achieve? Is he soft? How long would he have been looking at another quarterback in the draft, or through trade? Does he wait until 2018 to draft a backup? Is it Lamar Jackson?
Again, if we’re being brutally honest, no. Walsh might even be looking at another quarterback a year after the Super Bowl, the hangover season that saw Baltimore left out of the postseason for the first time in the Harbaugh-Flacco era. He might draft a guy in 2014. No, not sixth rounder Keith Wenning either like the Ravens did.
Walsh likely goes out and gets a guy that creates an atmosphere of creative tension between them and Joe Flacco that pushes one, or both of their games to a higher level. Similar to the tension he created by having Steve Young and Joe Montana on the same team. Creative tension.
I realize Joe Flacco is not Joe Montana. Lamar Jackson is not Steve Young. Young already had some experience under his belt when Walsh plucked him in trade from the NFL wasteland during the 80’s known as Tampa Bay.
But the fact that John Harbaugh is not Bill Walsh, and Joe Flacco is not Joe Montana, and the glory days are too far in the rear view mirror to even see, It should make Steve Bisciotti’s decision that much easier to make with neither looking destined to achieve anymore.
The difference in what Walsh describes in his quote, and what the Ravens are staring at, is that it is not incomprehensible to the close-knit staff and the outside world anymore if they were to part ways. Ozzie Newsome has one foot out the door on his own already.
The tough part Walsh describes is when you have to address it so close to a successful run. When the successful run is this long ago now, you are only doing yourself and the fans a disservice by letting it continue. By not recognizing the flaws because you are clouded by loyalty. Success syndrome has taken a stronghold on the front office and everyone Is feeling the depression of it. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then this organization is insane.
Creative tension. A shake up. Make things uncomfortable. That is what will right this ship. The sooner, the better as the margin of error is little to none if you’re looking for a playoff berth. Expecting John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco to go 6-1 or 5-2 after the bye is down-right foolish if you don’t do something else. If Bisciotti stands idly by in the coming weeks, that is about the worst thing he can do. I’d suggest he pick up a copy of Finding the Winning Edge. Co-Authored by the first head coach he ever had to fire.
Do something. Anything. Worst case scenario, you get a higher draft pick. Best case scenario, whatever you do differently sparks the team to a nice run and maybe you sneak into January games.