It has been a season to forget so far for Ravens Coach John Harbaugh, with a collection of coaching miscues that have directly affected the outcome of at least three games.
While Harbaugh didn’t drink a mojito while the Buffalo Bills were rushing the passer at will like his offensive line did, or personally throw five interceptions in that game, his decisions helped cost the team in the Denver, Green Bay, and Pittsburgh games, all losses.
Some of the mistakes have been gut-decision calls – which sometimes work, but sometimes don’t. When the gut-calls work, the coach gets called “brilliant” or “gutsy” by fans and media members alike, but when they fail – as they mostly have this season – a procession of both groups starts calling for his head. But not all the mistakes have been gut-checks.
In the Denver blowout loss, a key first-quarter non-challenge of what was clearly not a catch by Wes Welker on third-down led to a Denver touchdown that changed the game after a resulting touchdown gave them a 21-17 from which the Ravens never recovered.
Harbaugh’s nap on this play – which any fan watching at home saw and would have thrown a red flag – could have been caused by his booth coaches not seeing the play, but that’s no excuse. The head coach is the captain of the ship and you just can’t miss plays like that against Peyton Manning.
The Ravens were ultimately blown out of the water, but had that series ended up in a punt, they might have been able to put together a drive and keep the momentum they seemed to have.
In the Green Bay game, Harbaugh, in a 4th and goal situation, decided to go for it at a critical juncture in the first half. He wanted to put points on the board and put pressure on Aaron Rodgers and his defense had been playing well.
But with an offensive line that has been lousy (at best) on running plays, the choice to run the ball there is confusing. A chip-shot field goal would have put points on the board and kept the energy with Baltimore and the score tight.
Instead, Baltimore got no points and would have trailed by three at the half, but for another bone-headed call, trying for points with 12 seconds left in the first half.
With the offense slumping and Green Bay leading, Harbaugh tried to get Flacco to rally the troops from Baltimore’s 34. Despite bringing just a three-man rush, the Packers got to Flacco, and Joe (like’s he done in similar situations against the Steelers in years past) fumbled deep in his own zone. Baltimore was lucky Green Bay had only a short field goal to kick rather than a walk-in touchdown thanks to being knocked out of bounds on the fumble recovery.
Harbaugh said later he liked the odds of trapping the Packers on the one yard line if the Ravens didn’t score, but against a good red-zone defense and in a close game, the call didn’t make much sense.
On the Flacco call, Harbaugh did have some time-outs left, but ultimately this was just another bad decision with not much time on the clock and bad field position.
Against Pittsburgh, the Ravens chose to try an on-side kick despite the fact that Pittsburgh’s special teams coach had not given up a surprise onside kick in 20 years. Harbaugh claimed that he “saw something on tape” that led to the decision, but radio analyst Vinny Cerrato (former Redskins general manager) said he also looked at tape and found nothing that would suggest a surprise kick would work.
Then Justin Tucker lost his footing on a kickoff, resulting in a floater into the Steelers end zone after the Ravens had tied the game late. The Steelers nearly scored a touchdown but for a miscue of their own, but still got the ball back on the 35 yard line with a little under two minutes to play and promptly put together a game-winning drive with the strong field position.
In some ways, the Steelers’ scoring a TD would have been better for Baltimore because then at least the clock could not have run out against them and they would have timeouts left. As sad as it is, at least Baltimore would have a chance to play to tie rather than have time run out in a loss when the defense, for the second game in a row, couldn’t get a key stop.
Ultimately Harbaugh is responsible for his decisions, but not for luck. But this year, as the Ravens look very unlikely to go 7-2 and make the playoffs, Harbaugh’s blunders will resonate loudly when the team watches the Cincinnati Bengals on TV in the postseason while they sit at home. It isn’t luck that’s cost Baltimore games, just untimely bad play and bad coaching.