The Coach of the Year award is the most prestigious accolade a coach in the National Football League can receive, recognized for an outstanding job leading their team. Baltimore Ravens head coach, John Harbaugh, is at the forefront of the Coach of the Year conversation, but not because he simply led the Ravens to a 14-2 record, the best in the conference and the league as a whole in 2019. John Harbaugh is in contention for the award because he gambled everything: the season, his job, and his reputation on a radical change in strategy that few coaches would even dare to entertain. The departure from tradition could have busted the longtime Ravens head coach, but the exact opposite happened. Harbaugh’s calculation was correct, and he hit big.
There is no coach more deserving of the award than John Harbaugh.
It’s no surprise that, for the first ten years of his tenure as the Ravens head coach, the former special teams coordinator was not the offensive mastermind that his mentor, Andy Reid was and is. John Harbaugh’s entire offensive philosophy was based on old-school, pro-style offenses. His choice in a quarterback, running backs, and offensive coordinators reflect this. Harbaugh and the Ravens drafted Joe Flacco in the first round of the 2008 draft. Tall, immobile, cannon arm – that’s what Flacco was, and what Harbaugh wanted. Harbaugh and the Ravens also drafted Ray Rice in the same draft to be Flacco’s compliment on the ground. Add offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, and the Ravens produced a competent, effective, yet relatively boring offense. Offensive coordinators and running backs would come and go after Cameron departed in 2012 and Rice in 2014, but the strong-armed, immobile quarterback would remain under center.
The only major change in the offensive scheme came in 2014 when Harbaugh added former Houston Texans head coach and west coast offense guru, Gary Kubiak to the staff. Kubiak served as the offensive coordinator for the one-year-wonder that was 2014. Kubiak unlocked Flacco’s greatest potential, coupled him with a zone running scheme led by the breakout Justin Forsett, and created one of the greatest Ravens’ offenses ever seen. But Kubiak’s departure after that season caused a complete collapse in Ravens’ scheme making. No offensive coordinator was able to replicate the west coast formula Kubiak employed, and the Ravens offense struggled to even be decent from 2015 to 2017.
So, what does all this history have to do with John Harbaugh and the Coach of the Year Award?
The Ravens knew that Flacco, the undisputed best quarterback in franchise history (so far), had no long-term future in Baltimore. Not only did the offense struggle under his leadership from 2015-2017, but Flacco also suffered injuries in all but one season (2016) during that time span. The Ravens decided that a successor had to be selected, but instead of continuing the tall, immobile, and strong-armed tradition, John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens decided to take a major risk in drafting the speedster with accuracy issues – Lamar Jackson.
Lamar Jackson’s 2018 season was the trial run to the young quarterback’s future. He only became the starter after Flacco suffered a hip injury, so he was not receiving first-team reps in practice until the midpoint of the season. No one really knew what Lamar Jackson was going to do in 2019, but there were a few schools of thought. The first was that the Ravens would do what the Tennessee Titans tried to do with Marcus Mariota – discourage him from running and confine him to the pocket as a passer. The Ravens would not have prevented Lamar Jackson from running under this strategy, but he would total maybe 300-400 yards rushing in a single season. The second was that the Ravens would try to develop Lamar Jackson like the Seattle Seahawks did Russell Wilson. Under this scenario, Jackson would be encouraged to scramble, but he would be a compliment to the rushing game, not it’s the main driver.
No one expected the Ravens to take the third option, but they did. John Harbaugh and the Ravens decided it was best to double down on Lamar Jackson as the player he is. Harbaugh found the coordinator for the job in Greg Roman, who immediately got to work scheming up ways the Ravens could utilize Jackson as a runner and a passer. John Harbaugh not only allowed Lamar Jackson to dance around the field, but he also encouraged it. Harbaugh dreamed of a new-age, revolutionary, offense the league had never seen before. Few coaches in the national football league would be comfortable exposing their young quarterback to the number of hits a running back would take, but Harbaugh placed unflappable faith in Lamar Jackson. 4,333 total yards, 43 total touchdowns later, and the inevitable league MVP nod later, it may now be safe to say that Harbaugh made the right call.
The success of the record-breaking Ravens’ offense clouds the memory that John Harbaugh was on the hot seat last year, and if not for a week 17 defensive stand, the franchises’ winningest coach may have worn the colors of another team in 2019. Failure to create a winning offense around Lamar Jackson could have put Harbaugh back on the hot seat, a potentially grave outcome. John Harbaugh, the coach with no offensive pedigree, put all his chips on Greg Roman, Lamar Jackson, and himself in developing the most innovative offense since Bill Walsh introduced the west coast offense. Harbaugh can now cash in on that audacious bet.
Harbaugh’s development of the Jackson scheme is enough to earn the award in any given year, but the coach did more than innovate the offensive scheme. Coach Harbaugh embraced analytics in 2019, something that most professional coaches refuse to do. Harbaugh’s analytical approach, inspired by the first-year general manager, Eric DeCosta (who deserves to win Executive of the Year), is primarily used in fourth-down and two-point decisions. Harbaugh’s initial use of analytics drew the ire of many fans and analysts (including yours truly), who criticized him for being reckless. But Harbaugh’s strategy eventually picked up. On fourth down and 2 from the Seahawks eight-yard line, tied at 13 with less than two minutes to go in the third quarter, Harbaugh made the single most important analytical call of the season. Harbaugh asked his quarterback if he wanted to play for the first down, to which Lamar Jackson replied “Hell yeah, coach! Let’s go for it!” Jackson ran eight yards for a touchdown on the next play, and the Ravens have dominated the competition ever since.
Harbaugh’s gamble on Lamar Jackson and the revolutionary offense was a major risk for the veteran coach, but like with many high risks, there was an even higher reward. Baltimore’s offense has dominated the competition from the first play in Miami to the last in Baltimore. Harbaugh departed from 11 years of precedent to develop the offense. He fully embraced Lamar Jackson for what he is, and the second-year quarterback is the undisputed most valuable player in the National Football League because of Harbaugh’s acceptance of him. It is my belief that aside from coaching legends like Bill Belichick and Sean Payton, Harbaugh is the only coach that would double down on Jackson and allow him to continue the style of play that won him the Heisman trophy. Harbaugh’s embrace of analytics pushed boundaries, gave the Ravens offense more opportunities, and awarded the team a swagger that has taken the league by storm.
There are other coaches that deserve recognition. In his first season leading the Packers, Matt LaFleur brought the team back to the playoffs with a first-round bye, and Kyle Shanahan finally completed the rebuild of the 49ers he and general manager John Lynch began in 2017. These coaches should be applauded for their excellence, but they cannot top the accomplishments of John Harbaugh and the 2019 Baltimore Ravens.