Super Bowl champions are crowned in February, but the long haul of the regular season is where teams find out who they really are. The road to the big game has inescapable twists and turns for every team that has the privilege of taking part, but the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers made some especially interesting changes along the way
On November 19, Colin Kaepernick started his first NFL game against the Chicago Bears. Exactly three weeks later, the Baltimore Ravens fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. What makes both moves significant is the record of both teams when they made the changes: San Francisco was 4-1-1, and Baltimore a comfortable 9-4. These moves weren’t just necessary personnel decisions, but reflected the attitudes of their respective coaches.
To understand why these decisions speak volumes about the expectations these guys put on themselves and their teams, we need to put them into context. And that context is nervous NFL head coaches who make Rush Limbaugh look unconservative. NFL coaches are human calculators, constantly determining the probability of every decision. Not For Long, as the league is so lovingly referred to by those who are employed by it, creates an environment where coaches are afraid to take chances.
That’s not to say that all coaches don't take risks(*cough* Bill Belichick *cough*), but more that they are inclined to go the safe route when it comes to most decisions. At 9-4 the Baltimore Ravens had dropped two in a row, but a division-leading team dismissing their offensive coordinator is practically unheard of. The 49ers were playing excellent football and lead their division, so to bench the third rated passer in the NFL was another unprecedented decision.
Those decisions show us why the Harbaugh brothers both made it to the Super Bowl: it was their expectation. At 9-4 John Harbaugh did not need to be concerned about his job, his future, or even the chances Baltimore would make the playoffs. He could have taken what he had and no one would have said otherwise. The 49ers had one of the NFL’s most efficient quarterbacks leading one of its elite teams, and sticking with that would have outraged no one.
But neither coach was ok with being good, or even very good. I know this because of the changes they made. They looked at their teams and saw playoff contenders, but they also saw a way to improve the situation. In hindsight, one could dismiss the significance of these decisions. Look at Kaepernick, how could Alex Smith have even started? Did you see how bad the Ravens offense looked? Of course they made a change. But that doesn’t take into account the tremendous risk that both coaches took.
Jim Harbaugh stuck his neck out for Kaepernick, because if it had failed, Harbaugh would have been absolutely crushed. Every sports columnist would have had a field day with the idiot coach who benched a top-5 NFL QB on a division-leading team, and he knew that. Changing coordinators late in the season can throw everything off for a team, and considering their good playoff chances at the time, John Harbaugh risked getting annihilated by the media. Had the offensive coordinator change backfired, he could have been legitimately wondering about his job.
We found out a lot about the Harbaugh brothers with the way they treated their successful teams, and it’s no surprise that both have gone all the way. Every NFL franchise needs to take a page from the Harbaugh playbook and remember that the goal is to win Super Bowls.
Last summer, the Detroit Lions signed coach Jim Schwartz to a long-term extension after the team earned their first postseason berth since Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. In doing so, they told their franchise that making the playoffs was meeting or even exceeding expectations. When Jim Harbaugh benched one of the NFL’s most efficient quarterbacks, and when John dismissed Cam Cameron, they told their teams what their expectations were.