Double Coverage: The dueling Harbaughs
January, 27, 2013
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com
USA TODAY SportsGambles have paid off for Harbaugh brothers Jim (left) and John on their way to the Super Bowl.Perhaps you've heard the news: Super Bowl XLVII features two head coaches from the same family. Brothers, in fact. You could look it up, or you could listen in while NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley take (family) matters into their own hands.
Sando: The Baltimore Ravens seem like such a close-knit group. They seem like family even more than Jim and John Harbaugh do. But a few years ago, I recall hearing how some Ravens players weren't taking to John Harbaugh's abrasive, authoritarian coaching style. I'd be curious to know if there's been an evolution at all, or to what degree the relationship between John Harbaugh and the team has grown. What has changed?
Hensley: Mike, you're right that it's taken the players time to warm up to John. A lot of players thought he came across as too blunt and bent on doing things his way. In June 2010, at least one player complained to the NFL Players Association about voluntary offseason practices being too physical and meetings running too long. The Ravens were forced to cancel one week of their spring camps because of that.
To be fair, John Harbaugh came into a situation in which the locker room was filled with strong personalities, and he had never been a head coach before. But Harbaugh has grown into the role of head coach, especially this year. Players talk about Harbaugh being more open-minded and responsive to them. They feel more comfortable airing out their differences. This team is tighter than any of the previous ones under Harbaugh, and he has played a big role in that. I'm sure Jim faced some equally tough challenges in his first couple of seasons with the 49ers.
Sando: Jim Harbaugh also inherited a team with quite a few established players. But those players embraced him from the very beginning for reasons that say quite a bit about what makes a head coach and his staff credible. Players in San Francisco were starving for a coaching staff with the right answers to their schematic questions. Former coach Mike Singletary’s inspirational approach lost traction eventually because the offensive scheming was so lacking. Players will not respect coaches over the long term if those coaches don’t have schematic answers. Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff have had those answers.
There is still room for growth in other areas for Harbaugh, however. His unrelenting intensity could have a limited shelf life if left unchecked. His approach carries long-term risks as far as sustainability. But with the team advancing to the Super Bowl within a two-season period of his hiring, that isn’t an issue now.
Hensley: The key word that you touched upon is risk. The common theme is John and Jim aren't afraid of it. That was apparent by the bold moves they made during the season.
John Harbaugh fired his offensive coordinator with three weeks remaining in the regular season when the Ravens were in first place in the AFC North and on the brink of clinching a playoff berth. Who does that? Harbaugh handed the offense over to Jim Caldwell, who hadn't called plays since his days at Wake Forest more than a decade ago.
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJoe Flacco has responded well to a late-season coaching move by head coach John Harbaugh (left).
The result has been more of a commitment to the run and loosening the reins on Joe Flacco. It could have backfired on Harbaugh, but he repeatedly said it was the right move for the team.
The only move that would trump a coaching change like that is switching your quarterbacks at midseason. Oh, wait. That's treading on your territory, Mike. I know people will get tired of hearing about the brothers and the Har-Bowl, or whatever you want to call it. But John and Jim have made the necessary moves to get their teams to this point.
Sando: No question. Jim Harbaugh easily could have stayed the course with Alex Smith, who had posted a 19-5-1 record as a starter and taken the team to the NFC Championship Game a year ago. That would have been the safe move. That would have insulated Harbaugh from criticism if Colin Kaepernick faltered, which easily could have happened in the short term as the offense adjusted to a quarterback with a different style.
Anything less than reaching the NFC Championship Game this season would have cast the Kaepernick decision as a failure in the public’s eye -- and maybe in some players’ eyes, too. I do suspect the decision wasn’t as tough for Harbaugh as it appeared from the outside. He traded up to draft Kaepernick. He watched Kaepernick light it up against Chicago in that Monday night game before he decided on the starter going forward. Harbaugh was in position to know how good Kaepernick could be. He just had to navigate through the politics of an in-season change.
Hensley: The biggest change John Harbaugh made since he took over in 2008 was with the team culture. The Ravens were seen by many as thugs who talked trash to every opponent. In his introductory news conference, Harbaugh said his focus was going to be on three things: team, team and team.
Harbaugh's greatest strengths as a coach are his attention to detail, ability to motivate and focus. Walk the halls of Ravens headquarters, and you’ll see one of Harbaugh’s favorite slogans throughout the building: W.I.N. (What’s Important Now). Some players think it's too rah-rah for the NFL, and it seems better suited for college. But you can't argue with Harbaugh's results. He's the only head coach in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons, and also the only coach to advance to three conference title games over that same span. If the Ravens win the Super Bowl, Harbaugh will tie Bill Belichick for the most wins since the start of the 2008 season.
Sando: Not bad company there, Jamison. The slogans you cited made it clear to me that we will not need DNA testing to confirm the relationship between these two Super Bowl coaches and their formerly coaching father, Jack. “The team, the team, the team” is a favorite Jim Harbaugh saying. He also posted a sign outside the 49ers' locker room in Santa Clara stating that a person is getting better or getting worse, never staying the same.
Jim also likes to punctuate victories in the locker room by gathering the team around him and asking, “Who’s got it better than us?” To which the players scream, “Nobody!” That one came from Jack Harbaugh back when the family was moving frequently and living on a tight budget. The Harbaughs are rolling in money now, at least relatively speaking, but they sound like the same guys in so many ways.
Hensley: While we have talked about the similarities of the Harbaugh brothers as coaches, no one should lose sight of the family element here. It must be tough for John and Jim to know that only one is going to be holding the Lombardi Trophy. It must be tougher for their father and mother.
One of the reasons Jim chose the 49ers was because they were in the NFC and that reduced the chances of facing John on a regular basis. That's why I agree with Jim that this is both a blessing and a curse. There will be stories all week leading up to the Super Bowl celebrating the top coaching family in football. Come Sunday night, only one brother will be celebrating.