Thursday, May 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Harbaugh brothers gambled — and won

NEW ORLEANS

The safe thing to do would have been nothing.

The patient thing to do would have been to stand pat.

The loyal thing to do would have been for a coach to keep grinding with what he has and hope things work out.

After all, most coaches hate to gamble. They prefer to look leaderly and calm and under control. Pretty much, it's the reason they punt on fourth and 1. They want to look as if they trust the plan.

Understand, then, how large the Harbaugh brothers are in guts.

That way, you might understand why they are in the Super Bowl. In the brotherhood of risk, there are the Harbaughs, and then there are the Wallendas.

Start with Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers coach who sent his starting quarterback to the bench in mid November.

Yeah, it took some nerve. Alex Smith was having his finest season at the time. He had resurrected his career under Harbaugh, he had won 20 of his previous 25 starts, and he had helped the 49ers reach the NFC championship last year. Who wouldn't have stuck by Smith?

Well, Harbaugh, that's who. Once a concussion by Smith opened the door, Harbaugh fell in love with what he saw from Colin Kaepernick. So even though the 49ers were 6-2-1 in his starts, even though Smith had a quarterback rating of 104.1, Harbaugh made the change. Under Kaepernick, the 49ers offense took off.

At the time, not many people knew very much about Kaepernick. He played at a small school, and he had some talent, and he had a bunch of tattoos. Soon, however, the world would see how much stress his legs could put on a defense. In other words, they would see what Harbaugh saw.

Score one for boldness.

Actually, score two.

Three weeks later, it was John Harbaugh whose convictions were tested. That's when the Ravens coach sent his offensive coordinator to the unemployment line.

Yeah, that took some fortitude, too. Cam Cameron had been his offensive coordinator for five seasons, and all of them had wound up in the playoffs. And while the Ravens had their struggles, it was no longer the drag-them-along offense of old. The Ravens were ninth in the league on offense, averaging 344 yards per game. As a team, Baltimore was 9-4. Who makes changes at 9-4?

Well, Harbaugh, that's who. With three weeks to go in the season, he pulled the plug on Cameron — a man he had known since Cameron helped coach Jim at Michigan — in favor of quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell. Under Caldwell, the Ravens offense took off.

In particular, quarterback Joe Flacco responded. Flacco, too, had been up and down. He always has insisted he is an elite quarterback, but there still seemed to be days when the offense rode the brakes. Since Caldwell came aboard, however, Flacco hasn't had a day when he wasn't the better quarterback on the field.

These days, it is easy to praise either Harbaugh for the brilliance of those two moves. But go back to the backbone it took to make either switch.

Coaching is the ultimate dance-with-the-one-who-brought-you profession.

Then, there is this: It wasn't just the resolve of the Harbaughs that made these moves. It's the quarterbacks who performed so well afterward that made them look smart.

If Kaepernick struggled, if Flacco wobbled, then the moves wouldn't look nearly as courageous.

These days, neither Harbaugh seems to want to discuss the moves, lest the losers in the competitions — Smith and Cameron — end up looking worse.

"I hesitate to answer those questions (about the quarterback change)," said Jim, who at 49 is 15 months younger than John. "All those questions and answers really lead to a lot of self-promotion. The main thing is the way Colin Kaepernick has played is a credit to Colin Kaeper­nick and to his teammates."

"We just needed a jump start," said John, who called it "the hardest decision of his career" when he made it.

Still, it is doubtful that the status quo would have brought either team here. That's why you make the move, isn't it?

Yes, Smith had been a much better quarterback under Harbaugh. But privately, the 49ers still didn't think he was good enough to be a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. That's why the organization flirted with Peyton Manning before the season began. That's why Kaeper­nick was drafted to begin with.

Harbaugh has always admired running quarterbacks. The other day, he explained how a running quarterback makes defenses play "11-on-11 instead of 11-on-10."

In an October game against the Giants, Harbaugh grew restless as he watched Smith struggle. Several times, he inserted Kaepernick into the game.

Two weeks later, Smith was injured against the Rams. It was obvious how much more explosive the 49ers offense was behind Kaepernick. Suddenly, Smith was a spectator and Kaepernick had the keys to the car. He has not slowed down since.

Likewise, it was Flacco's play that convinced the world how right the Ravens were — and it was John Harbaugh's call — to change coordinators.

Under Cameron, there was an underlying frustration to the Ravens offense. The Ravens had some nice weapons around Flacco, but the production didn't seem to reflect that. There were reports — denied by the Ravens — that there was a rift between Flacco and Cameron.

These days, players talk about how the playmakers get the ball more often and how everyone understands the plan. Usually, those are code words for saying Cameron was too conservative.

Certainly, the move has benefited Flacco, who has eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs. Even Cameron has said the move to fire him was "brilliant."

Was it risky? Sure. Every bold move has the possibility of backfire to it.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. It's hard to imagine either team getting here without the guts of the coaches or the impacts of the quarterbacks.

That's why they call it leadership. That's why they call it coaching.

In a profession about winning, that's what they call "going for it."

 
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