The Flexible Ravens Have Created a New Model for NFL Coaches

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and star quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Source Composite Sean Culligan/OZY, Images Getty

Why you should care

Because the winds of NFL coaching searches are about to shift.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson ended his rookie year with a desultory loss to the San Diego Chargers in the wild-card round. For most of that day last January, Jackson could hardly complete a pass.

Then he went out and dominated the league, with 43 total touchdowns and an MVP award likely coming his way. The Ravens (14-2) completely changed their approach and unleashed the NFL’s newest transcendent star, as they roll into their divisional round matchup Saturday against the Tennessee Titans. And in so doing, head coach John Harbaugh unveiled a new coaching template for other franchises to follow — one that relies on creativity and flexibility.

“The job that [Harbaugh] and [offensive coordinator] Greg Roman have done is remarkable,” says Good Morning Football co-host Kyle Brandt. “They’re not governed by whatever trend is dominating the league. They realized how to win with Jackson, and went all in.”

Since Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2008, the Ravens were built around a fierce defense and a quarterback (Joe Flacco) who did just enough, usually, to win. But when Harbaugh, 57, drafted Jackson before last season, he flipped the system entirely. He hired Roman, who had previously found success working with dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and the pair tailored a new offense based around Jackson’s dynamic skill set. With 1,206 yards, Jackson ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing, but he ranked just 26th in pass attempts, even though he led the league in passing touchdowns. The ground game emphasis cuts against the grain of today’s NFL; it was a huge gamble, revamping an offense around an unproven QB. But now there’s no limit to how high the Ravens can fly. 

Special teams coaches deal with a lot more instability than coordinators.

Nate Burleson, former NFL wide receiver

NFL coaching styles have always come in waves. Last year, we highlighted how the commodity du jour — 30-something offensive gurus — landed several defensive-minded, African American head coaches on the unemployment line. That trend hasn’t always paid off. Teams searching for the next Sean McVay, the wunderkind who led the Rams to the Super Bowl last year, have found success (the Packers’ Matt LaFleur) and failure (the Browns’ Freddie Kitchens, the Bengals’ Zac Taylor).

But with so much innovation — both offensive and defensive — across the league, a head coach’s ability to be flexible has never been more important. The Patriots’ Bill Belichick’s week-to-week shifts are legendary; the Buffalo Bills’ Sean McDermott has also shown admirable adaptability.

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh looks on in the second half against the Cleveland Browns in Baltimore.

Source Rob Carr/Getty

Harbaugh is the prime example. As a special teams coach for nine years with Philadelphia before taking the Baltimore job, Harbaugh was seen as a great teacher and a responsible manager of his unit, but there were doubts about how well he could run a franchise. Now it’s clear how much of an asset his background is.

“Harbaugh isn’t tied down to any one concept or one offense,” says former NFL wideout Nate Burleson. “A lot of coaches aren’t able to change so quickly.”

By reimagining Baltimore’s identity around its most valuable asset, Jackson, Harbaugh provided a blueprint of how to remain ahead of the curve. Outside Belichick — who spent eight years as a special teams coach — perhaps no other coach would have changed course so swiftly. Quarterback gurus are in vogue, but high-caliber special teams coaches may be better suited to become franchise CEOs. The New York Giants certainly hope so; this week they hired longtime New England special teams coordinator Joe Judge to be their next head coach.

“Special teams coaches deal with a lot more instability than coordinators,” explains Burleson. “You don’t get to pick your players. You work with whichever backups are available that week.”

Additionally, Burleson notes, special teams coaches are forced to teach and evaluate differently. Today’s NFL players are younger than ever and, thanks to collective bargaining, practice less. Most are new to special teams. “They were the best players in college and high school,” says Burleson. “So a coach has to teach the basic details while figuring out who will shine.” A failed wide receiver, like Chicago’s Cordarrelle Patterson, may turn out to be one of the best special teams players in the league. It’s up to the special teams coach to harness that potential and game-plan around it. 

To be clear, the high-octane offensive craze sweeping the NFL is going nowhere soon. Front offices will continue to search for their own offensive miracle workers like McVay. But as most of the league flows in one direction, the successful few will exploit the margins and adapt to thwart defenses designed to stop the prevailing style.

The Harbaugh-style creatives, not the schemers, will thrive in the end.

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