The Baltimore Ravens are back in the AFC Championship Game for the first time since winning the Super Bowl following the 2012 season. Longtime head coach John Harbaugh could all but secure a spot in Canton with another Lombardi Trophy. Potential two-time league MVP Lamar Jackson, often knocked for his lack of postseason success, is on the doorstep of his career breakthrough moment.
The Harbaugh-Jackson partnership immediately blossomed into one of the best head coach-quarterback duos in the NFL—they’re 58-19 in Jackson’s regular season starts. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that before Jackson’s arrival, the main storyline in Baltimore was Harbaugh’s job security.
Harbaugh’s hot seat
“Certainly, it was a thought,” Bisciotti said when asked whether he had wrestled with the decision to bring back Harbaugh after this season. “I was very proud of the way John kept fighting, held the team together when we were losing in the middle of the year. Joe [Flacco, quarterback] was obviously producing at substandard with his back injury and after the first couple of weeks, obviously, we were very encouraged by our defense and thought that could hold us together. We didn’t perform very well in the middle of the year. I was proud of the way we fought back as a team.”
Bisciotti’s remarks came just over a month after the Ravens were agonizingly eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the 2017 season. Needing a home win against the already eliminated Cincinnati Bengals, Harbaugh’s defense allowed a 49-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd on 4th-and-12 with :44 left in the game. Cincinnati won 27-24, bouncing Baltimore out.
Harbaugh did plenty of winning with Joe Flacco (along with an outstanding defense anchored by Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs). In Harbaugh’s first five seasons, Baltimore was in the NFL’s first-class: A 54-26 regular season record (2nd best in the NFL), five playoff berths (with at least one win in every trip), two AFC North titles, three AFC Championship appearances, and the Super Bowl over Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers. Ironically, the worst of those teams by DVOA was the one that lifted the Lombardi Trophy, and maybe that was the hint that the decline was on the horizon.
The post-Super Bowl years that put Harbaugh on thin ice were mediocre. From 2013 to 2017, Baltimore had no division titles, a single playoff berth (and win), a regular season record of 40-40, and most importantly, Flacco was playing at a level nowhere near the epic playoff run that helped him become the NFL’s highest-paid player.
Even though Flacco was signed through 2021, outgoing Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome and incumbent Eric DeCosta traded back into the first round to select Lamar Jackson at No. 32 overall.
Harbaugh’s hotter seat
Unlike Flacco, who was almost the default Day 1 starter following Steve McNair’s retirement and ailments to Kyle Boller and Troy Smith, Jackson had to ride the bench. While Flacco wasn’t statistically poor, the middling results continued. The Ravens were 4-5 and on a three-game losing skid entering the bye week. Jackson’s only extended snaps were in garbage time.
With the playoffs looking distant and only one year remaining on his contract, it looked like the end was nigh for John Harbaugh.
Flacco’s hip injury suffered against the Pittsburgh Steelers, his third significant injury in five seasons, paved the way for Jackson to make his first NFL start. The passing stats were a modest 13/19 for 150 yards and an interception, but Jackson injected life into the rushing attack, carrying 26 times for 119 yards in a 24-21 win over the Bengals.
Alive in the playoff race again, Harbaugh made the call to stick with Jackson for good by mid-December, ending the tenure of (up to that point) the best quarterback in the franchise’s relatively young history.
“Every decision is based on making us the strongest possible team we can be,” Harbaugh said. “Whether it’s quarterback or defensive line, that’s the bottom line. That’s what it boils down to. That’s how we feel about this decision, and we’re rolling.”
Baltimore rolled its way from 4-5 to 10-6 and the AFC North crown. Unlike the 2016 and 2017 seasons, the defense was able to make the critical late-game stop. The ending, however, was rough. In the loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, some fans booed and chanted for Flacco as Jackson struggled in his playoff debut, Harbaugh stuck with his rookie and the Ravens nearly rallied from a 23-3 fourth quarter deficit.
Even before the playoff spot was clinched, the late-season surge was enough to keep Harbaugh’s job and get his contract extended.
The Ravens offense was not necessarily more efficient with Jackson compared to the half-season of Flacco; it just attacked defenses differently. From Weeks 11-17, Baltimore elevated from 15th to 7th in rush offense DVOA, had the 2nd-best rushing attack by EPA/play (up from 9th with Flacco), and averaged over 200 yards per game. Jackson led all quarterbacks in rushing despite playing less than half the season. The running game was so prolific that it offset the passing game’s limitations, and provided a glimpse of Jackson’s potential as an elite dual-threat quarterback.
Only Bill Parcells (Phil Simms, Jeff Hostetler), George Seifert (Joe Montana, Steve Young), and Joe Gibbs (Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, Mark Rypien) have won Super Bowls with different starting quarterbacks. Harbaugh is two wins away from joining exclusive company.
In all likelihood, none of this happens without Flacco’s injury forcing Harbaugh to go to Jackson sooner than planned. Jackson’s early performances saved the season, saved Harbaugh’s job, and created a new window of title contention. It hasn’t yet paid off in the form of even an AFC title, but this year’s team looks poised to end the drought.
Of course, nothing can be taken for granted when the penultimate hurdle to a title is Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid, and the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs. They were the only regular season team to beat Jackson as a rookie (and even that was an overtime thriller), so it’s only fitting that they’re the last team standing in the way of Jackson’s first Super Bowl appearance.