Friday, September 30, 2022

Purple Reign 2: Chapter 14 “Family beefs and Care-frontation”

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“I’ve got a rule. I never, ever hold a grudge. And I kind of a have a rule that nobody else is allowed to hold a grudge, either. There are no grudges. We’re a bunch of guys. We don’t hold grudges. Right? We move on.”

– John Harbaugh (November 2012)

On Wednesday, November 28, 2012 the Baltimore Ravens reported to work in Owings Mills with a 9-2 record. No matter how unimpressive the results or statistics were on either side of the ball or how fortunate their fate seemed, it would be hard not to make the playoffs. One more win and the Ravens would have a seat in the tournament and a shot at the confetti for the fifth year in a row.

And in a strange quirk of NFL scheduling, once again the Pittsburgh Steelers were next up, the second meeting in 14 days between the bitter rivals. Once again it appeared that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would be unavailable with his shoulder injury but instead of Byron Leftwich, this time it would be 15-year veteran Charlie Batch lining up under center at M&T Bank Stadium for the black and gold. All of the obvious discomfort that Leftwich had 10 days earlier was the result of two broken ribs he sustained at the hands of the Ravens defense in Pittsburgh. Batch started for the Steelers in Cleveland and lost 20-14 while throwing three interceptions just a few hours prior to the Ravens’ 4th & 29 miracle in San Diego. The Steelers were fading at 6-5. The Ravens were 9-2 and on a four-game winning streak, including back-to-back road wins.Silver had been at the Ravens game on Sunday in San Diego and was a seasoned reporter who knew a good story when he heard one. Iconoclastic, inquisitive, and fully cognizant of all aspects of the coach-player-media privilege, as well as sourced throughout the NFL, Silver knows the difference between on the record and off the record.

Good journalism is all in the eyes of the beholder. One veteran sports reporter’s account of a behind-the-scenes confrontation a month earlier holds a lot of weight when no one is issuing denials, and everyone agrees it was unique and productive. Even when some personnel don’t want to put their names to quotes or information, it was clear there was substance and clarity in the story.

All was happy in Owings Mills during Steelers Week until Wednesday morning when a fascinating story appeared at Yahoo Sports. NFL columnist Mike Silver authored a piece that was widely shared via the web and social media.

Headline: “John Harbaugh kept Ravens on track despite near mutiny at meeting in October”

Harbaugh wasn’t necessarily pissed off that the story was written – Silver approached him after the joyous win and chatted with him and quoted him regarding the alleged incident. Harbaugh was pissed that the word “mutiny” was used because he viewed it differently. “I was in control the whole time,” Harbaugh said. But the story was now public, even if in the end it was published because an unnamed player leaked a private, locker room story to Silver about the incident and thought that it painted the portrait of a changing, improving, growing version of Harbaugh.

It all began after the hideous Ravens loss on October 21 in Houston and the work schedule around the bye, when a week of down time for the organization was needed physically. But it was tough to swallow psychologically after getting beat in embarrassing fashion by a Texans team. Now the Ravens believed this was likely a team they’d have to see again down the road and because of the loss, now on the road. When the players reported for work on October 23, on the eve of their getaway, Harbaugh announced they’d be practicing in pads.

Aside from groans and grumbles, there was a small group of dissenters, led by Bernard Pollard, who had a reputation for having an outsized opinion on most topics. Pollard decided to filibuster and protest vocally. Harbaugh has a more liberal policy in regard to speaking out than some old-school coaches who employ the “my way or the highway” philosophy. Bo Schembechler might question this technique.

Harbaugh has something called “Open Mic” – where you’re allowed to address the team on any topic. As he told Silver, “we can all say anything that we need to say and have to say. You know then that you’re responsible — when you say it, everybody’s gonna hear it, so you’d better make it your best stuff. That brings out the best. Otherwise, it’s ‘Why are they sneaking around talking behind corners?’ You know what I mean? If you’ve got something, you put it right out here in front of me. I’m man enough to handle it. If you’re right, then you’re right! It’s OK to be right. But more important it’s OK to be wrong. And it’s OK for me to be wrong, too.”

“John really wanted that,” Flacco said. “He wanted feedback. He wanted to get to a point where he could do it. He’s learned how to have that balance between being a hard ass and having trust in us. Sometimes he gives in to us. He respects our opinion.”

Bye week losses are particularly disturbing to a head coach because you’ll have two weeks to stew about it, and there’s always a question about whether the team was focused enough before the game. As a head coach, you don’t want players with one foot on an airplane toward a vacation, losing focus on the task at hand before the bye. Every coach fears a blowout loss before a bye. And, somehow, it still happened in Houston, and the team was 5-2. Prior to the Houston game, the game plan was laid out: put the ball in Flacco’s hands and try to be more aggressive, up tempo, and working in the no huddle.

If the Ravens were going to beat the Texans, the offense would have to put up points. It wasn’t going to be a 9-6 game. And if you wanted to use the no huddle as a true weapon in January, it needs to work on the road at some point with success. For the offense to take chances and throw the ball down the field, it meant that the defense would bear the brunt of any mistakes. Harbaugh told safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard: “Have our backs today. We’re going to let the ball fly.”

As for the so-called “mutiny,” Pollard, who had been playing with cracked ribs since Week 2 in Philadelphia, was the first to take umbrage with the notion of practicing with pads and getting physical in the middle of the week when he was already hurting. Ed Reed, and to some degree, Cary Williams, got involved in a verbal sparring match with Harbaugh in the middle of a full-team meeting.

With Pollard, the gloves quickly came off in the debate – the offense’s use of the no huddle offense, which sped up the game, also got the defense back onto the field quickly. Pollard felt that the defense was hung out to dry in Houston. The Ravens offense had just 176 yards, holding the ball just 21 minutes and managing 12 first downs. The Ravens defense surrendered 420 yards, allowing the Texans offense to hold the ball 39 minutes with a whopping 27 first downs.

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