Monday, November 14, 2011

Tale of the tape: John Harbaugh seems a little too tolerant after the Ravens' loss to the Seahawks

Take a look at these two videos. The first is of University of Memphis football coach Larry Porter, whose team lost 41-35 to conference rival UAB on Saturday after holding an 18-point second half lead.

The second video (click the link to go to the NFL's official video archive) is an edited clip of Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh. The Ravens lost 22-17 to the Seattle Seahawks.

John Harbaugh post-game press conference 11/13

I'm all for diplomacy -- my minor is in International Studies -- but the way these guys talk, you would think they both lost tough games, and that the losses were one of many. Porter's team, now 2-8, has been a Conference USA punching bag and college football pincushion for the last two years, and they lost to a pretty lousy team. Baltimore also lost to a bad team (at least one with a losing record), but the Ravens have been considered the class of the NFL at times this season, which is part of what makes Harbaugh's patronizing tone so unnerving.  It isn't like this was an anomalous pothole in the road to home field advantage through the playoffs: the Ravens have played down to the level of low-caliber teams four times already this season, losing on three of those occasions and narrowly avoiding a fourth defeat by mounting the biggest second-half rally in franchise history to beat Arizona at home.

The mistakes have been the same in each undoing: turnovers, a lack of rushing attempts, and a meager vertical passing game (among other things)all of which contribute to Baltimore losing the time-of-possession battle by more than ten minutes. Jamison Hensley, the erstwhile Baltimore Sun reporter and Ravens beat writer, shed light on the elephant in the room that  so many fans have pointed to, time and again, in the hours after a frustrating loss (I've added the bold for emphasis):
The Ravens' loss at Seattle really isn't shocking at all. Just take a look at Ray Rice's touches.

Rice finished with five carries and eight receptions, a total that usually spells disaster. Over the past two seasons (including playoffs), Baltimore is 14-1 when Rice gets more than 20 touches and is 5-7 when he receives 20 or fewer...

The Ravens abandoned the run too early against the Seahawks. When Baltimore quickly fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron went with the pass on 16 of the next 17 plays.

Rice politely declined comment to reporters after the game because he wanted to say something positive and needed time to collect his thoughts. In this case, his lack of touches speaks for itself.
   (See Hensley's full blog post here.)

It is inconceivable for a team thought to be one of the best in football to repeatedly hobble itself by playing to its weaknesses. On a related note, this is not an apology for the Ravens' defense, which failed unconditionally in trying to stop the Seahawks on their final drive. However, the majority of football games are lost because of multiple mistakes made across 60 minutes, not just the painful ones made in the final minutes of a close contest. Regardless of the sterling record the Ravens own under Harbaugh with Flacco under center, there are serious questions being posed in every Baltimore neighborhood about why a team with so much talent can allow themselves to faceplant with so little grace on a regular basis.

Someone made an important point to me the other day: Cam Cameron might have lost his job a few months ago if not for the NFL lockout. Is this the tax that Baltimoreans are paying for the NFL's work stoppage? Such a notion is speculative at best, but it is not without reason: the offense, by most qualifications, was average at best last season, and in the playoffs, the Ravens were the only team to play multiple games and average less than 300 yards of offense (258.0) per game (Pittsburgh, the next closest team, averaged 312.3 in three games; Seattle averaged 345.5 in two games).

On Saturday, Standford University head coach David Shaw, a former Ravens assistant, said in an interview on ESPN's College Gameday that one of the most difficult things about being a head coach is hiring the right people for your coaching staff and allowing them to do what they do best -- that is, coach football -- without being overbearing or getting in their way. Harbaugh's concentration prior to being a head coach was special teams and defense, and to this point he has left the offense mostly to Cameron and Flacco. Harbaugh's responsibility is the overall preparation of his team, week in and week out, so that they are in the best position to dispatch their competition, and he has usually taken the blame when things have gone badly rather than throw one of his assistant coaches under the bus for a job poorly done.

The job, however, ain't gettin' done.  When will Cam Cameron stop thinking short passes to Ray Rice are a viable substitute for the run game? When will he also stop believing that short passes to Ray Rice can be alternately considered as a passing offense that legitimately threatens to score points rather than just gaining a few first downs? When will Flacco stop throwing these passes out of sheer fatigue and dissatisfaction with a routine that bears no fruit?

Whether the Ravens are facing division-leading San Francisco (8-1) or bottom-feeding Cleveland (3-6),  the offense needs to produce. The Ravens have a propensity for losing should-win games in embarrassing fashion, and trying to paper over that trend with the same "Mistakes were made" professionalism that Harbaugh almost always maintains will eventually wear on owner Steve Bisciotti and others in the organization, to say nothing of the fans. Efficacy is more important than effort for good teams, and it's about time for Harbaugh to start asking serious questions of his offensive coordinator regarding his plan to score more points than the opponent.  It's his head or Cameron's if the Ravens don't make the Super Bowl. Time for Harbaugh to start getting mad if he doesn't want to be mad and jobless at the same time.