National Football League
Risky moves pay off for Harbaughs
National Football League

Risky moves pay off for Harbaughs

Published Jan. 22, 2013 12:00 a.m. ET

The San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens trailed at halftime of their respective conference championship games last Sunday. On the road in a hostile Georgia Dome, the 49ers fell behind the Atlanta Falcons 17-0 early in the second quarter and found themselves down 10 points after 30 minutes.

The Ravens, outplayed in all three facets of the game in the first half, trailed the Patriots 13-7 at intermission in Foxboro.

Thirty minutes later, both visitors — after shutting out their opponents in their home buildings over the final two quarters — were headed to the Super Bowl.

Point to a key turnover or a third-down conversion if you’d like, but something inside the locker room during those halftime sessions changed the tone and script of both games. On the field, there were key plays and moments. On the sidelines, there were crucial coaching adjustments made.


That’s not a coincidence. The dream seasons for both teams have been spearheaded by crucial coaching adjustments. Look high and low for the turning points on the field, and you can list a thousand different big grabs, runs and tackles.

But the Ravens and 49ers’ 2012-13 campaigns really clicked into high gear after two decisions were made off of the gridiron by two bold, fearless and downright cold coaches — brothers Jim and John Harbaugh.

In the middle of two seemingly successful NFL seasons, they both cut bait with guys who’d been with them from the start of their head-coaching careers and got them where they were — incredibly difficult midseason decisions that didn’t have to be made. And neither guy — nor team — has looked back.

This is the story of two brothers succeeding on football’s grandest stage, yes. But it’s also the story of two brothers who showed sports has an ugly side, and did so on a very public stage; two brothers who sacrificed their own goodwill for the betterment of their teams. Two brothers who had enough confidence in their own convictions that they could make gutsy decisions most head coaches wouldn’t dare think of —especially while sporting 6-2-1 and 9-4 records.

Either Bruce Arians or Pete Carroll is going to win the NFL’s Coach of the Year award, and that’s fine. Both coaches had incredibly impressive seasons. But Jim and John Harbaugh made the moves with the greatest impact in the NFL, and their reward is fittingly a trip to New Orleans.

For the 49ers, the question is, would they be on the verge of the sixth Super Bowl title in franchise history with Alex Smith still under center? For the Ravens, would they be knocking on destiny’s door if Cam Cameron still is calling the plays on offense?

These questions can’t be answered definitively, though I’m certainly leaning more toward “no” than “yes.” At the very least, neither team rides its current wave of momentum and sports the same firepower without the Smith benching and Cameron firing.

Want to find the real turning point in the Ravens season?

Look no further than Dec. 10, just one day after Baltimore’s 31-28 overtime loss to the Redskins. With the offense sputtering, John Harbaugh did something few men in any line of work would ever sign up for — he fired his good friend.

"Cam is my friend, he taught me a lot about coaching, and he is an outstanding coach," Harbaugh said in a statement that afternoon after letting go of his offensive coordinator.

"It's not about fair or unfair, right or wrong," the statement continued. "My responsibility is to the whole team and what's best for them right now. We need a change."

Cameron had been a part of Harbaugh’s staff since 2008. They’d gone to the postseason four times together, including two trips to the AFC Championship Game. Two weeks before Christmas, with the Ravens just one win away from clinching a playoff spot, Harbaugh fired his longtime assistant.

Harbaugh’s job wasn’t on the line. The Ravens’ playoff life wasn’t teetering in the balance. Hell, the team had just scored 28 points. But Harbaugh still made the move he felt his offense needed.

Indeed, the offense — really, the team as a whole — hasn’t been the same since.

Rewind the clock a few weeks before John’s cold, bold move, when Jim made an ever colder, bolder one made out in San Francisco.

On Nov. 11, the 49ers tied the St. Louis Rams 24-24 and sat atop the NFC West at 6-2-1. But starting quarterback Alex Smith was knocked out of the game with a head injury. Smith was medically cleared to play on Nov. 22 after missing one start, but Jim Harbaugh told him he was no longer the starter; he was sticking with second-year guy Colin Kaepernick.

The immediate media reaction was confusion and a wave of widespread second-guessing. Some in the industry even seemed insulted or angered by the decision. But Harbaugh knew what he was doing. He told reporters he was “riding the hot hand,” and even after a pair of bad losses to the Rams and Seahawks in December, the head coach stuck with Kaeperni6ck as the team’s starting quarterback. He knew.

Now, the 49ers not only are one win away from the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl championship, but we’re another explosive performance from Kaepernick away from a paradigm shift in the way the NFL views incoming college quarterbacks. Everyone — and I mean everyone — will be searching for the “next” Colin Kaepernick. Big colleges, small colleges, under rocks — the quest certainly will start (if it hasn’t already) after the 2011 second-round pick tells America he’s going to Disneyland.

Bold and cold.

Smith, though understandably not thrilled at the time of the decision, has handled his demotion with class and grace. After Sunday’s comeback win over the Falcons, he said he “couldn’t be happier,” and from what I gather, he actually meant it. And one would imagine Cameron, still unemployed, surely took some pleasure in seeing Joe Flacco, the quarterback he helped groom for five years, topple both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady — in their buildings — this postseason.

The Harbaugh brothers could very easily have played it safe this season.

Both were in first place past the midway point of the season. And yet both made decisions that were widely viewed with skepticism.

When these two guys pushed all their chips into the center of the table and went all in — there are your turning points.

Firing a longtime friend and trusted colleague? Better you than me, pal.

Benching the guy who beat the high-flying Saints in a playoff shootout and led you to the NFC Championship Game just one season ago? That takes stones.

The Harbaughs are going to get a whole lot of attention over the next two weeks. You’ll hear all about their childhoods, read all about their parents and their sister Joani, and get just about every morsel of Harbaugh-related biographical information you’d ever want or need.

But you can’t tell the story of the 2012-13 Ravens and 49ers without pointing to their courageous midseason coaching decisions. They shook things up when others didn’t necessarily think things needed to be shaken.

Now they each stand 60 minutes away from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.


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