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First And 10: John Harbaugh And Joe Flacco

November 15, 2017
"Sure, luck means a lot in football. Not having a good quarterback is bad luck."
-- Don Shula, Hall of Fame head coach

The success of an NFL head coach often depends upon the player in charge of running the offense. A quarterback's proficiency, in turn, can be greatly enhanced by the guidance of an outstanding coach.

Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr. Tom Landry and Roger Staubach. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw.

Each formidable pairing combined to win multiple Super Bowls, as did Shula and Bob Griese. Shula also got to the Super Bowl with Johnny Unitas and Dan Marino.

In case you didn't notice, every person listed in the previous paragraph has been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, except Belichick and Brady, who will certainly join them in Canton, Ohio, one day.

This brings us to John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco, who have been at it together for 10 years with the Baltimore Ravens, going back to the 2008 season when the head coach and quarterback were both rookies. Though this tandem's viability as Hall of Fame material is open for debate, there's no arguing the Harbaugh-Flacco combination is a winner -- as evidenced by 10 postseason victories, including Super Bowl XLVII in February 2013.

And they're not done yet.

"Football, more than any sport, depends on the team more than individuals," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "But you can't win without having a good quarterback and a top-level head coach. We have both with Joe and John."

DRAFT DAY

Soon after Harbaugh succeeded Brian Billick in 2008, the first-time NFL head coach joined Newsome at the league's annual draft. The Ravens were looking for a quarterback in the first round, one that could provide the team with a formidable passing attack for years to come.

"The plan was really set in terms that we were going to get a quarterback, and it was going to be either Joe or Matt Ryan," Harbaugh said. "If we were going to take Matt Ryan, we would have probably had to trade three or four picks to get up to the second spot. As a head coach, I loved both their personalities, and I loved them both on tape."

Ryan competed in the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference with Boston College; Flacco played for Division I-AA Delaware. That didn't matter to Cam Cameron, then Baltimore's offensive coordinator.

"Some of the deference went to Cam Cameron. He deserves a lot of credit on that," Harbaugh said. "Cam really believed in Joe, really liked Joe and what he would do in the offense Cam envisioned."

And so, after a series of trades, the Ravens took Flacco with the 18th overall selection. Ryan became a star with the Atlanta Falcons, but now, nine years later, Harbaugh believes the scenario played out perfectly for Baltimore.

"I don't want to disrespect Matt Ryan, but Joe's our guy, and I couldn't be happier with the fact that we drafted him," Harbaugh said. "I think if you step back and look at the big picture -- which is hard to do when you're in the middle of it -- it's pretty hard to say it hasn't been a great thing."

Issue 200: Ravens draft Joe Flacco (John Harbaugh, Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta)
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

MEMORABLE DEBUT

When the Ravens drafted Flacco, the initial plan was for him to learn on the sideline. But, as fate would have it, the rookie was thrust into action far sooner than anticipated.

As Baltimore prepared for its third preseason game against the St. Louis Rams, then-starting quarterback Kyle Boller had a separated shoulder and backup Troy Smith was dealing with tonsillitis. So, ready or not, Flacco was thrust into the starting role.

He performed well enough to get the nod in the regular-season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. Thus, the novice coach made his debut with an untested quarterback.

"I was probably less worried about Joe than I was about me," Harbaugh said. "You try to do your own job. It was my first regular-season game as a head coach, and I just didn't want to screw it up myself. We probably both had the same thought that way. We were rookies together."

Flacco had his own agenda to worry about, and impressing his new coach was low on the list.

"You want to prove to your new teammates that you can play at this level, that you can handle yourself well and carry yourself well," Flacco said. "I probably wasn't thinking too much about a rookie head coach starting a rookie quarterback in the first game of the season. I was concerned about those other things. To my benefit, I probably didn't realize yet how big the NFL was. As a kid, you're just going out there playing the game."

Flacco went 15 for 29 for 129 yards and no touchdowns. But he didn't throw an interception, ran 38 yards for a touchdown and helped Baltimore win, 17-10

After that positive start, the Ravens went to the playoffs that season, reaching the AFC title game. Baltimore qualified for the postseason in each of the next four years, too, again reaching the AFC title game in 2011 and 2012.

Along the way, Flacco became the first starting quarterback in the modern era to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons.

THAT SUPER FEELING

In their fifth straight postseason appearance, the Ravens won the Super Bowl. In that game, Flacco was named Super Bowl MVP after throwing for 287 yards and three touchdowns during a 34-31 win against the San Francisco 49ers.

Under a shower of confetti at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, coach and quarterback walked off the field together with the gratifying, uplifting feeling that comes with being a champion.

"That was five years in the making," Flacco said. "From the time John came into this [Owings Mills, Md.,] building, before I was even here, that's what he preached and that's what our goal was, to win that Super Bowl. We had been close. We had been to the point where we tasted it, but hadn't quite done it yet. So when we got there and played the way we did in that situation, as you can imagine, it was one of the best all-time feelings there is.

"And to do it with a guy that had not done it with anybody else, being that we were together the whole time, definitely made it more special."

Sure, the Ravens had a standout defense led by linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed. But winning it all with Flacco, and stepping stride to stride with his quarterback at game's end, meant the world to Harbaugh.

"We both probably could relate to one another because, let's face it, we both had some doubters," Harbaugh said. "There were people out there who wondered if we could do that as a quarterback or a coach. I don't think anyone doubted that Ray Lewis could win a Super Bowl. Or Ed Reed. My relationship with Ray, personally, is just tremendous. With Ed, tremendous. But they're different than the one with Joe. It's like when you have a different relationship with your kids. For Joe and I to share that moment after what we had gone through together, it was pretty fulfilling."

CONSISTENCY = WINNING

The Cleveland Browns have gone through six head coaches and 20 starting quarterbacks during the Flacco-Harbaugh era.

Not surprisingly, Cleveland has reached the playoffs just once during that span. The Ravens, conversely, have enjoyed success for a decade with a pat hand at coach and quarterback.

"Look around the league. There are teams regularly searching for the right head coach or a quarterback that can win consistently," Newsome said. "I'm glad we're not in that hunt."

Few other owners or general managers can make the same claim.

"It's rare to have a quarterback and a coach come in together and remain together as long as we have," Flacco said. "I would say it either works out long-term, or you're done pretty quickly with each other. Obviously, I think we're both very fortunate in the way it's worked out."

That's how Staubach feels about the relationship he had with his coach in Dallas.

"I was a lucky guy to play under Tom Landry for 11 years," the six-time Pro Bowl quarterback said. "He made a big difference in my life because he was a fantastic strategist and also a great person."

GOT YOUR BACK

There isn't an NFL quarterback who hasn't been criticized by columnists, talk-show hosts and Twitter trolls. Flacco has a Super Bowl MVP award on his mantle, but he's never more than an interception away from hearing boos from the home crowd.

After nine games this season, Flacco was picked off 10 times and threw only eight touchdown passes. Yet Harbaugh quickly jumped to his defense. Always has, always will.

"Even the best quarterbacks ever, guys like [Tom] Brady and [Aaron] Rodgers and Unitas, those guys had their bad moments. It goes with the position," Harbaugh said. "Joe, or any quarterback, is going to take responsibility for whatever issues the team has. But for me, it's your obligation and duty as a coach to have all your players' backs, none more so than the quarterback. That having been said, it's genuine. Because I genuinely like the guy, and I genuinely believe that no matter what happens, he is honestly trying to do everything he can to win football games."

Flacco, of course, appreciates the sentiment.

"He's always in my corner, and that's big," Flacco said. "When your coach is able to confidently support you, it means a lot. Even though it might not go a long way publicly, it goes a long way in the locker room."

That's one reason why the Harbaugh-Flacco union has lasted longer than most marriages.

"I think it is awesome," Chicago Bears head coach John Fox said. "It tells you that you are winning a lot of games, the fact that you can be anywhere for 10 years. That is a positive thing for both of those positions."

Like many couples, Harbaugh and Flacco have gone through good times and bad times together. If there's a problem, it is addressed immediately.

"He always has an open-door policy," Sam Koch, the Ravens' punter since 2006, said of Harbaugh. "If you ever have [an issue], we can always go talk to him. He's very receptive to that as a coach, and that's why I think him and Joe get along so well."

That open door sometimes gets shut while Harbaugh and Flacco hash things out.

"The relationship we've built, I can go into his office and close the door and have a conversation," Flacco said, "and we can both walk out of that room feeling better than when we walked into it."

Since his arrival, Flacco has gone through five different offensive coordinators. Having Harbaugh as his head coach makes the merry-go-round easier to ride.

"It's always good to have someone who can be a positive influence on some of those coordinators before they start to develop an opinion on their own," Flacco said. "The other part of it is, when we are struggling as an offense or as a football team, no matter what the reason, I can always go over and talk to John. I should be comfortable talking with the coordinator, but I know I can always be comfortable talking with John and having honest conversations about how things are going."

TOGETHER FOREVER

Harbaugh is under contract through next season, and Flacco is signed through 2021. So they still have time to win another Super Bowl ring together.

"That's what we're working toward," Flacco said. "Once you win it one time, you want to get back and you want to do it again. You don't want it to end in a negative way. We've put in a lot of work as a football team, and you can see all the work he puts in as a head coach. You want to go out there and win for that kind of guy. And you want him to do it with you."

Off the field, Harbaugh and Flacco often text and call each other, chatting about family, friends and, of course, football. They sometimes talk about getting the families together, but their age difference -- Harbaugh is 55, Flacco is 32 -- factors into the equation.

"It's tough to say there's a tight relationship between his family and my family," Flacco said. " ... But I think we've built the kind of relationship that, when we're both kicking back in 15 years, then we'll be two guys who can get together and look back at what we've been able to do together, for sure."

That's what happens when two guys chase a common goal for 10 years running.

"This game is about relationships. It is probably one of the cool things about the National Football League," Fox said. "I am not sure people get that benefit in other walks. I know in this setting, those are lifelong friendships."

Harbaugh is counting on it. Years from now, when football is behind them, the coach and his quarterback will have far less stressful lives.

"I'm sure we'll play golf together, I'm sure we'll have dinner together," Harbaugh said. "At that point our friendship will grow even more because we'll be looking back at this incredible thing. Now we're like in the trenches together. I don't think you can fight together for something without becoming close. We'll probably understand the meaning of that more when we're looking back on it."

At some point, the conversation may turn toward where they stand on the list of great coach-quarterback tandems.

"Once you reach the point where you've been together for 10 years and you've done so much winning together, that's saying something," Flacco said. "I don't think there are too many teams that have done more winning than we have. That can be overlooked."  

Issue 239: November 2017