As the sports world turns, the sun is always setting on someone's career, isn't it? As the Baltimore Ravens limped into the bye at 4-5 and on a season-threatening, three-game losing streak, for the first time we were at the very real precipice of John Harbaugh's reign as Baltimore Ravens head coach coming to an end.
In trying to crystallize how I feel about his coaching tenure in Baltimore, my mind took me back all the way to the first Super Bowl I ever attended -- Super Bowl XXXII at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. The Green Bay Packers and quarterback Brett Favre were 11-point favorites against the Denver Broncos. The Packers finished the season 13-3 and were the reigning champs, having beaten the Bill Parcells-led New England Patriots, 35-21, in Super Bowl XXXI.
The Broncos, coached by Mike Shanahan, were 12-4. Quarterback John Elway entered his fourth Super Bowl having lost his first three. This one would be a tussle all the way through. The Broncos led, 17-14, at the half, and Denver led, 24-17, entering the fourth quarter. The Packers tied the score with a bit more than 13 minutes to play in the game.
At that point, both defenses tightened. It wasn't until there were less than two minutes left in the game that Hall of Fame running back Terrell Davis scored the last of his record-setting three rushing touchdowns. Davis was the MVP, and it was well deserved after he rushed for 157 yards.
As I left San Diego, Davis wasn't on my mind, nor was Elway. The person most on my mind was Shanahan. I watched him carefully at media day. I stood with about 300-400 people around his perch and listened intently to Shanahan, who I thought was the greatest coach of modern day football. His calm, intellect and self-assuredness were dazzling.
It was with that memory in mind that I planned my trip down to SB XXXIII in Miami. The game would be played at Pro Player Stadium, and the oddsmakers installed the reigning champion Broncos as a 7.5 favorite against the upstart Atlanta Falcons, led by Elway's ex-coach Dan Reeves. It really wasn't much of a game, as Elway was brilliant in leading the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl victories. Elway rode off into the sunset as a player, and the coach who I thought was so fantastic was left without his Hall of Fame quarterback.
Looking back on Shanahan's career has led me to the unavoidable conclusion that my mother was right when she used to quote Casey Stengel whenever he was complimented for being a great skipper for the New York Yankees.
"You have to have the horses," my mom would say, quoting the old professor.
As usual, my mom was right; it just took me a while to come around to her brilliant deduction. Shanahan went 47-17 during his first four seasons as head coach of the Broncos and won those two Super Bowls with Elway.
Shanahan went 34-30 as Broncos head coach from 1999-2002. This time around, Shanahan's brilliance as a head coach was limited to being smart enough to trade for the uber-talented but erratic Jake Plummer ahead of the 2003 season to lead his team back to the promised land. Sure enough, Plummer was the quarterback from 2003-2006, and while there were no Super Bowl appearances, the Broncos' regular-season mark was 42-22.
But if you read up on the relationship between Plummer and Shanahan, it's clear nothing Plummer did was good enough, leading him to prematurely quit at the age of 32.
If you haven't seen Shanahan lately -- and that's the other side of this story -- he went 39-57 during his last six seasons as a head coach, a .406 winning percentage. That includes two years in Denver after he ran Plummer out of town and four in Washington, D.C. His tenure with the Redskins included a failed Donovan McNabb experiment, which led to the Robert Griffin III era.
That was a long drive around the bend to bring us back to Harbaugh. If he is let go after this season, he'll immediately be gobbled up by any of a number of franchises in need of a shot in the arm.
Harbaugh went 54-26 as Ravens head coach from 2008-2012. Those five seasons happened to coincide with linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, linebacker Terrell Suggs -- who was still very much in his prime -- along with a young, super running back in Ray Rice and quarterback Joe Flacco, a first-round pick who hadn't earned real NFL dollars yet.
Since then, Lewis, Reed, Rice and Ngata have left, and the Ravens have had to pony up big-time money for Flacco. The Ravens have gone just 44-45 since 2013. That, my friend, is a .494 winning percentage.
Ravens Nation and ownership has had its collective blinders on for far too long. The moral of the story is, as my mother used to quote Stengel, "You gotta have the horses."
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 249: November 2018