For the past week, the biggest story outside of Ray Lewis was the “Harbowl.” We were presented with story after story after story about the brothers: everything from them roughhousing on vacation to the origin of the famous ‘sharpie on a string. On Sunday night, when the showdown finally occurred, John’s Ravens triumphed, and while Joe Flacco and arguably the referees will get a bigger share of the spotlight, the elder Harbaugh’s coaching contributions cannot be overlooked.
John was actually on the verge of being known for two huge blunders rather than a solid victory. After turning over the 49ers and driving into their territory, the Ravens found themselves facing a fourth down. The simple play was to kick a field goal and take a 14-point lead. John did not see it as that simple; he instead called for a fake kick, which was stopped short of a first down. Fortunately for John, the Ravens defense forced the 49ers into a three-and-out on the following possession.
The next miscue came after the now infamous blackout. As you surely know, that 33-minute delay nearly cost the Ravens the game. When play returned, they were flat, slow and overrun by San Francisco. While it was clearly an unprecedented circumstance, it is the coach’s job to keep his team prepared. Whatever strategies the two brothers and coaches employed during this time on the sidelines, John Harbaugh’s clearly was the better one.
John made amends, though, with two decisions down the stretch. First, his response to Ray Rice’s third quarter fumble showed shrewd personnel management. On the next drive, the first two carries went to rookie running back Bernard Pierce, who created a manageable 3rd-and-three. That short down was converted and then some; Anquan Boldin turned a 6-yard pass into a 30-yard gain. Following a seven-yard pass and a two-yard carry by Rice, Pierce got the ball again.
Facing a crucial third down, the Ravens’ rookie running back turned the left corner for an eight-yard gain. While an injury forced him to the sideline for the rest of the drive, the Ravens still posted a field goal after just over five minutes of possession. It was their first offensive score of the second half. By being unafraid to take a step away from his star back, John Harbaugh helped his team hold on to a slim lead for the rest of the night.
The Ravens would not have emerged winners, however, if it weren’t for John’s second key decision: With less than 15 seconds left in the game, calling for punter Sam Koch to hold on to the ball for as long as possible and then intentionally take a safety rather than kicking it away. In what could best be described as the football version to a basketball team intentionally fouling to give the opponent two shots instead of a desperation three-pointer, the 49ers were forced to field the ensuing safety punt deep in their own territory with only a few seconds left.
“We were prepared for the situation,” Koch told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “It’s something we’ve practiced and on third down we discussed during the timeout that we would have to do it. Our coaches have the upmost confidence in all three of [on the kicking team]”
While we’ll never know what would have happened if Baltimore had punted from their own end zone, Harbaugh definitely made the right call. He did what the best coaches do: trusted his key players and made a confident decision.
As tough as it was for him to beat his brother, John Harbaugh definitely won’t be upset to have a Super Bowl ring on his finger. While his players, particularly Flacco and Ray Lewis, will take most of the spotlight, they owe their success to the man calling the shots. After all the hype about sibling rivalry, the older brother got the last laugh.
Joe Kozlowski is an editorial intern for TDdaily. Follow him on Twitter @koz2393.