NEW ORLEANS — As the hours tick down to the actual kickoff of Super Bowl XLVII, a.k.a. “The Harbowl,” we are continually regaled with the tales of incredible courage, conviction and bravado it took for Jim Harbaugh to bench Alex Smith, at the time the NFL’s fourth-highest-rated QB, for the unknown and untested Colin Kaepernick, knowing his club was expected to make a serious run at a Super Bowl. I agree: Younger brother Harbaugh showed a pair of stones James Bond would be proud of.
What I don’t understand is why big brother John doesn’t get just as much credit for firing his offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, with a 9-4 record and just three games left in the season while still in contention for a No. 1 seed, and replacing him with a guy who had never coordinated an offense and while, albeit had been a head coach, had never even called his own plays?
I believe John Harbaugh’s delegation of his offense to Jim Caldwell has more to do with the Ravens being in New Orleans than Jim Harbaugh’s decision to go with Kaepernick has to do with the 49ers' success. What I’d love to know is how the Ravens head coach felt when his club had one of its most dismal performances of the season on offense in Caldwell’s first game and closed the season dropping four of its last five, including two of three after Caldwell took over?
Shortly after the Ravens arrived in New Orleans, John Harbaugh talked about how sure he was when he made the move from Cameron to Caldwell. “The first thing about that to understand is that, I think it was part of a progression to become as good as we could possibly be,” he said. “Coach Cameron, who is a good friend of mine and all of our coaches and all of our players, continues to have a great relationship with everyone to this day. He is a big part of our success. He is a big part of what we built here. He laid a foundation and had lots of success and obviously won a lot of football games. He laid the foundation for what we’re going through right now. He did a lot of hard work and had a lot of good ideas that helped to build that, because we felt we had to do something to jumpstart us for a lot of different reasons, whatever those reasons are, it was successful.”
I read that as Harbaugh saying, I love Cameron, but I had to do something. Even he seems unwilling to give himself the credit he deserves.
For his part, Caldwell isn’t anxious to take much credit either. “It wasn’t like we made many significant changes in terms of what we’re doing from a schematic standpoint, because we were too far down the road for that,” Caldwell said. “What we did was, do the things that we knew how to do well and try to crystalize it. I also want to make sure that you understand that there is no way that I take credit for any of that. We have players that are very good players and have been in the system for four or five years that are maturing and getting better as time goes on. It just so happened that, towards the end of the season, things were really starting to come together. We’d shown flashes all through the year, but we just had some ups and downs a little bit here and there. Obviously, we’ve played a little more consistently since we’ve been in the playoffs and that’s worked well for us.”
While all of that is well and good, the fact is Joe Flacco has been a much better quarterback under Caldwell, and the Ravens' offense is more balanced. Flacco threw 19 TDs and 9 INTs under Cameron and averaged 7.2 yards per attempt. Since Caldwell took over, Flacco has 12 TDs and just one pick in five games, with an average of 8.2 yards per attempt.
Caldwell says his focus on taking over the offense was consistency. “At that particular time, we were very inconsistent in a lot of different areas," he said. “So, the big thing was to try to get some consistency. We were getting penalized a little bit too much and certainly those kinds of things weren’t consistent enough in our running game. We gave us maybe a little bit more of an opportunity to be successful — ran the ball more, put an emphasis on it and moved on from there.”
How did he go about fixing the problem? “It wasn’t anything that was thought out to that degree in terms of, ‘How do I want to approach these guys?’ I have to be myself,” said Caldwell. “I’ve been in this business a long time. This is my 37th year. It’s too late to change who I am. I basically presented the way I always present, talked about the different issues I thought we had to resolve in terms of being effective every week and move forward.”
John Harbaugh seems to agree with me that the biggest improvements in the Ravens' offense under Caldwell have been in Flacco. “I think the passing game is, the precision part of it has improved a little bit lately,” he said. “Those guys have done a good job with that. Joe has been good. The protection has been tremendous so Joe has had time to push the ball down field a little bit, that may be the most important part of it. But that’s been a work in progress all year and I think we’ve improved steadily throughout the course of the season. Even throughout some of the tough times we have continued to improve and showed up at the playoffs.”
So which changed offense will be the difference in the Super Bowl? That remains to be seen. But one thing that seems eminently clear already is neither of these Harbaugh boys is a slouch when it comes to the courage of their convictions and the willingness to roll the dice. I think it’s quite possible the 49ers would still be here if Alex Smith was still running the show, but they wouldn’t be anywhere near the show they are now. For the Ravens' part, if you look back at that Monday after their week 14 loss to the Redskins, when Harbaugh pulled the plug on Cameron, I think they’d be watching at home this Sunday if he hadn’t made the move when he did. Now we get to see if “Little Bro” can top that one?