12 Questions: Harbaugh has successful follow-up
Jim Harbaugh stood on the visitors’ sideline of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on Sunday afternoon as the final seconds of the Ravens’ 21-13 victory over the Raiders ticked away, a little brother beaming with pride. The Stanford coach and former Oakland assistant wore a bright purple Ravens jacket and a grin the size of Toby Gerhart’s thighs.
“Two seasons, two trips to the playoffs,” Harbaugh said excitedly. “You’ve gotta love that!”
Baltimore fans undoubtedly do: Since the arrival of Jim’s older brother, John, and quarterback Joe Flacco(notes), a first-round NFL draft pick in ’08, the Ravens have earned back-to-back postseason berths for the second time in franchise history.
Awhile later, after congratulating his big bro in the locker room, Jim asked, “Did you realize this is the first time that a coach and quarterback, in their first two years, have gone to the playoffs both years? The first time in history.”
As their father, Jack, looked on in amusement, Jim and John bumped fists and said, in unison, “His-to-ree,” like the warden’s assistant in the final scene of the original version of “The Longest Yard.”
It was a nice moment that acknowledged a stark truth about the 21st century NFL, one to which current and former coaches like Eric Mangini, Wade Phillips, Herm Edwards and Sean Payton can attest: As cool as it is to achieve unexpected success in your first season on the sideline, the glow goes away quickly if you don’t back it up with a reasonably successful second season.
In that regard, Harbaugh accomplished something significant by sneaking into the playoffs on the final Sunday of the regular season. So, too, did his NFC alter ego, Falcons coach Mike Smith, who last season teamed with a rookie passer, Matt Ryan, to lead Atlanta to an unlikely postseason appearance.
Smith didn’t get the Falcons back to the playoffs in the more competitive NFC, but he did achieve a momentous milestone. By guiding his already eliminated team to three consecutive victories to close the ’09 campaign, Smith ended one of the more ignominious streaks in pro sports: For the first time in its 44-year history, Atlanta (9-7) produced back-to-back winning seasons.
That may not sound like a big deal to outsiders, but to the most important man in Smith’s universe, Falcons owner Arthur Blank, it means a lot.
“Even after we were out of playoff contention, which made us all sick, our owner sat down with Smitty and me and expressed that this was something he wanted to achieve,” says second-year general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the personnel whiz who hired Smith. “I’m very happy for Arthur Blank and the city of Atlanta, and it definitely allows us to move forward on a high note.
“Maybe I hadn’t grasped the psyche of this city and what an albatross this was, but I can’t imagine if we’d had to deal with ‘the curse’ or two more seasons. I mean, even if we went 14-2 next year, people would still be freaking out.”
Of course, if the Falcons go 2-14 next year – or any year – people will definitely freak out. That’s life in today’s NFL. But by following his strong rookie season with another winning effort Smith, like Harbaugh, legitimized his presence and stored away some good will for possible tough times down the road.
Jim Harbaugh can relate, too: On the heels of Stanford’s first bowl appearance in eight seasons, he’s already plotting for a successful follow-up campaign. Then again, the former NFL quarterback may soon be headed to his big brother’s neighborhood. Before Sunday’s game Harbaugh and his wife, Sarah, paid a social visit to the luxury suite of Oakland owner Al Davis, his boss during the 2002 and ’03 seasons.
If he keeps winning, it’s likely that he’ll have an opportunity to engage in serious conversations with NFL owners at some point in the future.
In the meantime, the Cardinal’s coach is along for the Ravens’ ride and loving every second of it. In the locker room after the game, John Harbaugh noticed that Jim had changed back into the white, Stanford letterman’s jacket he’d worn to the stadium.
“Where’s the Ravens jacket?” John asked. “You can take it if you want.”
“Really?” Jim asked, sounding like a teenager on his first trip to Niketown. “I can keep the jacket?”
A few minutes later, purple jacket in hand, Jim said goodbye to John. “Wish I could come on the flight,” he said.
“Me too,” John replied. “It’s gonna be a party.”
Now here’s our dramatically shortened list of queries featuring the 12 teams in the postseason party, from featured guests to hangers-on:
1. San Diego Chargers: After seeing stats attesting to the ridiculous dependability of kicker Nate Kaeding(notes), how many Chargers fans worry that they’re being set up for a heartbreaking playoff miss?
2. Indianapolis Colts: Yo, Bill Polian and Jim Caldwell – so making sure that Reggie Wayne(notes) and Dallas Clark(notes) hit 100 catches justified the risk of getting Peyton Manning(notes) injured, but going for 16-0 didn’t?
4. Dallas Cowboys: Will Jerry Jones station agents at the Mexican border to keep Tony Romo(notes) in the country – and if the quarterback loses another playoff game, will a certain ex-teammate shed tears of joy this time?
8. Green Bay Packers: Will the football gods give us a third showdown with Favre and the Vikings – and, if so, will Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers get the last laugh?
12. New York Jets: Will the Jets make me look as silly as the ’07 Giants did when I kept ranking them last among playoff teams (until there was no one else left to rank)?