John Harbaugh exposed himself to criticism. Now he's received it – has attempted to deflect it – but should admit it's deserved.
In case you were getting lathered up for Brady-Belichick I, running errands or otherwise engaged in something more compelling than Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens waxing the Denver Broncos in a 23-7 yawner late Sunday afternoon, here's the rub of the controversy: After Baltimore snuffed Denver's final drive by intercepting backup Broncos quarterback Drew Lock in the end zone with 3 seconds remaining, Harbaugh called for a running play on the Ravens' last snap – despite their 16-point advantage – quarterback Lamar Jackson gaining 5 yards around the left side as the clock expired.
The play gave the Ravens 102 rushing yards – on a day when Jackson threw the ball exceptionally well for an offense that's needed more of that dimension – and allowed Baltimore to tie the Pittsburgh Steelers' record, established from 1974 to '77, for most consecutive regular-season games (43) with triple-digit yards on the ground.
I immediately rolled my eyes watching the sequence. But Broncos coach Vic Fangio, who's served as an assistant under Harbaugh and been a defensive coordinator for Harbaugh's brother Jim at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers, had more to say Monday.
"Yeah, I thought it was kinda (expletive), but I expected it from them," Fangio said. "Thirty-seven years in pro ball, I've never seen anything like that. But it was to be expected, and we expected it.
"That's just their mode of operation," he added. "Player safety is secondary."
Let's put aside Fangio's shot at the Ravens organization, widely regarded as one of the NFL's first-class operations and one that's reached the playoffs nine times and won a Super Bowl during Harbaugh's 14-season tenure.
But regarding Fangio's bigger point, Harbaugh was wrong – and there's no denying the play could have gotten Jackson hurt, or otherwise unnecessarily added to Baltimore's injury woes elsewhere, or even claimed a Denver defender in some unfortunate pileup amid a scenario where losing players often resent being shown up.
The Ravens coach defended the move after the game, saying: "That was 100% my call. That's one of those things that's meaningful. It's one of those things that I think as a head coach you have to be mindful of your team, your players and your coaches and what it means to them. It’s a very tough record to accomplish and it's a long-term record.
"I'm not going to say it's more important than winning the game. (But) as a head coach, I think you do that for your players, and you do that for your coaches which is something that they'll have for the rest of our lives.”
I fancy myself a bit of an NFL historian but can honestly say I didn't know those Steel Curtain Pittsburgh teams owned this rushing record until the Ravens began approaching it last season. I can tell you those 1974-77 Steelers won a pair of Super Bowls and reached a third AFC championship game (1976) despite an offense crippled by injuries. Meanwhile, the 2018-21 Ravens have – so far – notched one playoff victory while suffering one of postseason's most shocking recent upsets in the 2019 divisional round, the 14-2 No. 1 seed falling at home 28-12 to the Tennessee Titans.
I can promise you championship rings or, at least, deep playoff runs provide a more meaningful legacy to Harbaugh's staff and players, "for the rest of our lives," than a record achieved inorganically during a forgettable game that was in the bag and might now get an asterisk attached to it.
And, sure, the Ravens' "achievement" is impressive – even if a somewhat arcane statistical anomaly, compiled at a time when most defenses deploy five defensive backs and are easily exploited by the run, and especially by a record-setting rushing QB of Jackson's caliber. By contrast, those Steelers offenses were spearheaded by Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris and sidekick Rocky Bleier and were pointed directly at loaded defensive boxes that didn't have to worry about quarterback Terry Bradshaw breaking loose for 50-yard chunks on read options, but I digress.
Harbaugh returned fire Monday, but even that was kind of lame.
“What’s meaningful to us might not be meaningful to them. Their concerns are definitely not our concerns," he said of Fangio and the Broncos.
"We decided that if we got the ball back, we were going to try to get the yards. We got it back with 3 seconds left. (They’re) throwing the ball in the end zone with 10 seconds left. I don’t know that there’s a 16-point touchdown that’s going to be possible right there – that didn’t have anything to do with winning the game. So, like I said, what’s meaningful to us might not be meaningful to them, and we’re not going to concern ourselves with that.”
Ripping Fangio for trying to get a late touchdown in a league where fluky things happen? Come on. If nothing else, it's important for Denver (3-1) to get "meaningful" reps for Lock if he has to replace Teddy Bridgewater (concussion) for a significant period.
Harbaugh is one of the league's best, longest-tenured, craftiest – and most well-rounded and intellectually compelling – coaches. His résumé speaks for itself, and he should be proud his team currently finds itself on a playoff track despite suffering so many key injuries in the final stages of preseason – running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, Pro Bowl corner Marcus Peters, even first-round rookie receiver Rashod Bateman – all of them seemingly complete flukes and in no way due to any cavalier attitude about player safety.
Baltimore should also be proud of Jackson's development as a passer, on full display in Denver and the previous week in Detroit, and the reduced reliance on his legs. Sunday's 102 rushing yards were the Ravens' fewest with him as their starting QB.
But Harbaugh shouldn't be so proud of a now-manufactured mark that needlessly put his players and Fangio's at risk for no legitimate reason.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: John Harbaugh as out of line with Ravens' last-second ploy for record