By HOWARD FENDRICH
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — John Harbaugh spoke, steadily and without a trace of panic on Dec. 9, mere minutes after his Baltimore Ravens dropped a second consecutive game — their first losing streak of any length since early in the 2009 season.
Asked to assess quarterback Joe Flacco’s play in that overtime defeat at Washington, Harbaugh looked straight ahead and replied: “There’s no grade to be given right now.”
His words and demeanor did not betray a hint of what was to come. Hours later, Harbaugh talked to Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome about firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, a friend who held that post since 2008.
“He said, ‘I think I have to make a decision,’” Newsome recounted Friday, dismissing the notion he or team owner Steve Bisciotti pushed Harbaugh to get rid of Cameron. The day after that loss, according to Newsome, “When he walked into my office and told me that he was going to make that decision, he had a peace about himself.”
Harbaugh took Cameron off his staff and promoted quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who had been an NFL head coach but never an offensive coordinator. Not exactly the traditional way for a playoff aspirant to begin Week 15.
Then again, that’s nothing compared to what Harbaugh’s younger brother, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, did in the second half of his team’s season:
He made a switch at the most important position on a football field, going from veteran starting quarterback Alex Smith — he of the 18-for-19 passing day in Week 8 and third-in-the-league 104.1 passer rating after what turned out to be his last start — — to untested, second-year backup Colin Kaepernick.
“That took a lot of guts, in the middle of the season, to do something like that,” said former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., whose teams won five Super Bowls in the 1980s and 1990s.
Yes, these Harbaugh brothers sure know how to make the right move at the right time, no matter how risky or unorthodox it seems. The head coaches of the 49ers and Ravens both made significant in-season shake-ups to offenses that reached conference title games a year ago.
The reward for both: a berth in the Super Bowl next weekend in New Orleans.
“They’re very similar. Both men know exactly what they want from their organization. They know what they’re looking for. And if they see anything that they think can effect change in a positive way, they’re certainly not afraid to do it. That, to me, is the sign of a great head coach,” said Joe Theismann, who quarterbacked the Washington Redskins to the 1983 Super Bowl title. “If you’re really in charge, sometimes you can’t stick with the status quo.”
They’re not the only NFL coaches to do this sort of thing. But it’s rare.
In the 1971 season, Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry alternated Roger Staubach and Craig Morton as his starting quarterback — and even shuffled them back-and-forth during one game — before settling on Staubach. Staubach went 7-0 the rest of the way in the regular season, then helped Dallas win that Super Bowl and another for the 1977 season.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick stuck with second-year backup Tom Brady as his starting QB in 2001 even after Drew Bledsoe — whose injury in Game 2 opened the door for Brady — was healthy and ready to play. That turned out OK, too: Brady and Belichick have been to five Super Bowls together, winning three.
“That’s the job that comes with being the head coach. … You got to make those decisions, and you got to live with ‘em if they’re good or if they’re bad,” San Francisco defensive lineman Justin Smith said, discussing his coach’s QB flip. “And he made a decision. Turned out to be the right one, and helped put us in the situation we’re in.”
Alex Smith, don’t forget, was playing as well as he ever has as a pro, helping San Francisco start 6-2, including victories over the playoff-bound Packers and Seahawks and an NFC Offensive Player of the Week award after completing 95 percent of his passes against the Cardinals.
In Week 9 against the Rams, Smith completed 7 of 8 passes, with one touchdown, before leaving because of a blow to the head. Kaepernick finished that game, which ended in a tie, then made his debut as a starter the next week — and Jim Harbaugh stayed with the youngster the rest of the way.
“I feel like the only thing I did to lose my job,” Smith famously lamented, “was get a concussion.”
He and Kaepernick both attempted exactly 218 throws this season. Smith completed more, 153 to 136, so his completion percentage was better, 70.2 to 62.4. Smith also had the edge in touchdowns through the air, 13 to 10. But Kaepernick had fewer interceptions (5 to 3) and more yards passing (1,814 to 1,737).
Where Kaepernick really makes a difference is with his ability to carry the ball, which also opens alleys for running back Frank Gore. Kaepernick finished the regular season with 415 yards on 63 carries, a 6.6 average, plus five TDs (and followed that with 181 yards rushing against Green Bay in the second round of the playoffs, a record for a QB in any NFL game). Smith did not run for a score this season, carrying 31 times for 132 yards.
Asked whether the switch to Kaepernick was something he’d been thinking about all season, Jim Harbaugh replied: “No, it was not a predetermined move. The decision was made when Alex got hurt. Colin played; played well in his first start. Came back the next week, still felt … that Colin gave us our best chance to win.”
His older brother used similar phrasing when explaining his Cameron-Caldwell change.
Cameron was the only offensive coordinator John Harbaugh had in Baltimore, and was by his side as the Ravens reached two AFC title games in four years. But there were questions whether Flacco was fulfilling his potential.
The Ravens lost four of their final five regular-season games, but they’ve gone 3-0 this postseason, and Flacco has been superb. His average game: 17 of 31 for 284 yards. He’s thrown for eight touchdowns and zero interceptions in the playoffs.
Caldwell was Peyton Manning’s QB coach in Indianapolis, then became the Colts’ head coach from 2009-11. So far, so good for his debut as an offensive coordinator. While Cameron paced the sideline during games, Caldwell sits upstairs in a booth, quickly communicating play calls.
“What coach Caldwell has done has kept the offense simple and basic,” running back Ray Rice said. “He put the game into Joe Flacco’s hands, and Joe has done a great job — phenomenal job — of leading us to where we needed to be.”
During practice Thursday, Caldwell stood with his hands clasped behind his back and his eyeglasses tucked into his shirt collar, barking out calls a few feet away from Flacco, who’d repeat them.
“We just continue to grow,” Flacco said, “week by week.”
Five weeks after firing his pal Cameron, and one day after Flacco threw three second-half TD passes in Baltimore’s 28-13 comeback victory at New England in the AFC championship game, John Harbaugh made another personnel announcement: Caldwell will return as offensive coordinator next season.
There’s no doubt Kaepernick will keep his new job, too.
The Harbaughs’ father, Jack, a former college football coach himself, watched with pride as his kids made key — and likely not easy — choices this season.
“When those decisions were made, I kind of reflected on my own career, and I think that is what coaching is all about. I think that is what leadership is all about, that is what the business is all about,” Jack said in a conference call. “Sometimes it a decision that is easy to make, sometimes it is not. Sometimes the line is very unclear, but you go ahead and make it. If it is not headed in the right direction, then you have enough vulnerability about yourself that you say, ‘Hey, we are headed in the wrong direction; let’s change and go the other direction.’”