NEW ORLEANS -- San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh gets a lot of credit for making the tough call on his quarterbacks in midseason, and he should. He gambled on a guy who hadn't started a game, and now he's here.
But brother John Harbaugh made an equally difficult decision in Baltimore when he changed offensive coordinators with three games left, and he's here, too.
So what I want to know is this: Who made the riskier move?
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And I have a good answer. I say it's John, and here's why: When he fired Cam Cameron, there was no turning back. Like it or not, he was stuck with Jim Caldwell, a coach who hadn't called plays since 1999, when he was at Wake Forest University. But when Jim Harbaugh sat down Alex Smith, he always had the option of returning to him if Colin Kaepernick didn't work out.
Both were bold and decisive decisions, but John one-upped his brother with a last-minute switcheroo that could have submarined his season.
"What he did is unprecedented," said former coach Brian Billick, who changed offensive coordinators in Baltimore in 2007, his last year as head coach. "It's a gut-wrenching decision, and it's hard to quantify.
"I mean, can you read between the lines in terms of the mentality of the players and the team? Clearly, something had to be happening in terms of that relationship and the way it was going. This had to be the toughest of all decisions."
Harbaugh was close to Cameron, who hired him to his coaching staff at Indiana University and who joined the Ravens shortly after Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2008. Furthermore, the Ravens were winning, and they were winning with offense. They were on top of the AFC North, and the club was averaging 25.5 points per game when the move was made.
But that's where Harbaugh deserves credit for gambling. His brother sat down Smith because he had to. He had a concussion, and Kaepernick was the next in line -- a situation not unlike what happened in New England in 2001 when Drew Bledsoe was sidelined and a backup named Tom Brady was called on.
But John Harbaugh didn't have to budge. Granted, the Ravens were caught in a two-game slide and had just dropped a game in Washington that they should have won, but they were a virtual lock for the playoffs. Yet Harbaugh pulled the plug on his offensive play caller, and the Ravens haven't looked back.
Since Caldwell stepped in, they're 4-2 -- but 4-1 over their last five starts, with the one loss a so-what season ender where they pulled starters in the first half.
"Our decision was tough," Pitta said. "In Week 13, you're not expecting to have a new offensive coordinator. It was a bold move, and I think it surprised a lot of us. But you can see it was the right decision because it lit a spark in us. We understood we had to perform a little better offensively, and Jim came in and started focusing on the details, the fundamentals and taking us back to basics. Jim Caldwell is a great offensive coordinator for us and has been instrumental for us in our late-season run."
The numbers speak for themselves, especially when the conversation turns to quarterback Joe Flacco. The guy's been nearly flawless since Harbaugh made the change -- not throwing an interception since the first half of a Dec. 16 loss to Denver, Caldwell's first game as offensive coordinator. It was no secret that Flacco and Cameron clashed and that the quarterback wasn't all that happy. Still, he was making plays and throwing touchdown passes and winning games.
That hasn't changed, but this has: The Ravens are a more balanced offense, with the club running 51 percent of the time under Caldwell where they did it just 41 percent with Cameron. That's smart when you have Ray Rice in your backfield, and Rice's involvement in the offense had to be a factor in Harbaugh's move.
But the Ravens are running the same plays, and they're making the same throws. They're just getting different results.
"It's not like [Caldwell] re-invented the wheel," one player said.
Nope, but he did make a difference. Flacco is more accurate. Rice is more involved. The offensive line is changed, and it's better. In short, the Baltimore Ravens are a more dynamic, more successful football team, and credit John Harbaugh for making it happen with what Cameron told The New York Times was "a brilliant move."
I don't know about that, but I do know it took a lot of guts.
The Giants' Tom Coughlin made a similar decision in 2006 when he fired his offensive coordinator on the eve of the season finale and promoted Kevin Gilbride to the job. The move worked, with Gilbride calling the plays that beat Washington, put New York in the playoffs and saved Coughlin's job.
But Harbaugh has done more than that. He saved a season and put the Ravens in the Super Bowl.
"How difficult was this to do?" Billick asked. "Huge. You know it's going to change your relationship forever. John had gone out of his way to give Cam credit for being a big part of what they were doing, so it had to be very, very difficult. As a coach, you know what it's going to do to an assistant's career, so you don't do it lightly.
"Even though we don't have a lot to go on, it has made a difference -- and you have to give Jim credit for what he's done. I think it cuts to the relationship that he and Joe have because they're running the same offense and running the same plays. It's not like he totally transformed what they're doing."
No, but the move totally transformed how the Ravens are playing.