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Harbaugh rewarding Ravens' outside-the-box thinking; notes

Rafael Suanes/US Presswire
John Harbaugh has yet to miss the playoffs as Ravens coach. Sunday will be his second AFC Championship Game.

Entering the 2009 campaign, 11 teams had new coaches at the helm. Three seasons later, nine of those teams have already made new coaching changes. Just two coaches, the Detroit Lions' Jim Schwartz and the New York Jets' Rex Ryan, remain on the job. Remarkable, right? There aren't many professions in the world that experience turnover quite like this.

The fundamental question is: Why do so many coaches fail so abruptly? Are the coaches not ready, mentally or emotionally? What is so difficult about that transition from top-level assistant to head honcho?

In fairness, some of those nine coaches were thrown into very difficult situations, therefore some will prove to be better with their next head-coaching opportunity. But this failure rate indicates that there must be something wrong with the entire selection process.

Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti has been through this process before, having faced with the same questions of finding the right coach. After a 5-11 mark in 2007, he fired Brian Billick and set out to hire a coach. Bisciotti desired a leader, not someone who could just call plays. Clearly, Bisciotti wanted to think outside the box, resisting the easy decision, the quick decision, the popular one: Rex Ryan.

Ryan, one of those 11 head coaches that is still employed, had spent three seasons as the Ravens' defensive coordintor at the time (and nine seasons with the franchise overall). Bisciotti had observed Ryan successfully coaching his defense for several years, but apparently there was something missing, in terms of what Bisciotti wanted and what Ryan could provide; something that led him to expand the search and think differently.

As we all know, this thought process led him to John Harbaugh, former special teams coach of the Eagles. At the time, Harbaugh had little position-coaching experience in the NFL, but plenty of leadership experience handling a large group of players. Bisciotti, a man who made his fortune staffing people in the aerospace and technology sectors, trusted his instincts on finding the right leader. He was new to the league, and did not follow the usual course of coaching selection.

Ryan has been successful, guiding the Jets to two AFC Championship Games in his first three years. But Bisciotti has to feel great about his choice, as Harbaugh's taken the Ravens to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons and will be coaching his second AFC title bout on Sunday. And with Ryan's boastful act wearing thin in New York, his decision looks better and better by the day. Ryan's act does not suit everyone. Even if Rex meets Bisciotti's criteria on the football side, his brashness is not something that the Ravens stand for. Bisciotti is a sharp individual, and I suspect he concluded that Ryan's style has a short shelf life in this league. However, more than anything, Bisciotti did what he felt was right for his team and wasn't influenced by outsiders. To me, this is the most critical aspect of making the right coaching decision.

Why is there such a huge coaching turnover in the NFL? Because many teams look for play callers, not leaders. There is a huge learning curve in the jump from calling plays to sitting in the big chair, one that takes time and many mistakes to understand. Ironically, those mistakes often get a coach fired.

The whole selection process is flawed. Coaches are not hired these days, but rather they are elected, based on the popularity of the coach and the staff he can assemble. Back in the 1980s, becoming a head coach took time, experience and an understanding of the whole game. Now, if a coach calls three consecutive first-down plays, or stops an offense three times, or has the right agent, he can become a head coach. No wonder Bisciotti thought outside the box.

The game has always -- and will always -- run through the head coach. The macro game setup must come from the head coach. If a coach is too busy calling plays, many critical decisions don't get handled properly. Bisciotti was smart. He observed the league, understood the job's demands and went out and staffed his post with the person who best met his criteria. He scouted inside out, not outside in. And this is why his team is an annual Super Bowl contender.

The First 15: Championship Sunday Edition

1. The Ravens must start fast against the Patriots and cannot play from behind. Fortunately, Baltimore is one of the best quick-start teams in the NFL.

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2. Everyone is worried about Joe Flacco playing well for the Ravens, but I'm actually more concerned about their defense. They have some definite matchup problems with the Patriots.

3. I know the Ravens don't want to take Ray Lewis off the field on third down, which they should, so look for them to blitz him more and get him out of coverage.

4. Terrell Suggs has 14 sacks this season, but only four on the road. He needs to have a big day for the Ravens to win.

5. Two keys for a Ravens win: 1) Connect on the third level with either Torrey Smith or Anquan Boldin; and 2) Get a long run from Ray Rice. Baltimore really needs some explosive plays.

6. The Ravens have not used Jarret Johnson on sub downs, preferring Paul Kruger in that role. But the Pats will force Baltimore to employ nickel for most of this game, so the Ravens will likely just stick with Johnson.

7. This game will be close, unless the Patriots break the code of the Ravens' red-zone defense. The Ravens have been great in the red zone all year, and this must continue vs. New England.

8. Last time the 49ers and Giants met, Frank Gore was a non-factor in the game. For the Niners to win this time, he must contribute.

9. Since the Will Beatty injury that forced David Diehl to move to left tackle, the Giants actually have played better on the offensive line. Diehl is a better left tackle then left guard.

10. If the Giants can handle the run with a seven-man front, the 49ers are in for a long day. New York's defensive front is as good against the run as it is against the pass.

11. A wet soggy field always favors the team that can throw the ball. However, weather should not be a huge factor for either side in this game, as both teams can throw the ball well enough to compensate. Hard to rush the passer on a muddy field.

12. The 49ers are going to need to have a breakout game from a receiver. Is Michael Crabtree ever going to prove to America he is a top-tier wideout? This would be the perfect game to do it.

13. For the Giants to win, they are going to have to build on a lead in the fourth quarter. San Francisco is too good at winning close games -- a close game in the fourth quarter favors the home Niners.

14. This weekend's games are all about which staffs can make the best in-game adjustments. Winning the first quarter is great, but making the right adjustments to win the fourth is what matters most.

15. One road teams always seems to win on Championship Sunday, but in the last two years, teams that played a divisional game on Saturday were 4-0. That of course was the Niners and Patriots last weekend. Makes for fun watching. Enjoy the games.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi

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