Extra Points: Move to Caldwell proves prudent for Ravens

Maybe the upcoming Harbowl is so intriguing to America because we lack leadership on some many levels.

Our politicians, from the local level all the way up to the highest office in the land, fail to tackle the issues of the day with an eye on kicking the can down the road in order to placate certain constituencies.

Real leaders make tough decisions, popular or not, and respect is earned when they show the courage of their convictions.

Both Jim and John Harbaugh have proven themselves as leaders.

Neither the San Francisco 49ers nor the Baltimore Ravens would be getting ready for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans unless each Harbaugh brother didn't pull the trigger on an extremely difficult and controversial season-altering decision.

In Jim Harbaugh's case, he made the high-profile move from game manager Alex Smith to the dynamic Colin Kaepernick at the quarterback position, not exactly a no-brainer since Smith took the 49ers to the NFC title game after the 2011 season and had San Francisco at 7-2-1 with one of the best touchdown-to- interception ratios in the game before suffering a concussion against the St. Louis Rams in Week 10 of the 2012 campaign.

Harbaugh, who sees Smith and Kaepernick on a daily basis, far more than the rest of us, felt the second-year pro from Nevada gave him the best chance to win the big game and after Colin rallied San Francisco from a 17-point deficit in Atlanta on Sunday -- something the far-less explosive Smith could have never done -- it's hard to argue with the Niners mentor.

Although not as captivating, Jim's older brother, John, had his own season- defining moment with the Ravens.

Despite his team's 9-4 record and spot atop the AFC North, Harbaugh fired his offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, and elevated quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, the former head man in Indianapolis, to the position after Week 14.

From the outside looking in, it seemed like a panic move and not the type of thing you do to a first-place club, but Cameron had been roundly criticized for his handing of quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice.

"My charge -- our responsibility as a coaching staff -- is to maximize the opportunities for our team to win, and we can still reach all of our goals for this season," Harbaugh said when announcing the move. "We have a motto we follow on this team: W.I.N. -- What's Important Now -- and what's important now is to find ways to get better."

Harbaugh's decision came one day after the Ravens lost a second straight game, coming up just short in a 31-28 overtime setback at Washington. That came on the heels of a 23-20 loss to AFC North rival Pittsburgh, a hiccup which halted Baltimore's imposing 16-game winning streak in Charm City.

Heck, take away Rice's miraculous 4th-and-29 conversion back on Nov. 25 in San Diego and the Ravens would have been in full crisis mode.

It was clear Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome felt Flacco had plateaued under Cameron, and that Caldwell, who spent nearly 10 years "tutoring" Peyton Manning in Indy, could unlock something.

The change looked suspect early.

Caldwell replaced Cameron before a Week 15 contest in Denver, a game in which the Ravens struggled mightily, especially early with five straight three-and- outs en route to a 34-17 shellacking at the hands of the Broncos.

Since then, though, the Ravens offense has turned it on, first putting up 533 yards against the New York Giants in Week 16. After resting players in the regular season finale at Cincinnati, Baltimore rung up a franchise postseason record 441 yards in the first round of the playoffs against the Colts.

The Ravens then won the sequel in Denver by hanging up 38 points the Broncs before destroying New England in the second half during a 28-13 win in the AFC Championship Game at Foxboro.

"We haven't changed a lot," Harbaugh said. "It's still the same system that we had in place. We call things the same way. Everybody puts their imprint on it, and Jim's done a great job with that. We have grown a lot in the last month. There's been some growth, and it has shown up in stats and things like that, and that's a credit to all of our guys, not the least of which, obviously, is coach Caldwell."

Caldwell brought some up-tempo things to the Baltimore offense and has been more willing to let Flacco generate things from outside the pocket.

Against the Patriots, the running game wasn't working early and Caldwell put the game in Flacco's hands in the second half, giving the signal-caller the type of freedom he never enjoyed under Cameron.

That's resulted in confidence for a quarterback, who already has eight postseason wins under his belt and is the only signal-caller in NFL history to win a playoff game in his first five seasons.

"I always believed confidence usually follows success," Harbaugh said when discussing Flacco's mind-set. "You can be fake confident. If you haven't really done anything, you can kind of walk around with a false bravado. But, to have success, especially in the last couple of weeks the way we have, is definitely going to generate some confidence."

Caldwell's philosophy seems to be simplicity. In fact, Baltimore's lack of pre-snap movement against New England was glaring and in direct contrast to what's en vogue around the rest of the NFL, where motion is the key to garnering mismatches.

An offensive line shift and an improved running game also have made things easier on Flacco. When left guard Jah Reid went down with a toe injury, the Ravens reinserted veteran Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, moved Michael Oher back to right tackle and shifted rookie Kelechi Osemele to left guard. Meanwhile, rookie Bernard Pierce has been teaming with Pro-Bowler Rice for a nice 1-2 combination in the backfield.

"The O-line, I think that's where it starts all the time," Flacco said. "If those guys are playing well, I think we play well as an offense, and I think that goes the same across the league. And, these guys have really stepped up and are starting to play really well."

A strong running game opens up play-action for Flacco, who throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL, and receiver Torrey Smith is one of the top vertical threats in the league with an ability to high-point the football like few others.

"To string it together like (Flacco's) done back-to-back-to-back-to-back in the most critical time of the year is the great thing about it," Harbaugh said. "I really believe that we saw that coming as a football staff and as an organization and as players. That's just the way he's been practicing. He's come a long way, but he's come the way that you would expect any quarterback to develop. It's in his fifth year, and to see it happen like this is something that we kind of planned for, but it's also a great thing to see."

Under Caldwell, who agreed to come back as Baltimore' offensive coordinator for the 2013 season earlier this week, the Ravens have stitched together a Daryle Lamonica- or Jim Plunkett-type Raiders offense designed to stretch the field and get vertical during a dink-and-dunk era.

"He's a really a solid football coach," Harbaugh said when discussing Caldwell this week. "He's been around. He's coached both sides of the ball. He's been a head coach. He's done it all. But, he's mainly a really good guy. He's a good person, and he's genuine. He's to the point (where) he doesn't mince words, and he coaches football from the beginning of the day until the end of the day, and the guys appreciate that."