Coaching shuffle spurs Ravens offense

Maybe the upcoming Harbowl is so intriguing to America because we lack leadership in so many aspects of life.

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.

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 Broncos 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. "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."

Below is a capsule look at the offense of the Baltimore Ravens:

QUARTERBACKS: The underrated Flacco has thrown eight touchdown passes and no interceptions so far in this postseason so he is playing pretty well. In fact, the only signal-callers in NFL history to finish a full postseason with at least nine touchdown passes and no interceptions are Steve Young after the 1994 season, and Joe Montana, who threw 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the playoffs after the 1989 season. Flacco also set a single- season career high in passing yards with 3,817 yards, while connecting on 47 completions of 25-or-more yards, which set a Ravens' season record and led the NFL.

"I don't know if I feed off of it," Flacco said of making big plays. "I think those guys (his receivers) definitely feed off of it. When you give them the opportunity one-on-one to go up and make plays and they make them, it gets them going. It gets the other guys going."

RUNNING BACKS: A strong running opens up that play-action for Flacco, who throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL. Rice is the bell cow, totaling 1,621 yards from scrimmage, the NFL's ninth most. He was one of three players to post 1,000 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards. Rice ranked second in the NFL in catches by a RB (61) and fourth in receiving yards (478), marking his fourth straight season with at least 1,600 yards from scrimmage. Dating back to 2009, Rice owns an NFL-high 7,506 total yards from scrimmage (5,066 rushing & 2,440 receiving), including a league-best 39 games where he's gained 100-or- more total yards.

"Obviously, we are going to enjoy this," Rice said of placing in the Super Bowl. "Obviously, we are going to get to work this week, but you get down there, there's nothing like it. I said I have never been to a Super Bowl game. I have been down to a few Super Bowl appearances, but I told myself I'm never going to one unless I'm playing in it. This is the one that I finally get to say I'm playing in it."

Rice has also got help this time around with Pierce, who ran for 532 yards as a team-leading 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie , giving the Ravens a nice compliment.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Anquan Boldin has been a beast in the postseason, snaring 16 catches for 276 yards and three TDs, averaging 17.3 yards per catch and 92.0 yards per game. Since becoming a Raven in 2010, Boldin has totaled the NFL's most playoff receiving yards (512) and is deadlocked with Niners tight end Vernon Davis for the most receiving TDs (five) over the last three years of postseason play.

Meanwhile, Smith is one of the top vertical threats in the league, ranking fourth in the NFL with a 17.4 yards per catch average, posting a career-high 855 yards on 49 receptions.

Fleet-footed return specialist Jacoby Jones is the third option and another, albeit far less consistent, big play waiting to happen.

TIGHT ENDS: Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta posted career highs of 61 catches and 669 receiving yards and seven TDs and has a knack for finding the soft spot in a zone. Pitta isn't the best blocker in the world, however, leaving that for Ed Dickson, who is basically just an outlet receiver in the passing game.

OFFENSIVE LINE: The offensive line shift has fueled things. McKinnie was once a Pro-Bowler in Minnesota and although he's seen his better days and lives an undisciplined lifestyle, he's a natural left tackle, enabling Oher to move back to where he's far more comfortable -- the right side.

Veteran Matt Birk, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, could join Ray Lewis in retirement after the Super Bowl. Like Lewis, he's a natural leader who makes all the right protection calls on the line of scrimmage. The other starter is right guard Marshal Yanda, Baltimore's best offensive lineman. Yanda is a road-grader in the running game and mirrors in pass protection well.

"I think it's a pretty solid group that we have up there right now," Flacco said. "Bryant (McKinnie) is fresh and playing quick and moving well, and obviously, with his stature out there, he's a big strong guy. So, I think that allowed us to put Mike (Oher) on the right side, bring K.O. over to the left guard. He's a great young player. It gives us five really good talents up there, and they've been playing really well together, so you've got to give the credit to those guys."