Harbaugh faces biggest coaching challenge

John Harbaugh must push aside all the offseason turmoil and get Baltimore ready for a tough season. Evan Habeeb/US Presswire

Baltimore Ravens' head coach John Harbaugh has gone from being within one dropped pass of going to the Super Bowl to the biggest challenge of his coaching career.

His best player on defense (linebacker Terrell Suggs) is expected to miss at least the first half of the season with an Achilles injury. His best player on offense (running back Ray Rice) will likely miss the start of training camp to protest being slapped with the franchise tag.

Harbaugh's future Hall of Fame safety (Ed Reed) played hooky from mandatory minicamp without even a text message to the head coach. His starting left tackle (Bryant McKinnie) is having weight issues, again. And starting quarterback (Joe Flacco) is hoping to avoid the "complicated" matter of playing out the final year of his contract.

This wasn't an offseason for the Ravens. It was a bad reality show. Throughout all of this drama, you were just waiting for a Kardashian to show up at some point.

The biggest question facing Baltimore was supposed to be whether the team can move past a last-minute collapse in the AFC championship game. The Ravens wish that was the major concern right now.

How will all of these issues affect the Ravens this season? These distractions suggest they aren't among the Super Bowl favorites anymore. But I can be proven wrong. More specifically, Harbaugh can prove me wrong.

Harbaugh's greatest strengths as a coach is his attention to detail, motivation and focus, all of which are vital after an offseason like this one. Walk the halls of Ravens headquarters and you'll see one of Harbaugh's favorite slogans throughout the building: W.I.N. (What's Important Now). "You try to take care of business today, what’s important right now," Harbaugh said. "Today, let’s do our job, and then the future takes care of itself. That’s how it applies.”

This has led to the most consistently successful era in the Ravens' short team history. Harbaugh is the only coach in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first four seasons, yet he has never received even a single vote for the Associated Press' NFL Coach of the Year award (even recently-fired Steve Spagnuolo got one over the same period). There could be a perception that the Ravens win because of the talent on the field (they've had at least five players make the Pro Bowl every year since 2008) rather than the coaching off of it.

This is Harbaugh's time to shine. This is his moment to shake the underrated label. Harbaugh would probably acknowledge he hasn't had to be as heavy-handed the past couple of years because he has strong leaders in place in the locker room with Ray Lewis, Reed and Anquan Boldin. But, when the waters become rough, he's got to be the captain of the ship. He has to make sure the distractions are pushed to the side and focus remains the challenges presented by the NFL's fourth-toughest schedule this season.

Harbaugh really hasn't had to deal with much adversity since becoming Baltimore's head coach in 2008. In his first season, he had to handle the unexpected retirement of quarterback Steve McNair and the subsequent quarterback competition won by Flacco. The next season, he had to change kickers at midseason.

Nothing compares to the culmination of blows suffered this year:

In February, backup running back Ricky Williams abruptly announced his retirement only days after he said he was excited about the 2012 season.

In March, the Ravens lost three starters (guard Ben Grubbs, linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive end Cory Redding) in free agency. Baltimore's prize free-agent signing was a special teams ace (Corey Graham).

In April, Suggs partially tore his Achilles tendon in a conditioning drill or a basketball game (it depends on who you believe). He insists that he'll play this season, but he backed off a predicted return by late November. "We will be fine," Harbaugh said.

In May, Rice skipped the first offseason training activity and would miss the rest of the spring workouts to protest getting the franchise tag. The sides have until July 16 to reach a deal or Rice will be forced to play under the $7.7 million tender. "I don't worry about Ray Rice," Harbaugh said. "Ray will be ready to go when the season starts. He’ll be in shape and he’ll be Ray Rice."

In June, Reed blew off the team's mandatory minicamp without so much as a phone call to the team. "I'm not worried about Ed being ready," Harbaugh said. "I know Ed's going to be working hard and getting himself ready for the season. Any comment beyond that really has no value."

You can see the pattern here. An touchy issue surfaces, and Harbaugh downplays it. He never shows panic, which is exactly what he has to convey to his players.

In the big picture of the NFL, there are other teams in more dire situations. The Ravens' offseason, as rocky as it's been, isn't in the same league as the bounty scandal in New Orleans.

And Harbaugh doesn't have to think about his future like the other coaches in the AFC North. The Bengals' Marvin Lewis is entering the final year of his contract, and the Steelers' Mike Tomlin has one year left on his (2013 is a team option). The Browns' Pat Shurmur is already feeling the pressure after managing just four wins in his first season.

So, this is hardly a make-or-break year for Harbaugh. There's no panic button to be pressed. But he does face a challenge unlike any before in his Ravens tenure.

Some questioned the Ravens' focus last season when the team suffered letdowns to the likes of Seattle and Jacksonville. Baltimore's mindset entering this season rests on the coaching of Harbaugh. It's up to him to turn an offseason to forget into a season to remember.