John Harbaugh was on his way to getting fired.
His 4-5 Ravens had lost to the Steelers in their last game before the 2018 bye — sound familiar? — when he was asked about an NFL Network report saying he could get canned during the off week.
“I’ve never been somebody that ever worried about keeping a job,” Harbaugh said. “It’s always been, for me, dealing with a job. ... I feel really good about the way this team has been coached for the last 11 years. No regrets.”
The finality sounded fitting. In the five full seasons since leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl, Harbaugh was exactly .500. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti considered firing Harbaugh before the 2018 season but settled on adding one more season to his one-year contract, saving him the embarrassment of lame-duck status.
Harbaugh survived the bye — and played his final card. With starter Joe Flacco nursing a hip injury, Harbaugh gave rookie Lamar Jackson — who had been coming off the bench in run-first packages — his first NFL start.
Three years ago Thursday, Jackson threw for 150 yards and ran for 117 in his first start, beginning of the great rookie runs in NFL history. Jackson rattled off wins in six of his seven starts — the lone loss came in overtime — and the Ravens won their division.
A month after that, Harbaugh got a four-year contract extension.
There’s a lesson there for Bears coach Matt Nagy, even though he lacks the clout of a Super Bowl champion head coach. The only surefire way Nagy can keep his job is for his quarterback to wow the NFL in the final half of his rookie season. Over the next eight games, Justin Fields will have to prove so dynamic that changing the support system around him would seem ludicrous.
Otherwise, Nagy faces an uphill climb. His decision to play Andy Dalton exclusively with the starters in training camp hurt Fields’ learning curve. The Bears’ defense ranks No. 23 in points per game allowed, and figure that may get worse with Khalil Mack out for the year.
He’s in the middle of his third four-plus-game losing streak in as many years.
“The only way to get back to it is to say, ‘OK, why is this going on?’” Nagy said. “It’s no one’s fault other than everybody’s. Now we pick the pieces up and we get a chance to play a great football team that’s really well coached, at home. And what are we gonna do about it?”
Oddsmakers certainly think it’s somebody’s fault. Many moved Nagy past Jaguars coach Urban Meyer as the most likely coach to be fired next.
Fields can change that.
“You look at Justin right now, and how he’s improving as a quarterback in this offense, you can certainly start there … ” Nagy said. “And that gives this whole entire team confidence.”
Comparing him to Jackson is unfair — the Ravens quarterback is a former MVP — but their situations are similar. Like Nagy this season, Harbaugh didn’t want to start his rookie right away. Like Nagy, his hand was forced because of an injury. And, like Nagy, Harbaugh needed to find a way to build an offense around someone whose skillset was the polar opposite of their veteran quarterback.
The Ravens did that on the fly, although they didn’t truly construct their offense around Jackson until they promoted Greg Roman to offensive coordinator following the 2018 season.
The Bears, too, are trying to customize their offense to fit Fields after spending the preseason with Dalton under center. He’s progressed the last two games, but it will take more than baby steps to keep his coach around in 2022.
Once coaches face serious questions about their job status, few ever come back from the brink. When Nagy looks across the field Sunday, he’ll see a rare coach who did — and the formula for him to try to do the same.