Harbaugh's rope-a-dope produces championship

Harbaugh's rope-a-dope produces championship
February 5, 2013, 7:15 pm
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BALTIMORE –- Ever since The Greatest paid the Ravens a visit before the season, coach John Harbaugh hasn't let go of the memory.

Or the catch phrase, “What’s my name?”

Harbaugh has amended it to “Who are we?” as he shouted the question rhetorically to close to 80,000 at M&T Bank Stadium for Tuesday’s post-Super Bowl celebration.

On Feb. 6, 1967, Muhammad Ali tortured Ernie Terrell as he defended his heavyweight title. It came during a time of political unrest over the Vietnam War and when there only was one true champion. Terrell refused to acknowledge Ali’s conversion to Islam and changing his birth name of Cassius Clay.

As Howard Cosell and Joe Louis called the fight on TV from ringside, Ali can be heard taunting Terrell as he only could cover up from the brutality. As the bell sounded to end the eighth round, Ali stood nose-to-nose with the 6-foot-6 Terrell and could be heard saying: “What’s my name, huh? What’s my name?”

It was an act of defiance in during a time when athletes weren't permitted to show confidence, but it’s that swagger –- a daring to be great -- that the Ravens exuded en route to the franchise’s second Super Bowl championship with a 34-31 victory vs. the San Francisco 49ers.

Ray Lewis had it. Terrell Suggs wreaks of it. Jacoby Jones was born with it. And in his own way, so does the usually straight-laced Harbaugh.

A no-nonsense coach’s son, he listened to his players’ concerns when they felt he was working them too hard during practices and was humble enough to relent and make changes. When Harbaugh was pelted with questions about the Ravens losing four of their last five regular-season games entering the playoffs, his players saw the same face privately and publicly.  His message never changed.

Lewis, retiring after his 17th season, was there to back him up and keep the troops in line. The offense, led by quarterback Joe Flacco, was re-invented under offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and led the charge.

When the Ravens won their first Super Bowl in 2001, the offense averaged 16.7 points in four postseason wins. This offense averaged 27.4 in four wins.

Even though this was an offensive juggernaut in comparison, the same blue-collar ethic is what put the Ravens over the hump.

That’s why New Orleans adopted the Ravens as its own during Super Bowl week. By kickoff, it felt like the Saints were playing. Purple and black took over that venue and most natives rooted for the Ravens by a landslide.

Like New Orleans, the city of Baltimore has a true grit and is the underdog in many ways when compared with New York, Miami, Dallas or San Francisco. And that was literally the case in the Ravens’ last three games of the postseason as they won at the Denver Broncos, at the New England Patriots and at a neutral site vs. the vaunted read-option offense of the 49ers.

“I’m from New Orleans. We have Mardi Gras,” said Jacoby Jones, who had a 108-yard TD return on a kickoff  and a 56-yard TD reception, of the parade experience. “This has Mardis Gras by 10 (times).  … This is my second home.”

Fat Tuesday is exactly a week from today in New Orleans and purple is one of dominant colors. 

The Ravens wouldn't have made it this far if it wasn't for the contributions of lesser-known players who filled in the gaps after a 9-2 start. Josh Bynes, who began the season on the practice squad, played Lewis' position briefly. Cornerback Chykie Brown worked his way from being just a special-teams player to get defensive snaps. Both were just second-year players.  A rookie, DeAngelo Tyson helped a defensive line that was ragged without Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee healthy.  Brendon Ayanbadejo and Corey Graham were elevated from special teams to log more snaps as well.

Veteran safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard played through injuries and never made excuses for their sometimes shaky tackling. Reed had torn cartilage in his shoulder since Week 3. Pollard had damaged ribs since Week 2, when teammate Courtney Upshaw crashed his helmet into his torso when they converged on Michael Vick for a sack in Philadelphia. Reed didn't miss a start. Pollard sat out the last three regular-season games.

Coordinator Dean Pees kept the unit together, even as they gave up 468 yards in the Super Bowl, the most ever allowed by a winning team. The Ravens held firm on the last 7 yards. They allowed the 49ers just two yards as they turned the ball over on downs and failed short of coming all the way back from 22 points down.  

As Harbaugh has said frequently, it wasn't pretty but victory was achieved.

Sometimes to win and be great -- like The Greatest when he duped George Foreman with the "rope-a-dope" in Zaire in 1974 for one of the most remarkable upsets in the history of sports -- calculated risks are involved.  Harbaugh chose to hold back to end the regular season, even if it meant  taking a losses that wouldn't look good on the Ravens' eventual 10-6 record. 

The no-names went back to their former roles as Lewis returned after a 10-game absence with a torn triceps. Suggs overcame a sore Achilles and torn biceps to unleash in the second half vs. Denver to harass quarterback Peyton Manning into mistakes. Pollard came back to force a game-changing turnover in the AFC title game by knocking running back Stevan Ridley cold.

"Who are we?" is what Harbaugh asked three times at the podium Tuesday. "Ravens" was the response in near-freezing temperatures.

Harbaugh used his own version of the rope-a-dope, and like The Greatest he's a champion, too.