By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Baltimore Ravens are in trouble. Again. And once more, the people in charge are absolving themselves of blame.
The NFL announced Wednesday that the Ravens will be stripped of two OTA practice days — June 7 and June 8 — for violating the offseason workout rules in the CBA. Additionally, head coach John Harbaugh was fined $50,000, and owner Steve Bisciotti was fined $100,000.
The rule violation in question was simple: No contact is allowed at all in any offseason workout. The Ravens were found to have violated this black-and-white rule.
In a statement released by the team, Harbaugh insisted that he and his team did nothing wrong, despite the ruling from the NFL. Harbaugh insisted that the Ravens were being “singled out.” Yet he also said that some players struggle to pick up techniques in pass coverage that allow players to compete without making contact.
“Our team has been singled out for pass coverage contact during the early part of OTAs. We have heavily emphasized these CBA pass coverage rules in meetings, and coached them diligently on the practice field,” Harbaugh said. “Even with consistent and repeated teaching, these rules pose considerable adjustments for the young players. We have tried very hard to eliminate contact in pass coverage during OTAs, even so far as to pull players out of practice who struggle with these adjustments.”
GM and executive vice president Ozzie Newsome likewise said the issue involved players not taking well to certain coaching points.
“We have players competing, including rookies and those fighting to make our team,” Newsome said. “Sometimes breaking old practice habits of these players, especially rookies, takes more repetitions.”
It’s not the first time that Harbaugh and the Ravens have been issued a loss of OTA practice sessions, though.
Two years ago, the NFL stripped the Ravens of three OTA sessions after the team held a fully padded practice during rookie minicamp. That time, the Ravens claimed ignorance on the rule which bans fully padded practice during rookie minicamps. The NFL believed the Ravens were lying, stated that the Ravens knew the rule and violated it anyway, and subsequently handed down the punishment. Eventually, after Harbaugh took a $137,000 fine, the Ravens admitted their “mistake.”
This time, the first response seems to be a blaming of the players for initiating contact which they’ve been told not to make. Whether or not the coaching staff ends up accepting some or all blame for the banned contact remains to be seen.
Obviously, though, navigating the rulebook has at times been a dicey prospect for Harbaugh. He threw a fit during the 2014 AFC divisional playoff game in Foxboro when the Patriots employed some formations that were fully legal but nevertheless somewhat complicated for an unprepared defense to handle. Harbaugh complained after the game that the officials on the field did not give his defense proper time and warning to adjust (the officials, in fact, had done that), and then suggested the NFL should look into the deceptive tactic.
(Coincidentally, the only person who broke a rule during that sequence was Harbaugh, who walked onto the field and delayed the game. The coach took the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to spare his team from getting beaten for a fourth time by the same tactic.)
The league did, and a new rule was put into place which would prevent teams in the future from following that exact same formation trickery. But the new rule left open a loophole, one which Harbaugh tried to exploit at his earliest convenience. Literally. His earliest convenience.
In Week 2 of the 2015 season, he sent an offensive lineman to line up as if he were a receiver, while using a tight end in the left tackle spot as an eligible receiver. It worked! The Ravens scored a touchdown … but lost … to the Raiders … who went just 7-9 that season. The Ravens would go just 5-11.
Harbaugh employed another deceptive play later that year, this time on Monday Night Football in Arizona. This time, though, it did not work, because the referee screwed up and didn’t announce the offensive lineman as an eligible receiver. The Ravens lost that game to fall to 1-6 on their season.
In 2016, Harbaugh busted out a play on which he instructed all of his players to commit holding penalties so that the punter could run out the remainder of time in the game.
The NFL ruled that such a play was within the rules.
(This is all without mentioning the way the Ravens tried in vain to make themselves look good in the wake of the release of the Ray Rice elevator video. That came long after the Ravens trotted out Janay Rice to tell the world that she regretted “her role” in that incident. You read through that awful explanation from the team, and you’re reminded that covering their tracks is not a strength of the Baltimore Ravens organization.)
Clearly, Harbaugh is a coach who likes to dive into the intricacies of the rulebook. That’s what coaches do when they want their teams to be the best. (Coaches who want their teams to be the best also do want to mix in a playoff appearance or two, which is something Harbaugh hasn’t done in the last three years. But that’s neither here nor there.)
But when you flirt that closely with the gray area that forms between the words and the white space in the rulebook, you generally want to accurately calculate your landing area. Because when you look wrong once, you look a bit foolish. When you look wrong several times in a short span, well, people take note.
Tom Brady famously said of the Ravens after that 2014 playoff game, “Maybe those guys gotta study the rulebook and figure it out.” That comment ended up bring an unfathomable two-year headache to the quarterback. But now three years removed from the statement being made, it remains as true as ever.