PHOENIX — Ravens coach John Harbaugh has been out here all week for the Pro Bowl, and apparently the desert heat has warmed his heart.
Appearing Friday on NFL Network, Harbaugh was downright reverential of Bill Belichick when asked about his professional rival.
“He’s been a great mentor, a great friend,” Harbaugh gushed. “I have the utmost respect for him. Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of our generation, without question.
“He’s the toughest guy we have to go against every single year, game plan-wise, and trying to beat his team. They have a great team, they’re where they deserve to be, they’re where they belong and I just consider him my friend.”
It’s a nice gesture to defend Belichick’s honor and try to minimize the impact of the Deflategate incident. And Harbaugh sure knows how to butter him up.
But there’s a second message, here — of a man pleading for forgiveness.
In the public sphere, the Patriots have been the only team involved in the Deflategate controversy that tarnished their bye week as they prepare to face the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. The Colts were an ancillary participant.
But inside the walls of Gillette Stadium and across the league, Harbaugh is viewed as the one responsible for starting this whole mess — casting a dark cloud above the league’s signature event, staining the reputations of Belichick and Tom Brady, and blowing the lid off another of the league’s dirty secrets about football doctoring.
It’s Harbaugh who supposedly concocted this scheme with good buddy Chuck Pagano, the Colts’ coach who was one of Harbaugh’s top defensive lieutenants for four years in Baltimore, after the Patriots pulled some trickery on the Ravens in the playoffs two weeks ago. Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer reported as much last week, and while there’s no concrete proof of this yet, that’s what the Patriots and many others across the league believe. Glazer also reported that the Ravens suspected something wrong with their kicking balls, although those stay in the officials’ possession from Saturday until literally right at kickoff.
This little tit-for-tat between the Ravens and Patriots escalated quickly. It began with Harbaugh accusing the Patriots of “deception” with their eligible-ineligible tactics in New England’s dramatic 35-31 comeback win in the divisional round Jan. 10.
A few feet down the hall at Gillette Stadium, Brady shot right back.
“Maybe those guys got to study the rule book and figure it out?” Brady said. “We obviously knew what we were doing.”
Harbaugh, supposedly, got his revenge a week later with his buddy Pagano. “Oh, so you want to talk about the rule book? Let’s check those footballs.”
The NFL’s lengthy press release on Friday didn’t mention how it became aware of the underinflated footballs. Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson admitted last week that he didn’t notice a thing when he intercepted Brady late in the second quarter. But, as reported first by Newsday, did a Colts equipment manager notice an underinflated ball and set off a chain of events leading to the referees’ discovery of improper footballs? Did the Colts have a pressure gauge at the ready, for just the situation?
After the scandal exploded on the Patriots and brought Belichick and Brady to their knees with lengthy press conferences, Harbaugh then piled on later last week, seemingly taking the moral high ground in an interview with ESPN.
“They’re going to make sure the game is played with integrity, it’s played the right way, it’s fair and there are no unfair advantages for either side in any game,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what sport’s all about.”
And would underinflating footballs be an unfair advantage?
“I think there’s an obvious answer to that: Yes, it would be an unfair advantage.”
You can imagine the Patriots’ reaction — let’s just say it was a word that starts with the letter “P” and rhymes with “missed.” Never mind that the Patriots may have been deliberately skirting the rules (although the NFL has not determined anything at this point). In NFL circles, ratting out the Patriots was the far bigger crime.
And Harbaugh, whose team hasn’t exactly been a beacon of morality and truth since Ray Rice punched his fiancé in February, has the gall to act smugly about the Patriots?
Which leads us to Harbaugh’s quote from Friday. He sounded like a man desperate to get back in the good graces of the Patriots and much of the NFL. After all, in 2008 Belichick went out of his way to help a little-known special teams coach named John Harbaugh, a man he didn’t know well, get his first head coaching job with the Ravens.
“It meant everything,” Harbaugh said earlier this month of getting Belichick’s recommendation. “The fact that he was willing to do that at the time, I was stunned when I heard the story much later. I would describe the relationship as very good. [I have] great admiration for Coach and consider him . . . I’ve never worked with him, specifically, but for whatever reason he has been always willing to kind of take me under his wing in a way and give me time and insight and things like that.”
But Harbaugh and Pagano just may have nuked their relationship with the Patriots. Ask Eric Mangini what happens when you cross Belichick. He was kicked out of the family and is no longer on speaking terms. He couldn’t get an NFL coaching job for two years, and is slowly working his way back in San Francisco, on the other side of the country.
Belichick and the Patriots always will respect Harbaugh as an X’s and O’s coach. But now he’s also seen, fairly or not, as the guy who ignited Deflategate and tainted this Super Bowl run.
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