FOXBORO – John Harbaugh explained on Thursday the difference between the rules loophole his Ravens exploited recently and the one the Patriots exploited in the 2014 AFC Divisional Playoff Game that caused him to cry, “Foul.”
What it boiled down to? According to Harbaugh, everyone knew about the loophole the Ravens took advantage of when they committed an en masse holding penalty at the end of the game against the Bengals. But, he claimed, nobody had seen what the Patriots successfully pulled off -- even though it had been used twice in the weeks prior to the Pats-Ravens matchup, once in college and once in the NFL -- when they made eligible receivers ineligible and vice versa and went on a touchdown drive that changed the tenor of the game.
“You’re right. I don’t want to get into all that,” Harbaugh said when I asked what the difference was. “That’s all been hashed out. I believe what I believe and I think it’s all been proven to be right.
“The point about [the punt hold] is, it’s been talked about, it’s been looked at, it’s been something that’s been used for 20 years so it’s nothing new,” he explained. “It’s nothing that hadn’t been addressed before by officials or the competition committee.”
Harbaugh said that, in Super Bowl 47, his Ravens used the tactic and his brother Jim, coach of the Niners, took it up with the Competition Committee. John Harbaugh supported the change, he said. The league declined.
“Everybody knew about that so it didn’t create an unfair advantage for anybody,” said Harbaugh.
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After the Patriots beat Baltimore in a tremendous game, Harbaugh was in a snit in his postgame press conference alleging the “nobody’s ever seen that [eligible-ineligible trickery] before.” He said the play was “illegal” and “deceptive.”
I mentioned that Alabama had run the play in a nationally televised game against LSU and that the Titans had done the same thing on a game-ending play against the Jets a few weeks earlier.
Aside from whether or not the information was accurately communicated by the officials, the tone of Harbaugh’s comments left little room for interpretation. He indicated the Patriots were underhanded and that his comments seemed to discredit New England.
“That was not the intent and if you go back and read my comments at the time and the tone of it anybody that takes it that way is taking it the wrong way,” said Harbaugh. “That was not the point of it at all. You had an eligible receiver that wasn’t identified and an ineligible receiver that wasn’t identified as such. The official had no way to identify that for the defense so there was no signal or any other way that they could do that. That was something that was addressed the very next week. If somebody wants to look at it some certain way, that’s not my concern.”
When I offered that referee Bill Vinovich not only identified Shane Vereen as being ineligible but added, “Don’t cover 34…” over the stadium mic, Harbaugh wasn’t having it.
“That’s not something that had ever been gone over,” he insisted. “Players were never taught don’t cover that player. When you’re on the field, you can’t hear that microphone. That’s not something you can even hear or are listening for. The next week there was a tweak.”
Indeed there was. And not just with the officials then being on the hook to make more detailed announcements. The further tweak, perhaps spurred by the formation chicanery and Tom Brady’s recommendation that Baltimore “study the rules” came when the Ravens passed on intel to the Colts for the AFC Championship Game. One of the recommendations from Ravens special teams coach Jerry Rosburg was to watch that the Patriots’ sideline staff didn’t monkey with the kicking balls. That was included in a letter to NFL Operations man Mike Kensil along with an allegation that it was “well known around the league” that the Patriots deflate footballs before the game and that the league needed to keep an eye on that.
Harbaugh hasn’t hidden from the fact he found Brady’s comment offensive.
"I was pissed off," he said this past summer. "It was uncalled for. And the rules are deeper than that, and I know the rules, and I stand by why that play shouldn't have been allowed . . . So yeah, that should never have been said."
He has, however, disavowed any talk by his staff about the Patriots allegedly deflating footballs. "Any conversation that was had with the Colts had nothing to do with deflated footballs, which is what we've been saying since the very start," Harbaugh said in 2015. "I know that we've answered the questions from the beginning to the end very simply. Our yes is yes. Our no is no. We've answered questions directly and honestly and straightforward from the start."
Whether the Patriots’ formation plays and the Ravens response to it led to a $30 million investigation that hijacked the NFL’s attention for 20 months and resulted in a four-game suspension for Brady is still not definitively known. Could Rosburg and the Colts equipment man have possibly discussed kicking ball chicanery without sharing notes on the belief the Patriots deflated footballs? Rosburg and former Patriots defensive coordinator and current Ravens coach Dean Pees were both spoken to by investigator Ted Wells. What did they offer?
Just like everything else between Ravens and Patriots, it’s complicated.