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Coach of the year: John Harbaugh

As the 2019 season unfolded, various candidates for coach of the year emerged, faded, re-emerged, and/or re-faded. The only certainty was that, once the season ended, the picture would become far more clear.

And it now is. The 2019 coach of the year is, without question, Ravens coach John Harbaugh.

He earned it with a 14-2 record generated by a 12-game winning streak that began after a two-game losing streak. After the win at Cleveland that clinched the top seed in the AFC playoff field, Harbaugh told PFT that the turning point was the overtime win at Pittsburgh, and that he sensed during a practice in advance of the win at Seattle that the Ravens were about to get on a run.

They did, with road wins (like at Seattle) and close wins (like vs. the 49ers) and blowouts of teams in games that could have been traps. It happened with an offense built around quarterback Lamar Jackson and a defense that reloaded after several free-agent departures. Especially on the offensive side of the ball, Harbaugh confirmed that the best coaches don’t have a system to which they are bound but a determination to craft a playbook that suits his players.

Maybe that’s the best argument for giving special-teams coordinators greater consideration for head-coaching jobs. Although Harbaugh had a palate-cleansing season as defensive backs coach before joining the Ravens in 2008, he made his way not as an offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator but as a special-teams coach. And his offense was so good this year that he didn’t need to use very much at all.

Harbaugh also has helped transform attitudes regarding rolling the dice on fourth down, making what was once unconventional far more commonplace, with a Madden-style attitude creeping into NFL football as coaches ignore potential fan and media criticism flowing from a failed fourth-down attempt. As a result, fans and media have become less likely to criticize a failed fourth-down attempt.

And to think that last year there was a sense that the Ravens and Harbaugh were careening toward a mutual parting. As teams prepared to line up for a chance to hire Harbaugh, the Ravens realized what they had, and they did what they had to do to keep him around.

Others who received serious consideration, and who thus merit a mention in this item, include 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and Packers coach Matt LaFleur. Shanahan led the 49ers to a 13-3 record, with three losses that each could have become wins. A master of offensive play design, Shanahan held the 49ers together down the stretch, as they limped toward the regular-season finish line but still won close games against the Rams and Seahawks to nail down the No. 1 seed, earning a desperately needed week off.

LaFleur walked into a potential buzzsaw in Green Bay, but he wisely showed deference to quarterback Aaron Rodgers and presided over a team that did what it had to do, week by week, to win games. He not only took the Packers to the playoffs after two years on the outside but lifted them to the No. 2 seed. While other teams are more talented, the Packers won as consistently as the most talented teams; when that happens, the coach should get plenty of credit for it.