The new philosophy figured to ruffle the feathers of a few veteran players accustomed to playing by their own rules during Billick’s tenure.
While most veterans appear to have bought into Harbaugh’s approach, what about cornerback Chris McAlister, the loose cannon of the Ravens’ dominating defense over the past decade?
The issue came to the forefront last Sunday when McAlister did not start and was limited to only eight plays in the Ravens’ 27-13 victory in Miami. Fourth cornerback Frank Walker started in his place.
Following the game, Harbaugh told reporters McAlister was rested due to a recurring injury, but McAlister insisted to reporters that his injured right knee was healthy. He was not listed on the injury report.
Then, earlier this week, Harbaugh began to change his story in explaining McAlister’s absence.
“It's a football decision,” Harbaugh told reporters. “We're always going to put the best 11 players on the field for that situation. That's what we did [Sunday]. We had the corners out there in those situations that we wanted to have out there.”
Though McAlister played poorly the previous week in a loss to Indianapolis, he leads the team with three interceptions. The secondary is already missing injured starters Samari Rolle and Dawan Landry, so the decision to sit McAlister after one bad game appears suspicious.
Anyone following the 1999 first-round pick’s career had to wonder if McAlister was being punished. Harbaugh confirmed McAlister violated the team’s dress-code policy prior to boarding the team bus before Sunday’s game but refused to confirm the violation caused the benching.
Why such a mysterious explanation when it’s clear McAlister was yanked for breaking team rules?
“You have to read between the lines,” McAlister told reporters on Wednesday. “I don't know. He said I wasn't disciplined, so I wasn't disciplined.”
For all of his accomplishments, including a victory in Super Bowl XXXV and three Pro Bowl appearances, McAlister’s conduct has been a sticking point in his 10 seasons in Baltimore.
He was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana in 2000 and was arrested for driving under the influence in 2003. The charges were dropped in both cases.
In addition to legal issues, McAlister has also faced team discipline in the past. In 2003, McAlister broke curfew and skipped a team meeting before being fined and sent home prior to a game in San Diego.
Though former coach Billick was often criticized for manipulating the media and spinning various stories, he acted definitively in suspending McAlister for his conduct. The suspension seemed to have no harmful effect on McAlister, as he went on to earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl following the season.
Why didn’t Harbaugh do the same? If he is trying to protect his Pro Bowl cornerback’s psyche, it doesn’t seem to be working. In fact, it may be doing the opposite.
“The man [Harbaugh] said he put his best 11 [players] on the field,” McAlister said to reporters. “Obviously, he thinks Frank [Walker] is better than me.”
The rookie head coach must stand up to veterans such as McAlister, Ed Reed, and Ray Lewis to show there’s a new man in charge of leading the Ravens.
Swaying on a delicate issue like player conduct does not establish strong leadership with the veterans in the locker room. If a player breaks a team rule, discipline him, explain what happened (simply call it “conduct detrimental to the team”), and move on.
Following Billick’s model for disciplining McAlister in 2003 would have quickly defused the situation. It was a direct approach that worked with the troubled player.
A successful head coach needs to speak and act definitively, or he will lose his football team. Harbaugh preaches accountability and no nonsense with his players, but he needs to take his own advice in handling the McAlister situation. Don’t blame the benching on an injury or performance.
Perhaps it will eventually lead to McAlister’s departure from Baltimore, but Harbaugh needs to think about the rest of his football team. An unnecessary distraction is not what the team needs when it plays three straight games on the road following Sunday’s game in Baltimore.
But, instead of talking about the upcoming game against the Oakland Raiders, we’re wondering whether McAlister will be one of the “best 11” on Sunday.
This is a pivotal point in the season for both the 3-3 team and its rookie head coach. Harbaugh needs to come clean and end the debate. If not, the distraction will continue to affect McAlister and the rest of the team.
Adding another twist to the soap opera, McAlister was listed as limited in practice in Wednesday’s injury report. Maybe McAlister was injured in one of those eight plays against Miami, but critics are not buying it.
Stay tuned, as it seems there may be a few more chapters to this story.