John Harbaugh took a less-than-conventional path when it comes to his position as a head coach in the NFL.
The long-time Baltimore Ravens coach opened some eyes as Andy Reid’s special teams coordinator in Philadelphia, and you saw him return to those roots as perhaps the best special teams mentor in recent memory by using the league’s flawed rulebook to his advantage by successfully running out the final 11 seconds in his team’s important 19-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, one that vaulted the Ravens on top of Pittsburgh in the AFC North for now.
Facing a fourth down deep in his own territory, Harbaugh ordered his blockers to hold every single rusher coming after punter Sam Koch, who in turn took his time traversing the end zone before finally stepping out to surrender a meaningless safety as time expired.
A game, of course, can not end on a defensive penalty, but the Ravens were technically playing offense until Koch actually punts the football so there is no recourse to extend the game and give Cincinnati one more untimed play and a chance to pull off the miracle.
To some, it was a bush league way to end a football game and to others, it was a brilliant strategy to exploit a loophole that Harbaugh didn’t create, he just manipulated it.
The “spirit of the restriction” phrase entered the American sports lexicon way back in 1983 when then-New York Yankees manager Billy Martin got a dramatic two-out, ninth-inning George Brett home run overturned because the Kansas City Royals’ star third baseman had too much pine tar on his bat.
Very few people even knew the run existed but when brought to the attention to the home-plate umpire Tim McClelland, Brett was ruled out even though his addiction to the sticky stuff certainly has nothing to do with him turning around a fastball from fellow Hall of Famer Rich “Goose” Gossage.
The Yankees had been paying attention to Brett’s “illegal” bats for weeks, and Martin kept his knowledge in his pocket until he needed it and used it to get the Yankees a victory, for a moment anyway.
At the time, MLB Rule 1.10(c) stated: “The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from the end, may be covered or treated with any material or substance to improve the grip. Any such material or substance, which extends past the 18-inch limitation, shall cause the bat to be removed from the game.”
Moreso, Brett’s bomb was defined in the rules as an illegally batted ball, and the penalty for hitting “an illegally batted ball” was that the batter was to be declared out, under the then-existing provisions of Rule 6.06.
In short, by the letter of the law, McClelland got it right when he called Brett out.
The Royals protested the game, however, and American League president Lee MacPhail upheld it, ordering the game be restarted from the point of Brett’s home run, something that resulted in a Kansas City win.
MacPhail evoked the “spirit of the restriction” nomenclature, essentially acknowledging Martin was right but abusing his power as an arbiter to become sort of an activist judge who ignored the existing law on the books in favor of his own personal ideology.
The end game should have been tipping his cap to Martin, thanking him for pointing out the problem and then revisiting a flawed rule.
Ironically, that very end game recently took place in the NFL and it involved Harbaugh.
Rewind to the 2014 divisional playoff game between the Ravens and New England Patriots when Tom Brady and the Patriots ran three consecutive plays with four ineligible receivers in the middle of the field (the offensive linemen) with a fifth eligible receiver (by our normal view, a tackle) next to them to look like a blocker. They then put the needed fifth ineligible player further along the line of scrimmage to make him look like a receiver.
When the Patriots snapped the ball, the receiver disguised as a tackle ran out for a pass, while the ineligible receiver stayed on the line of scrimmage as required, confusing everyone from the Ravens to the viewers and yes, even the officials.
And Brady took a dig at Harbaugh and the Ravens for complaining: “Maybe those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out.”
Harbaugh was upset at the time but that’s not Bill Belichick’s fault. The New England coach took advantage of a different loophole that the NFL then closed in March of 2015.
NFL owners have passed the rule proposal banning the use of ineligible receivers like the Patriots did in the AFC divisional playoffs.
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) March 25, 2015
Harbaugh, meanwhile, took Brady’s constructive criticism and ran with it.
Now, it’s the NFL’s move to clean up another glitch.
-John McMullen is a national football columnist for FanRagSports.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen — Also catch John each week during the NFL season ESPN South Jersey, ESPN Southwest Florida, ESPN Lexington, CBS Baltimore, KDWN in Las Vegas, and check @JFMcMullen for John’s upcoming appearances on SB Nation Radio, FOX Sports Radio, CBS Sports Radio as well as dozens of local radio stations across North America.