There were two examples in the NFL this weekend of how to look at records. Tom Brady, winner of seven Super Bowls, chose to ignore his. John Harbaugh, winner of one, chose to put his quarterback and the franchise he leads at risk to set one.
The contrast in thinking and what it says about them could not have been clearer.
The winningest quarterback in NFL history, at least if judged by his jewelry collection, understood that setting the all-time passing yardage total against his old team didn’t mean a damn thing. In fact, Brady reportedly asked before his homecoming at Gillette Stadium that the game not be stopped to acknowledge his passing Drew Brees in total passing yards against a Patriots' team he led for 20 years on its home turf.
Brady is on pace to pass for 5,763 yards this season which would break the single-season mark set in 2013 by Peyton Manning (5,477). If he does it, more than likely he won’t want the game stopped to acknowledge that either. His reasoning is simple. What’s that got to do with winning Super Bowls?
Contrast that with Harbaugh, a head coach who is supposedly all about winning, yet couldn’t see that tying a meaningless rushing record that few knew even existed with three seconds left in a lopsided win over the Denver Broncos did nothing but call into question his priorities.
At the time, Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens led Denver, 23-7. They had just intercepted a pass and with three seconds on the clock most assumed quarterback Lamar Jackson would take a knee and be happy to have escaped another game in one piece. In fact, he said as much not long after Harbaugh instead ordered him to run a sweep around left end to gain the three more yards Baltimore needed to rush for 100 yards or more for the 43rd consecutive game.
Why was this important? To Jackson, who regularly puts his body at risk with his scrambling style and really didn’t need to do it when nothing was on the line but a coach’s ego, it wasn’t.
““I’m not going to lie,” a clearly bemused Jackson said after the game. “I ain’t really care about the record. I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about winning the game.”
Jackson’s five-yard run allowed the Ravens to tie a record the Pittsburgh Steelers set between 1974 and 1977. It had stood for 44 years. If it had gotten to 45, would they have cancelled the Super Bowl? No they wouldn’t. But if Jackson had been injured on that run it would have cancelled any chance the Ravens had of getting there.
What made Harbaugh’s decision so baffling is that coaches preach all the time that football is not about the individual. It is about the collective. It is not about individual numbers. It is about the collective numbers on the scoreboard. Yet rather than have his quarterback take a knee on the final play and get off the field in one piece, Harbaugh put his most valuable player at risk to tie a record not a soul cared about but him.
“Oh yeah, 100 percent my call,” Harbaugh said unapologetically after the game. "That’s one of those things that’s meaningful (IT IS?). As a head coach you have to be mindful of your team and your players and what it means to them.
"It’s a very, very tough record to accomplish, and it’s a long-term record. I’m not going to say it’s more important than winning the game. For sure, it’s certainly not. But as a head coach you do that for your players and you do that for your coaches and it’s something they’ll have for the rest of their lives.”
They’ll have what, exactly? A record Jackson had no idea existed? Would he and the Ravens rather have seven Super Bowl rings or a tie with the Steelers for most consecutive 100-yard rushing games? That’s akin to then-Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette once crowing that his team spent more days in first place than anyone in the American League, ignoring the fact that at the end of the season they were not either in first place or the playoffs.
To make matters worse, Broncos’ coach Vic Fangio and a number of his players were hot under the collar over Harbaugh’s action, viewing it as not only putting Jackson at risk but also the Broncos’ players with a needless final play. Quite frankly, someone could easily enough have had a knee ligament snap as he pursued and tackled Jackson with nothing on the line but an ego massage.
“Yeah I thought it was kind of bullshit, but I expect that from them,” Fangio told KUSA in Denver. “Thirty-seven years in pro ball, and I’ve never seen anything like that. But it was to be expected, and we expected it. . . . I just know how they operate. That’s just their mode of operation there. Player safety is secondary.”
Player safety is secondary? Ouch! That from a guy who served as an assistant under Harbaugh for two years after he’d first become head coach in Baltimore in 2008. In the end, fortunately, Jackson and everyone else on the field emerged unscathed. But the next time Harbaugh tries to tell some player not to be self-absorbed that will be a little tougher to sell.
Meanwhile, down in Tampa, a quarterback with more Super Bowl rings than any quarterback in history -- as well as nearly every career passing record there is -- won’t be giving a thought to whether he passes Peyton Manning’s single-season passing yardage record this season, just as he paid little attention to breaking Brees’ career yardage mark on Sunday. He’ll be too busy focusing on the only things that really count in the NFL – winning games and staying in one piece for as long as he can.