John Harbaugh is at a crossroads.

He is at that window of an NFL coach's career where the coach starts positioning himself for a long tenure.

Or if the coach fails, he moves on to another city.

Entering his seventh season, Harbaugh will be scrutinized now as much as in his rookie season. It's not that Harbaugh has done a bad job.

On the contrary, he has been one of the NFL's best, having gone to the playoffs five straight years and won a Super Bowl (2012 season). Harbaugh has won 71 games and more playoff contests (nine) than any coach since 2008.

But last year the Ravens dropped to 8-8 and missed the playoffs. That wouldn't be such a big deal except that it came in Harbaugh's sixth year.

Only six coaches have been with their current teams longer than Harbaugh, including the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick, the Green Bay Packers' Mike McCarthy and Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants.

All have had tough years like Harbaugh. McCarthy went 8-8 in 2006 and 6-10 two years later. Coughlin had 8-8 records in 2006 and 2009. Belichick was 5-11 in 2000.

All of them rebounded. Everyone will be looking to see if Harbaugh can. Or was last year the beginning of an eventual fall?

It's a valid question, one that was certainly asked in the career of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin, whose team finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs in 2009 but reached the Super Bowl the following season.


Few coaches last longer than 10 years with one team. Some can weather the storm without much change and never lose their voice. Others can re-invent themselves like Coughlin or former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher.

Most of them don't adjust. Former Ravens coach Brian Billick did it for one year and then returned to his former style, which got him fired. It's hard going from being a hard-nosed coach to a nice guy and even harder trying to convert from being a "player's coach" to one with discipline.

Right now, Harbaugh is in the middle of the evolution as a head coach. He is still impulsive, but less hard-headed. He is listening to his players more than ever.

But he is still trying to find a position where his voice will be the strongest. The 2013 season was Harbaugh's worst.

His game-day decisions cost the Ravens two to three games. His decision to rid the team of tough, outspoken players like safety Bernard Pollard and wide receiver Anquan Boldin resulted in less rebellion but also fewer wins.

Some of that missing leadership might have cost the Ravens this offseason when five players were arrested. There is also the Ray Lewis factor. Throughout his 17-year career Lewis always referred to the Ravens as "my team" as if he were the major driving force.

It sounded self-serving and ridiculous, but last season, the Ravens' first without Lewis, suggested he might have been right.

Harbaugh has spent the past six months poring over game film and analyzing everything from travel plans to the training camp menu.

When he finished, he re-evaluated again.

He is now more inclined to listen to his players, and that's important for a team that lost liaisons like Lewis and safety Ed Reed within the past two years.

He is a great listener and open to new ideas, which is why there were changes in the practice schedule this season. He appears to have figured out that he needs those fiery, outspoken but talented players on the roster, which is why the team signed veteran wide receiver Steve Smith during the offseason.

All great teams have high-maintenance players. The good coaches find ways to motivate them, not cut them.

With that said, Harbaugh needs to get more out of veterans like linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive linemen Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty. He has to find a way to cut down on the team's off-the-field problems because they show a lack of leadership.

It's a year of adjustments and it is going to be interesting for Harbaugh, especially his relationship with Gary Kubiak, the new offensive coordinator. Despite his problems, though, he remains one of the league's best. He is young and extremely aggressive. Few can match his work ethic, but is that enough to get the Ravens back into the postseason?

No one knows for sure. Harbaugh has never been in this position before. A new challenge is ahead.