In 2007, Steve Bisciotti made his first major decision as the majority owner of the Baltimore Ravens. He fired Brian Billick, in part because the team had just gone 5-11 to miss the playoffs for the third time in four years, but also because he wanted to change the entire culture of the organization. He wanted someone who possessed not only a first-rate football mind, but also someone who would deal with the players, the media, the community, the fans and the support staff differently.
Prior to that phone call, Harbaugh hadn't really been on Bisciotti's radar, but he was impressive enough in his interview that Bisciotti surprised almost everyone by making Harbaugh his second choice for the job after Jason Garrett turned the Ravens down. Looking back, that decision created a ripple effect that has helped shape both the Ravens and the Patriots over the past several years.
The two teams that face off Sunday in the AFC championship game in Foxborough, Mass., are far from mirror images of one another. And they aren't exactly rivals, considering they've played one another just seven times in the last 15 years. But they've influenced one another in subtle ways recently, with decisions big and small, and that chess game has led to a feeling of mutual respect between the two organizations. There are a handful of NFL coaches that Harbaugh and Belichick have to fake affection for in public. But the relationship between the two men — who both got their start in the NFL coaching special teams and who both had a football coach for a father growing up — actually feels genuine.
"Maybe it's the old special teams guys, you know?" Harbaugh said when asked this week why he and the Patriots coach got along so well. "I just respect Bill Belichick as a coach and as a man. I just really do. I think he's the greatest coach in our league right now, and that's proven. And that's why you get so excited to have an opportunity to play against a guy [like him] as a coach."
The Ravens, in their current form, are a mishmash of influences. The philosophies of Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass and general manager Ozzie Newsome have as much to do with the makeup of the organization as Harbaugh does. But you can see obvious similarities between the "Patriot Way" and the Ravens' overall approach. Both teams are tight-lipped and at times secretive when it comes to dealing with the media. Both teams have owners who appear to trust their football people to make football decisions. And both teams have shown they're not afraid to jettison popular veteran players if it will help them perennially contend, because they're confident in their ability to draft inexpensive replacements.
"They've drafted I'd say arguably as well as anybody in the National Football League over the last decade," Belichick said. "Ozzie and his staff have done a great job."
Belichick doesn't hand out public praise very often, but it's clear he holds the Ravens and Harbaugh in high regard, and it extends beyond recommending him for a job four years ago. When the Ravens drafted Haloti Ngata, Belichick reportedly called Newsome to congratulate him on landing "the best player in the draft." When the Ravens faced New England in the wild-card round of the playoffs in 2009, cameras for the NFL Network captured a scene of the two men talking before the game, and the footage was used in the documentary about Belichick, "A Football Life."
"If it isn't us," Belichick told Harbaugh, "I hope it's you" who wins the Super Bowl.
"That's how I feel, too," Harbaugh said. "No doubt about it."
When the Ravens whipped the Patriots, 33-14, Belichick became convinced the organization had grown comfortable and fat, and was living off the glory of previous seasons while organizations like the Ravens remained physical and hungry. The following week, all of the pictures and trophies celebrating the Patriots' three Super Bowl victories were taken down within the team complex. When Belichick was asked this week what it is he admires about Harbaugh's coaching, he used the word "physical" five times in a span of thirty seconds.
"I enjoy talking to John. I think he's a great guy [who] does a good job with his football team," Belichick said this week. "I have all the respect in the world for him. ... They're tough, they're physical, they don't make many mistakes, they're very well prepared, they do a great job of situational football. They're physical in all three areas of the game. They run the ball well, obviously they have a physical defense, they're very physical in the kicking game. I think that's what John wants. He really wants them to be a tough, physical, hard-nosed football team and they are."
Belichick has showered Ed Reed with so much praise over the years, journalists around the NFL now openly refer to it as a "man crush." The swooning continued this week when Belichick called Reed the best free safety he's seen during the 37 years he's been in the league.
"He's outstanding at pretty much everything," Belichick said.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft appears to share Belichick's general view of the Ravens franchise as well. Kraft specifically went out of his way to praise Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth for helping the owners and NFL Players Association reach a new labor agreement this year. Kraft also spoke glowingly about Bisciotti as both an owner and a friend this week.
"I think Steve is a terrific owner. He's been a wonderful friend," Kraft said. "He came in [to the league] in a unique way, he was very wise the way he purchased the Ravens. He had time to learn on the job. He's created stability in the front office there. He's really one of my favorite owners. He was very kind and generous when my wife passed to make a generous donation in her memory. We've been good friends and he's a much better golfer than I am."
Of course, all those pleasantries will be forgotten for a few hours inside Gillette Stadium on Sunday. One team will head to Indianapolis elated, and the other will begin a deflating offseason. But it's fair to say Belichick and Harbaugh wouldn't mind having exchanges like the one they had in 2009 for years to come.
If it's not us, I hope it's you.
Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Zrebiec and Matt Vensel contributed to this article.