“Like I continue to say, it was a humbling experience for all of us. We all were humbled, and sometimes it takes you to be knocked down to be in the position that we're in right now, and we got knocked down, but we came together.”
A coach's evolution
Harbaugh, the only head coach in NFL history to win at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons, and the only coach to make it to three conference championship games in his first five seasons, didn't get to where he is today by being democratic.
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Since his first season, when he clashed with players as he worked to change the culture of a locker room that had become somewhat entitled in the final years under former coach Brian Billick, Harbaugh's coaching style has evolved.
“I think the first time, you're new at everything, so you kind of learn on the job,” Harbaugh said. “We've done that over the course of five years. I really don't think it's changed that much, in all honesty. I pretty much think it's the same as it was early on when I was an assistant. You always put the players first. If you're a teacher, you put the students first. But you also have a process for things that you believe in and ways of doing things that you stand by.
“So that's what you try to do. Guys want to know the way. There's a vision that you have for them. We painted that vision for them right out of the gate and you keep building on it. You build trust, you build relationships, and it takes time to do that. We've been able to do that over the course of five years.”
In developing that rapport, Harbaugh has changed slightly over the years, mostly by loosening up and having more fun.
During the week leading up to the Super Bowl, it was Harbaugh who set the tone for how the Ravens would handle a week filled with potential distractions.
Instead of being uptight about the increased media presence, Harbaugh just kept smiling. He dressed up for the occasion, wearing suits instead of sweats. He allowed his players plenty of time to be with their families, and set aside free time early in the week to take in the sights and sounds of New Orleans.
“I think John does a great job of walking the line between being that very intense guy and also allowing us to go out there and play the way we played very well, which is a loose-type setting,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who was named the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player after throwing for three touchdowns against the 49ers. “He has a lot of trust in us that we are going to go out there and work hard. That takes a lot as a head coach, because you always want to be so hands-on and you want to have your impact on the team.
“To be able to let us go out there and trust us, even though we're a loose type of team — the fact that he trusts us to go out there and get it done and then turn it over to us on game day, that takes a lot.”
It's a stark contrast to how Harbaugh initially handled things as a first-time head coach after a decade as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Things were a lot different when he first got here,” offensive guard Marshal Yanda said. “There were some guys that gave him fits, and he was a lot more uptight, but also, you didn't have your relationships built. Just like anything, your first year in, you really don't know a person.
“Now we've got five years with him, so it's all the relationships on the team have built up over five years with the guys that have been here. You're more comfortable with him, you trust him. You've had tough losses with him, great wins, a lot of just going at it together, pretty much going to battle.”
Much more of a low-key personality than his intense younger brother, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, John Harbaugh attributed being a players' coach to maintaining a high standard, while also showing his players he cares about them.
“As a coach and in football, you have to have certain standards and certain things that you stand for and you believe in and a certain way that you do things,” Harbaugh said. “You hold firmly to those things. That's the thing that you do as a coach — you try to give everyone love. If you give everyone love, then you're going to be successful.”