Standing in front of his players in the team auditorium on Halloween morning, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was convinced he had the right response for an embarrassing 43-13 loss to the Houston Texans. On the Ravens' first day back from a bye week, he told players, they would have a full-contact practice.
Harbaugh's announcement didn't go over well. Veteran players, particularly safeties Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed, were so frustrated that they voiced their disapproval strongly.
By players' accounts, this wasn't a full-scale mutiny. They readily acknowledge, though, that it qualified as a noisy round of dissent.
While many coaches might have stiffened up and given a my-way-or-the-highway type of response, Harbaugh had a different reaction.
He listened — to the players' complaints about the length and intensity of practices, about offensive philosophy and about how their coach interacted with them. They wanted Harbaugh to be more positive.
Ultimately, Harbaugh relented on the practice. The players went back to work enthusiastically, and the eventual Super Bowl champions won their next four games.
“We had a little therapeutic session,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “It was huge that our coach was able to stand there and listen to some of our concerns. That takes a lot of heart and humbleness to sit there and listen to that. Once we got all of that out, we started communicating better. We started talking more coach-to-player and player-to-coach. It brought us closer and it definitely helped our team.
“Coach Harbaugh has done so many things for this team by the way he wanted this team to be and the way he wanted to run it. The first year or two, we definitely had some disagreements with him, but he definitely listened to some things that the players wanted. He was able to put his feelings down and let some things happen. This year has been totally where we've been able to communicate with Coach, and Coach has been able to communicate with the players. He's done a phenomenal job this whole year of communicating with us, and I think that's been the biggest change.”
It was a season filled with several emotional moments.
Wide receiver Torrey Smith's brother, Tevin Jones, died in a motorcycle accident the night before a September win over the New England Patriots in which Smith caught two touchdown passes.
The Ravens fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in December after an overtime loss to the Washington Redskins and replaced him with Jim Caldwell, a decision that jump-started a dormant offense.
Key players, including cornerback Lardarius Webb and inside linebacker Jameel McClain, were lost for the season with injuries, while linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs battled back from serious injuries.
Lewis, who tore his right triceps in October against the Dallas Cowboys and underwent surgery, later announced before the playoffs began that he would retire after the season.
But ask players about the key to altering the course of their season, and they don't hesitate to answer. They credit how Harbaugh handled that noisy Oct. 31 team meeting for the Ravens' later success and their strengthened relationship with their head coach.
“It was the turning point of our season,” running back Ray Rice said. “The way Coach Harbaugh handled that brought us a lot closer together. He wasn't defensive. He listened to us. He heard everybody out.
“He showed us a lot of respect, and that always needs to be a two-way street. All he wanted to do was make this team better, and part of that is listening to your guys.”
Pollard was surprised by how Harbaugh handled a potentially disruptive situation. Initially, Pollard thought the coach would simply cross his arms and overrule them.
Instead, rather than stubbornly rely on his authority, Harbaugh showed the players a different side.
“I think that tells you a lot about Coach Harbaugh, you know, to stand there in front of 60-plus guys and listen to things and what we had to say,” Pollard said. “That wouldn't have happened in a lot of other organizations, so for Coach Harbaugh to stand there and do that, it just said a lot about his character.
“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.
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.”
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