One of the most intriguing things about John Harbaugh's first season with the Ravens is that he never had to find his way.
It was there, in front of him, all along, mapped out with the wisdom of a seasoned coach.
He may be a rookie head coach in the NFL, but he never lacked confidence.
He may be a private, humble man, but he doesn't shrink at taking a stand.
He may have coached special teams for nine years in Philadelphia, but he knows how to command the respect of an entire locker room.
From that solid platform, the Ravens' playoff season was born, was nurtured and continues to grow. Sunday's AFC wild-card game in Miami against the Dolphins is as much a validation of the Harbaugh system as it is the Ravens' franchise.
One year after a profoundly disappointing 5-11 season that cost Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick his job, the Ravens have regrouped behind their energetic leader, 46. They are healed, focused and healthy - at least as much as a team in the 18th week of the season can be.
"It's been a great transition," defensive tackle Trevor Pryce said. "You know what? I'm proud for the team, but I'm happy for him. ... He didn't blink - not once - from the things he wanted to do."
Harbaugh knew precisely what he wanted to do - and where he was going - when he arrived in Baltimore. The tenets of his program would be a team concept, a stout work ethic and an uncommon bond of brotherhood.
While some of his sayings may seem trite - he liked to refer to his players early in the season as "mighty men" - they all bear the element of football truth.
On several occasions, he privately told the players how proud he was to stand on the sideline with them each Sunday.
Said Pryce: "How could you not want to play for somebody that's proud to stand there with you?"
Indeed, how could they not want to play for a coach who solicits their opinions on anything that happens inside the team's Owings Mills training facility?
Asked a month ago by Harbaugh how they wanted to handle Christmas week, a group of veterans couldn't agree on anything - until Harbaugh suggested the unimaginable: work Tuesday, take Thursday, Christmas Day, off. Tuesday is typically the players' day off and Thursday a critical work day.
The veterans couldn't believe their good fortune, or that the idea came from Harbaugh. Problem solved.
When Harbaugh first addressed the team at the start of training camp, he laid down team rules. Among those, he insisted on a dress code on the road, including sport coat, collared shirt, slacks and no tennis shoes.
A few players protested, saying that a $400 pair of jeans should be allowed. Harbaugh sought opinions, then acquiesced in his first formal meeting of the season with players.
"I just think, really, what's most impressive about Coach is just his flexibility with his players," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "He's very interactive with his players. There's really no decision he makes without coming to us to really figure out what's best for the team. ... You realize that he's not just trying to run you into a program and say, 'Do what I do. Do what I say.' It's about what makes us better as a team."
Harbaugh won over a team of hardened veterans and young, unproven talents through a series of trials. In some instances it was a simple as giving veterans over 30 every third day off from training camp.
For Samari Rolle, it was how Harbaugh deferred to the veteran cornerback when his father died last summer. Harbaugh told Rolle to take whatever time he needed to grieve before reporting.
Last season, Rolle said he was called to Billick's office and chastised for reporting to the complex late one day. Rolle, who has epilepsy, wasn't permitted to drive and said his driver was late that particular day.
"With the previous coach, it was a relaxed environment," Rolle said. "It was like, Sunday is what counts. The biggest thing now is, [Harbaugh] gets us prepared for Sunday. There's more discipline. That was tough to adjust to at first. But one thing everybody bought into was they were tired of losing."
Whatever the Ravens do - from practice to film study to meetings - Harbaugh wants the correct application. If the team has a walk-through on the field, he expects everyone paying attention; no one is allowed to sit on their helmets or haunches.
But Harbaugh has also injected an element of surprise in the week. He will, at times, keep players guessing until the last minute about certain mundane things. As an example, he did not tell the players until just shortly before practice Wednesday that they would work out outside with the temperature in the 30s, in preparation to face the Dolphins in 80-degree heat.
Cornerback Corey Ivy said he believes it's with a purpose.
"It's to try to keep you sharp, keep you ready," Ivy said. "You never know what's going to happen in the course of a game. There's a lot of stuff he keeps you on your toes about.
"He's very enthusiastic about every aspect of the game. He really does well in getting us prepared to go out and perform at the highest level on Sunday."
One of the keynotes of the Harbaugh regime is that he gives his coordinators full authority. Rex Ryan has control over his defense, Cam Cameron calls plays on offense and Jerry Rosburg runs special teams, even though Harbaugh made his reputation in the last area.
Harbaugh assembled one of the best teaching staffs in the league. He retained five assistants on defense, including Ryan, but rebuilt the offensive side with Hue Jackson (quarterbacks), John Matsko (offensive line), Jim Hostler (receivers) and Wilbert Montgomery (running backs).
Each came for his own reasons. Jackson, who had been a coordinator twice in his NFL career, came because he recognized a special opportunity to work for a special person.
"When I met with him, John's reputation preceded him," Jackson said. "People told me what kind of man he was, the character he had, and the plan he had. I knew he would put together a great staff."
Adding Cameron to the staff was big. Getting Greg Mattison, the inside linebackers coach, was a coup. Mattison had coached with Harbaugh at Western Michigan under his father, Jack Harbaugh, from 1981 to 1986. A college coach for 30 years, Mattison was reluctant to leave the college ranks or his position as defensive coordinator at Florida.
He ultimately took the leap because of the respect he has for Harbaugh ("He's always been a tremendous family person with great character"). He knew about Harbaugh's plan, too.
"His whole deal is, we will always work the hardest and most efficient of any team in the NFL every practice," Mattison said. "That's why the signs are up around the building. That's what he made sure happened.
"Lots of times, any coach that has confidence in himself, like he does, maps out a plan, follows the plan, believes the plan is going to work and does everything you're supposed to do to make it work. That's what he's done."
RAVENS (11-5) @ DOLPHINS (11-5)
AFC wild card Sunday, 1 p.m. TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM Line: Ravens by 3 1/2