After the Ravens' final practice before last Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, veteran guard Marshal Yanda stepped into the middle of the team's huddle. He had something that he wanted to say to his longtime head coach.
Speaking on behalf of his Ravens teammates, Yanda thanked John Harbaugh for giving the players the previous day off to celebrate Christmas. He expressed his appreciation for the unwavering belief and support Harbaugh has shown during this challenging season. Yanda then promised Harbaugh that the players would give their coach their very best against the heavily-favored Steelers.
"One of the most meaningful things I've ever, ever heard as a coach," Harbaugh said. "I'll cherish that."
Arguably the most disappointing season in franchise history ends Sunday with the Ravens (5-10) playing the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The past five months haven't been easy for anybody associated with the Ravens.
Harbaugh has a few more grays on his closely cropped hair. Black semicircles resided under his eyes as he addressed reporters Wednesday morning. His career win-loss record, padded by near unprecedented success as a young head coach, has a few more blemishes on it.
But to his players, Harbaugh has been a pillar of strength and leadership during a year when so many parts of the team have broken down. The 53-year-old coach guided the team to the playoffs in six of his first seven seasons and won Super Bowl XLVII. However, it has been in this, Harbaugh's first losing season as an NFL head coach, where his players believe he has done some of his finest work, and shown just how much he has evolved.
"I truly believe that if wasn't for him approaching the season and each game the way he did, I don't think the team would have held it together the way we did," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "Instead of him coming and blaming us every week, he was figuring out ways to get better and how to stay positive. I think that's carried over to the team. That's why we won" against Pittsburgh.
The words are nice for Harbaugh to hear, but the team's performance in last Sunday's 20-17 victory over the Steelers provided all the affirmation he needed that his season-long message to his players had gotten through.
In a recent moment of introspection, Harbaugh said he felt this season has made him not just a better coach but a better person.
"Some of us never realize because we don't want to look or we don't want to deal with the things that we need to get better at," Harbaugh said. "In the Bible, it talks about pruning. To me, that's really what it is — things that I didn't even know that I needed to get better at going through this season, I said, 'Oh man, I need to learn this lesson and this is why this is happening.' You just make a decision that you're not going to fail. I don't want to fail. I don't want to be blind to it. I need to learn here."
The 2015 season has presented challenges from the beginning. First-round receiver Breshad Perriman, counted on to bring a speed and playmaking element to the offense, went down with a season-ending knee injury during the first full-squad practice of training camp. That began a wave of injuries that never relented.
The Ravens played poorly throughout the preseason and Harbaugh had a couple of bizarre moments. There was his impromptu rant on immigration, his jog across the field to exchange words with Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden, and his abrasive halftime interviews during preseason games.
But as the regular-season losses and the injuries started to mount, and the team-wide mistakes started to multiply, Harbaugh became a picture of calm in front of his players.
"He hasn't had that team meeting yet where he's just chewing everybody out, [saying], 'Everybody is terrible,' and then he's grinding us out in practice," Yanda said. "He's not doing that. We've stayed the same winning or losing. If he has a negative attitude and he's ripping on everybody, that trickles down to the coaches, to the players, to everybody in the building. He sets the attitude of the team."
A few players acknowledged that they've been surprised with how Harbaugh has stayed even-keeled and been overwhelmingly positive throughout.
"He told us how much he loved us and how good he thought we were every week," Ravens rush linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. "Sometimes, I went in there and I was like, 'Man, I don't know if we are that good.' But he wanted to let us know that we could do the types of things that we've been practicing. It's cool to see him stick with us. Guys never quit on him, and he and the coaching stuff never quit on us."
Smith, the team's first-round pick in 2011, said that he had "heard stories" about Harbaugh's first couple of years with the Ravens, when the coach encountered some resistance in a locker room loaded with veteran stars. Harbaugh was rigid and unrelenting in establishing the way his team would do things.
However, this season, he gave out locker stickers to players for extra effort. He changed around practice schedules to allow players more rest and he regularly consulted with his leadership council on matters related to the team.
"You really never know what to expect. This isn't a thing that happens to him every year," Smith said. "I feel like a lot of eyes are on him, so he can't be a guy that folds. The entire team, the coaching staff, everybody kind of looks at the head coach to see how he's going to react. And I feel like he's stood tall, just being able to almost smile in the face of the adversity."
The day after the regular season is called "Black Monday" around the NFL, a reference to the number of coaches who traditionally lose their jobs the day after the regular season ends. Three head coaches have already been fired. There has been no such speculation of change in Baltimore even with the Ravens missing the playoffs for the second time in three years, and failing to correct many of the issues that have sunk their season.
In fact, Harbaugh continues to be lauded for the way his team has fought through myriad injuries, and how he has refused to use them as an excuse.
"John's been great," said Brian Billick, Harbaugh's predecessor who was fired after the Ravens went 5-11 in 2007. "This is a tough time and you have to strike the right emotional tone, defiant to a degree. 'We're not going to give in to self pity. We're not going to give in to our circumstances.' But by the same token, you recognize that you don't want to wear your team and the people around you out. You have to fight to the end and that's exactly what John is doing, even though they're fighting an uphill battle."
Predictably, Harbaugh isn't interested in obsessing over the details of a season rife with demoralizing losses, injuries and officiating controversies. There is still one game to play after all, and Harbaugh has hammered home the need to stay in the present for weeks. He's not going to get sidetracked now.
"Circumstances many times force you to look at priorities in a different way," he said. "I've been forced down that road, just like our team has been, and our organization has been this year just because all of the tough losses. You learn because of it. Our team has learned because of it."
Harbaugh insists that the credit for how the team has stuck together and played hard throughout should go to the players. The players, meanwhile, say that all they have done is take the cue from their head coach.
"I felt like the whole team has followed his lead," wide receiver Kamar Aiken said. "He hasn't broken and we're not going to break. That's big from that standpoint. I love him."