For several weeks, Ravens coach John Harbaugh refused to concede anything. Even when the Ravens' playoff hopes hinged on winning out with an injury-depleted roster and having other contenders collapse, Harbaugh did not waver.
The Ravens still hadn't been mathematically eliminated from postseason contention and until they were, the team's focus would be on trying to salvage a terribly disappointing season.
When Harbaugh reported to the Under Armour Performance Center early Monday morning and began to study film from Sunday's "painful" 35-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, he entered a new reality. For the first time since he became the Ravens head coach in 2008, his team is preparing for a game from which they have nothing to gain in the standings, and Harbaugh said the organization will act accordingly.
"That's what this is about right now for these young guys. Let's get out there and see how good you can get, how well you can play for the next three weeks of the season," Harbaugh said. "Our ending point this year is our jumping point next year. In our mind, next year's season has already begun. We're developing these guys. We're developing what we can be next year. So, let's go, man. Let's see how good we can get."
At 4-9, the Ravens have secured the first losing season of Harbaugh's tenure. Their remaining schedule, starting Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium against a Kansas City Chiefs team that is 8-5 and has won seven straight games, suggests that the first overall NFL draft pick is not entirely out of reach. Losses in their final three games would also tie this year's Ravens with the inaugural 1996 team for the worst record in franchise history.
In the locker room following the loss to the Seahawks, Harbaugh spoke to his team about handling adversity, sticking together and making sure something good comes out of the season.
"Right now, we're fighting. Right now, we're challenged and we have an opportunity to win three football games," he said. "We're going to take our team out there and do everything we can to win three football games, and we think we can go 3-0 the rest of the way. All our focus, all our energy goes into this week."
Harbaugh, though, said the team's desire to play its best football and still win games won't get in the organization's way of evaluating players — both young ones and veterans — for the future. He says that the two go "hand-in-hand."
For much of the season, several young players have waited their turns, pushed down the depth chart because veterans were ahead of them or because they made one mistake too many in practice. Injuries had forced select veterans to play positions that they weren't necessarily equipped for, and that has shown on game day.
Harbaugh specifically talked about cornerback Lardarius Webb, who was beaten on two of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson's five touchdown passes Sunday.
"When we put him inside at nickel or put him at safety, he's played really, really well. He's still got ball skills. He's still got [good] feet. He's still got change of direction quickness," Harbaugh said. "We put him outside and he's fought and competed, but … they found him [Sunday]. They did a good job of that with the offense they have and the quarterback they have. That's not his fault. That's on us. That's on all of us together. That's on our situation.
"But you know what? We got some young guys that we can put outside. So, we're going to pull the trigger, put those guys outside, let 'Webby' go in there where he belongs, let him play the nickel, let him play free safety. … I know that we have a lot of guys that can play. We have to put them in the right spot the rest of the way. Let's not worry about the young guys not being ready to play."
Harbaugh said the plan doesn't represent a shift in philosophy, but rather a desire to put more players in position to succeed and give others a chance to play.
He said that the team would stick with Kelechi Osemele at left tackle, a position he played for the first time in the NFL on Sunday. Webb will also get more snaps at free safety. Both transitions could give the Ravens something to think about going forward as they try to put the best team together. The team is expected to soon announce its signing of free-agent quarterback Ryan Mallett and he could become a candidate to back up Joe Flacco in the future.
Harbaugh also mentioned that rookie cornerback Tray Walker and practice squad corners Jumal Rolle and Sheldon Price would get opportunities to play. He brought up rookie third-rounder Carl Davis filling the void that has been created with defensive end Chris Canty's season-ending torn pectoral.
Second-year safety Terrence Brooks should get a chance to play more, and inside linebacker Zachary Orr and young wide receivers Jeremy Butler and Daniel Brown will continue to factor into the game plan.
"We're not going to just trot guys out," Harbaugh said. "We're putting our best players out there. Let's see how well these guys play and let's see where we begin next year — who we got, how they fit in, what they do well."
Harbaugh spoke excitedly about the evaluation process over the next three weeks, but he also made no attempt to minimize the disappointment he's feeling —a season that started with such high expectations has come to this.
He compared the feeling to having a "cannonball in your gut."
"One of the things that I told the guys [Sunday] night, I've learned a lot," Harbaugh said. "I know I'm a much better man and coach than I was four months ago. I understand some things that I didn't understand four months ago. And that's the thing I want to encourage players and coaches to look at in the same way. Tough things come our way for a reason: to make us better, to forge us, to make us become something. Sometimes that's just words. Other times it's reality. For me, it's been reality."