John Harbaugh gets the Ravens ready for a season that may be their toughest yet

A football coach to the core, John Harbaugh loves motivational quotes and uplifting slogans.

He has some printed on T-shirts and others are framed and strategically placed in his office or around the Ravens' training facility.

One of his favorites, however, still resides in his phone. Seated at a table in his office recently, Harbaugh scrolls down and finds a message from a friend. He then reads the words of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. He pauses a couple of times and lets the words sink in. He then reads them again.

"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves."

To the football populace, the Ravens will always be Ray Lewis' team until the day the indomitable middle linebacker calls it quits on his Hall of Fame career. John Harbaugh? He's a good coach who has had many great players, they say.

How good?

Harbaugh is 49-24 since replacing Brian Billick, and he's the only coach since the 1970 NFL merger to guide a team to a playoff victory in each of his four seasons. He's won with a rookie quarterback and youth at other key positions. His teams have survived injuries, offensive inconsistency and a revolving door of defensive coordinators. They have exceeded modest expectations, and held up reasonably well to enormous ones.

He may not come across as charismatic as Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin or as quotable as New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and he receives nowhere near the attention or the credit that his younger brother, Jim, does as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. However, Harbaugh's influence is all over everything the Ravens do.

Under the fifth-year head coach, the Ravens have won consistently with an ever changing roster that now features just six players who were with the organization prior to Harbaugh's arrival. They've done it while playing a physical yet disciplined style, and embracing the concepts and principles that their head coach always preaches.

"In the end, the team belongs to the team," Harbaugh said. "Yeah, I'm part of that but so is every player and every coach and every person involved. It's our team. It's not the coach's way. It's the Ravens' way. It's how our team operates. It's having a shared ownership of everything we do. It's never been my way or the highway here. But the principles, they are rock solid. Like we say to our team, principles are written in stone, methods are not. We will not back down from our principles."

Starting Monday, when the Ravens host the Cincinnati Bengals and begin another run at that elusive Super Bowl, Harbaugh could face his biggest challenge yet. The Ravens will play eight of their 16 games against teams that made the playoffs last year. They are scheduled to face quarterbacks Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger and both Peyton Manning and Eli Manning.

The Ravens won't have reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs for most, if not all, of the season, and several other key pieces from last year's 12-4 team, including Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs, linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, are gone.

"I feel as good about this team as any team we've had," Harbaugh said. "That's not a predictor about our record or anything like that, but I really, really love this team. I love the work ethic, their outlook, their attitude. I just like the way they approach things. We have a confidence that whatever we do, it will be our best. Obviously, I feel we're talented and have a chance to be very good."

Almost there

Following nearly every practice of training camp, long after his players had gotten out of the hot sun, Harbaugh ran a series of sprints that left him breathing hard and drenched in sweat. Sometimes, he ran with team security personnel. By camp's end, Harbaugh was often a solitary figure, sprinting up and down the far field at the Under Armour Performance Center.

Fit and as competitive as ever, Harbaugh will turn 50 on Sept. 23, the same day the Ravens will play the New England Patriots in a rematch of the AFC championship game. In the Ravens' 23-20 defeat to the Patriots back in January, Lee Evans failed to secure a potential game-winning touchdown pass and Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard game-tying field-goal.

Still, as he walked back to the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium just seconds away from a Super Bowl berth, Harbaugh was overcome by a sense of calmness.

"We had done everything that we could do to be the very best that we could be, and it went down the way it went down," he said. "Everybody did their best. I didn't feel any animosity toward anybody. I was disappointed for all of us especially the guys that had the tough plays at the end."

In the long offseason that followed, there was no need for soul searching or second guessing. Harbaugh understood the importance of constantly evolving with the game and continuing to work on his connection with his players. But as it was, the Ravens were as close to the team that he envisioned when he took over than ever before.

"He's always had core values and principles that he believes in," said his father, Jack Harbaugh, a coach for 41 years. "In those situations, it's a matter of staying true to who you are and to those principles. I know he doesn't get caught up in all of those things that are spinning around on the periphery. The one thing that I respect in watching John over his entire coaching career is his consistency."

Taking over

Harbaugh inherited a handful of Pro Bowl players and locker room leaders with Lewis and safety Ed Reed. The Ravens had a stable ownership situation with Steve Bisciotti and a front office, headed by general manager Ozzie Newsome, heralded as one of the league's best.

But there were plenty of issues for him to confront, the least of which was an underachieving team that sandwiched a 13-win season in 2006 around six and five-win campaigns under Billick. Bisciotti wanted his new head coach to cultivate a change in the team's less than sterling image and reputation, tarnished over several seasons of trash talk and on-field antics, like Bart Scott's flag-throwing tantrum in front of a Monday Night Football audience in 2007.

Immediately, there was a palpable divide among Harbaugh and some of the players who had gotten used to Billick's more relaxed ways, and wanted Ryan, their defensive coordinator, as their head coach.

Instead, Ryan stayed on as Harbaugh's defensive coordinator, while many of the players were slow to embrace the new head coach's style. They didn't understand why they had to have their shirts tucked and their chin straps buckled during walk-throughs. They didn't like having to stand in a certain place during drills or dress in a certain way.

"The things that we did as far as the methods have been proven to be good. I'm proud of that," Harbaugh said. "It's what I would consider a good, fundamental approach to building a program, to building a team – how you practice, how you meet, how you carry yourself in a game, the mind set of team first and raising each other up. People will ask why is that important? To me, it's a vision. It creates an organized, methodical mind set. I think it reflects in the play. It's more disciplined, more orderly."

Finding comfort

With some of the tumultuous days behind him, Harbaugh acknowledged that he is more at ease than ever, and he feels like everything is more "accurately aligned than it's ever been." Jack Harbaugh has sensed his son's comfort level during their regular phone conversations.

"I sense the feeling that John has now is because the process has played itself out and there is trust with your coaching staff, administrative staff, individuals in the building and most important, your football team, those who you deal with not on a daily basis, but an hourly basis," Jack Harbaugh said.

When Harbaugh stood in front of the room back in July and addressed his full team for the first time at the start of training camp, he congratulated running back Ray Rice on his recent contract extension, and then read aloud several published quotes from his players about the upcoming season.

"The shared experiences add up over time and because of that, communication is a lot better," he said. "We all understand each other better and that's a good thing. When I walk in front of the team, I feel a stronger connection than ever. I feel like the team now really understands why we do things, how we do things and what the benefit is."

During training camp, Harbaugh frequently consulted his players about the practice and meeting schedule. He gave players some down time when a group of Ravens' leaders suggested that the team was tired, and he canceled meetings one night after linemen Michael Oher and Terrence Cody were able to cleanly field Sam Koch's punts.

"There's definitely a better relationship there," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "He feels more comfortable in his own skin to get our input. He's allowing himself to trust us a little more."

Said second-year wide receiver Torrey Smith: "There's a lot of respect there. If there is something he believes in, he stands by it. That's what you want in any leader."

Lewis said that Harbaugh has done a good job of "understanding his players," and Reed acknowledged that his head coach has gotten better "building relationships." The Pro Bowl safety also said something that will certainly please Harbaugh, and offer more proof that the coach has left his imprint on the team.

"He put his stamp on it, but it's our team," Reed said. "It's not one man's team. And if it starts to be that way, then we got problems. It has to be our team. Is Coach Harbaugh the head coach of this team? Yes, he is. Is he the leader among men? Yes, he is."

Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.