Passionate and patient, John Harbaugh has shepherded Ravens' midseason turnaround

On Nov. 18, the Ravens’ season had changed for the better, and coach John Harbaugh was feeling good. Actually, he was feeling “Good!” He said the word at least eight times in a postgame speech after the Ravens’ Week 11 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, their first of five in a six-game stretch, and he left no doubt about the punctuation. Each “Good!” seemed to come prepackaged with Harbaugh’s own Gronk Spike, the word thrown to the ground as if it were the team’s forgettable first nine games.

The night before, Harbaugh had shared with his team the message of Jocko Willink, a Navy SEAL and bestselling author whose response to adversity, the coach found, was as simple as it was profound: “Good.” After the Ravens’ 24-21 win the following afternoon, Harbaugh rattled off the team’s mistakes before a rapt and raucous locker room: an interception by first-time starting quarterback Lamar Jackson, a poorly executed kickoff return, a defensive lapse, among others. He even solicited suggestions from players. To each, he said: “Good!”

As the Ravens have moved to the brink of their first playoff appearance since 2014, the speech has lived on, with Harbaugh’s message printed on team T-shirts and lodged in players’ brains. In a year defined by an unexpected quarterback transition and an unlikely run-up to Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns, Harbaugh has been at his best, players said this week, when he has tapped into that unburdened postgame personality.

Consistent in message. Willing to adapt. Open to input. Unafraid to embrace personality.

“I think especially later on in the season, he's really let the players come into their own and not really try to force anything to happen,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said. “And just understand that things take time and you can't just force things to happen the next day or maybe after two days. Things take a process, and I think he's understood that a little bit more.”

The night before the Ravens’ vital 22-10 win last Saturday over the Los Angeles Chargers, the team announced Harbaugh would be returning for the 2019 season and that both sides were working on a contract extension. The timing of the decision was curious; the Ravens would have faced a near-impossible path to the playoffs with a loss to the Chargers, and team owner Steve Bisciotti had said after last season ended short of the postseason that he’d considered firing Harbaugh.

But Harbaugh and his staff had already navigated one of the franchise’s crossroads moments with a steady hand. As the Ravens started to win with longtime starter Joe Flacco sidelined by a right hip injury, any talk of a quarterback controversy, at least publicly, was absent in the locker room. There were no declarations about who should start, as much a testament to the team’s respect for Flacco and Jackson as to the coaches who conveyed the importance of success over storylines.

“I just think when Lamar came in the game, when we came back from the bye [week], it was just like, 'Look, we're trying to win games. If we can win seven straight and get into the playoffs, that's what important right now,' ” wide receiver Willie Snead IV said. “And I think that's what we were able to do, just put on wins, find a formula to win.”

It has not been the NFL’s prescribed formula for success. The Ravens have succeeded on offense with a running game spearheaded by a rookie dual-threat quarterback. On defense, they have dominated by limiting yardage, not by forcing turnovers.

But even amid all the change this season has necessitated, “through the ups and downs,” tight end Maxx Williams said — from an ugly Week 5 loss to the Browns to last Saturday’s prime-time statement — Harbaugh has “stayed the same.”

“He said from the start, he trusts his players,” said Williams, wearing a gray “GOOD” shirt. “We're going to do this together, no matter what.”

Matt Skura can appreciate the message. Asked how Harbaugh and his coaching staff have impressed him, the center looked inward. “Definitely just believed in me as a player and given me a great chance to play in this league,” he said, a measure of enduring confidence that can seem out of place in the NFL’s cutthroat culture.

Even Harbaugh, after declining to elaborate on the significance of his return to Baltimore next year, said Monday that players and coaches alike understand that “you’re on a one-week deal, as far as I’m concerned.” But he has given veterans such as Skura and rookies such as running back Gus Edwards the opportunity to grow into their roles, to learn from their failures at junctures when every misstep might have sunk the season.

“I think patience is kind of rare to find in coaching,” Stanley said. “It's kind of the nature of the beast. They're kind of put under a lot of pressure, but I tend to see that patience is definitely the best way for success when it comes to anything.”

So is communication, players said, and the right kind. Cornerback Brandon Carr joked he had to hear about Harbaugh’s coaching news from a comedian the team hired on the eve of the Chargers game, but on other team matters, it is a two-way street.

Williams said Harbaugh is “always there to listen,” to good ideas and bad ideas. Snead said he feels as if he could talk to any Ravens coach, including offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, “about anything.”

It has not been an easy season. Snead acknowledged that in the Ravens’ run-reliant offense, he and his fellow receivers can only “control what we can control and hope for the best.” Williams’ playing time has fluctuated throughout the season. Skura has faced speculation about whether he might lose his starting job.

But through it all, Stanley explained, the team has found itself. “A lot of players were kind of just holding back who they truly were,” he said, and he credited Harbaugh and his staff for allowing fun into the process of self-discovery. Six weeks after their season started to get good, the Ravens see their success as a reflection of personality, both their own and their head coach’s.

“You guys only see the outside of us winning and practicing and stuff like that, but in the meeting rooms, that's where it starts,” rookie inside linebacker Kenny Young said. “And that's just being open and honest with each other, regardless [of] whether we win or whether we lose. And I think that's just been showing a byproduct of what happens when you're always open and honest on what needs to be done to win and for us to work together. And it's been great for us, man. It's a joy to wake up and go to work every day, and I'm sure everyone feels like that. The result of that is just winning.”

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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