In the 19 days between the Ravens’ season-ending loss and Friday’s season-ending news conference — a period of relative silence from team officials — an organization hailed for its stability underwent tectonic shifts in its foundation.
Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens’ personnel chief since the franchise’s inception, stepped down as general manager. Joe Flacco, once their franchise quarterback, found himself the subject of offseason speculation. Marty Mornhinweg, after being demoted from his role as offensive coordinator, left the Ravens staff just a year after Dean Pees resigned as defensive coordinator.
Change comes to all teams, winners and losers alike. Even coach John Harbaugh, who on Thursday signed a four-year contract through 2022, faced an uncertain future not long ago. On Friday, in his first comments since the Ravens’ Jan. 6 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC wild-card round, he acknowledged “it is a new era of football” in Baltimore.
But eras begin anew every two or three years in other NFL cities. The Ravens will enter theirs with an AFC North title and amenities that precious few teams can afford: the winningest coach in franchise history, a developing but dynamic quarterback whose strengths and weaknesses will be catered to, a top-ranked defense, stellar special teams.
“Every year's a new year,” Harbaugh said. “You start over every year from the ground up and you get to build something new every single year. … There's always going to be change, there's always going to be renewal, and we'll be a different team than we were last year. We'll be a different team than we've ever been here before because of a lot of the changes and because of the fact, I hope to think, we grow and get better every single year anyway.”
If they hadn’t improved this past season, the Ravens might have already introduced a new coach. After Week 9, the Ravens were 4-5. Flacco was out with a hip injury. The running game was nonexistent. Fans were angry, wondering whether change would come, and when.
Two months later, the Ravens had won six of seven games with rookie Lamar Jackson under center, their revamped offense productive enough and their reliable defense stifling enough to claim the team’s first playoff appearance since 2014 and first division title since 2012. The playoff loss to the Chargers, perhaps Jackson’s worst performance as starter, dampened enthusiasm but not Harbaugh’s commitment to return as coach, or the Ravens’ to see that through.
Even as the front office and staff around him has changed, with Eric DeCosta officially replacing Newsome, his longtime mentor, two weeks ago, Harbaugh said Friday that his role in the organization will not. He celebrated his new deal with simple pleasures: Chick-fil-A, his wife’s fresh-baked brownies, his daughter’s basketball game. His responsibilities as Ravens coach, he said, will remain just as uncomplicated.
“That's all we ever wanted,” he said. “That's all I ever wanted. I have great confidence in the way the organization's built, the way it's been built from the beginning. This has never been an organization that's about lines or silos or anything like that. This is an organization that works together, and we cross paths and we've talked everything out — football, scouting, medical, weight, strength and conditioning, everything you can think of. … I think that's the great thing about our organization. So we wouldn't want that to change.”
While Harbaugh took questions about a variety of personnel matters over the 34-plus-minute news conference — free-agent linebacker C.J Mosley’s importance, the potential returns of guard Marshal Yanda and safety Eric Weddle, Flacco’s value on the open market — no topic dominated like the direction of the offense under Jackson and new coordinator Greg Roman.
Harbaugh was asked about Jackson’s attractiveness to potential free-agent signings. (“I think a lot of players are going to want to play with a quarterback like Lamar.”) He was asked about Jackson’s high-risk style of play. (“Every quarterback standing in the pocket is one hit away from being hurt.”) He was even asked about what kind of quarterback the Ravens would like to have backing up Jackson; someone like Robert Griffin III would work best, Harbaugh said.
But for the Ravens to return to the playoffs, they must reckon with what happened in Jackson’s first and only playoff game. Harbaugh said that in holding Jackson to 54 yards rushing and the team to 90 total rushing yards, the Chargers “outplayed us that game and outcoached us.” But he dismissed any concerns about whether the Ravens’ run-first offense, a style for which Roman is well-respected, would be sustainable after an offseason of study by opponents.
“Oh, yeah, it’s all going to work,” said Harbaugh, who promised a “very diverse” offense in 2019, including unspecified elements missing from this past season’s attack. “It’s going to work if we call it at the right time against the right defense and build the right system around it where we get the right play when we want it against the right defense. They can’t stop everything. If you think there’s a defense that’s going to line up and stop Lamar running plays and us executing really well, that’s just not the case. So there’s no schematic — they can’t put 13 guys out there. They’ve got to play their 11 against our 11.”
With DeCosta scheduled to address the media Wednesday for the first time as GM, a change in power that Harbaugh said he expects to be “very seamless,” the Ravens have all but moved on from the storylines that dominated the 2018 season. Jackson is the team’s starting quarterback. Harbaugh is returning as coach. The division championship is back in Baltimore.
All that’s left to do is, well, everything else. But Harbaugh was content in knowing that he had already done enough to return for his 12th season in charge.
“I never thought it wasn't going to happen,” Harbaugh said. “It wasn't something that I was thinking about. Sure, it's on your mind. I'm not going to say you don't understand the circumstances of your own situation. But to me, at the end, you do the job, not keep the job. That was the fun part of it. The other stuff, you just wait and see how it plays out and where it's going to go.”
And now, he knows, the Ravens must do it all over again.