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Ravens coach John Harbaugh refuses to let pandemic stop time as his team prepares for possible championship run

John Harbaugh spent his offseason thinking about time.

How could he not as he watched a global pandemic cut lives short and upend the cherished routines that govern his working life?

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But how would he apply those ruminations to teaching football and keeping his supremely talented Ravens on course for a championship push?

“For us, it was this recognition that time doesn’t stop. It continues to march on and waits for no man,” he said on a Friday morning, nine days before his team’s Sept. 13 opener against the Cleveland Browns. “So we have to understand that our time is coming, and we need to prepare for it, whether that meant making the most of the Zoom meetings or the Zoom workouts or once we got to camp, the conditioning. We wanted to make the most of every opportunity to prepare for the time that was coming, and that was the opportunity to play.”

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Now comes the good part — no more moving targets. The Ravens have a game this week.

“For us, it’s like man, finally,” the team’s 57-year-old head coach said.

Harbaugh reached peak acclaim last season. He won NFL Coach of the Year honors for the first time. His promised offensive revolution came to fruition, with the Ravens winning 14 games and setting an all-time record for rushing yards in a season. Players lauded him for his openness and his flexibility in building around the unique talents of quarterback Lamar Jackson.

But he knew it could not last. A fresh set of problems would spew forth, and the search for answers would begin again. The Tennessee Titans only hastened that reset when they upset the Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs.

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Many people would find this treadmill existence daunting. For Harbaugh, it’s perhaps the most invigorating part of the job.

“It is unpredictable,” he said. “You plan and you have principles and you try to set it up as a best you can. But that ability to be flexible and adapt, we talk about being like water. You’ve got to be willing to find the best path and move around things and over things, not just bull through things all the time. I like that part of it.”

A little Bruce Lee philosophy with your Sunday smash-mouth.

And the difficulties surely did arise. COVID-19 shuttered the team’s headquarters in Owings Mills and forced Harbaugh to redesign his offseason program from square one. Coaches learned to communicate from behind masks. Roster decisions had to be made without evidence from a single snap of preseason action. Less than a week into full practices, the Ravens released seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas III after a scuffle with teammate Chuck Clark exposed his fraying relationship with the organization. Then the sports world erupted in protest as players and coaches reacted to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Harbaugh could not have known any of this would happen as his players walked off the field eight months ago, bearing the crushing disappointment of that loss to the Titans. But over 13 years on the job (and a lifetime around coaches), he’s learned to accept change as a constant — to embrace it, in fact. If his energy or optimism waned during the pandemic or the tests of training camp, he did not show it.

For example, the morning after NBA players halted their postseason in response to the Blake shooting, Harbaugh urged Ravens players and coaches to gather for an immediate post-practice discussion. “Why wait until tomorrow?” he recalled telling them. “Let’s get at it.”

The resulting session produced a list of demands hailed by social-justice activists for their boldness and specificity. Harbaugh was “emotionally spent” by the end of the day but proud of the men around him for gaining new understanding of one another and trying to improve their world.

Those gaining their first exposure to the veteran coach have been struck by his handling of such situations.

“I love him,” rookie running back J.K. Dobbins said. “All the players can be themselves around him. He pushes us. I already love playing for him. I feel like I can be great under him. I’m glad I’m on his team.”

Harbaugh is the fourth head coach Calais Campbell has played for in 13 NFL seasons, and the veteran defensive end has been struck by the collaborative nature of the Ravens.

“I think the coolest thing is, we have our committee meetings, and [there’s] a lot of real conversation going on, and he’s very receptive. … He’s encouraging us to have ideas and where we can do things and help our team be better,” he said. “The result is he wants to win football games, and I’m on the same page with him.”

Would this strangest of offseasons have been more difficult if it had struck when Harbaugh was a less experienced head coach?

“I don’t know,” he said, balking at a comparison question. “Yeah, you’re probably always better equipped the more experienced you are. But looking back, I probably would have handled it the same way, tried to look at the situation for what it is.”

Harbaugh kept all eyes on the greater prize, those around him said, even if that meant cramming the team’s offseason to-do list into an unfamiliar box defined by computer screens and masks rather than pads and helmets.

“I think it’s just a very clear vision of what we want to become and knowing that that’s an ongoing process,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “But I think he’s got an intrinsic feel for how to communicate that really, really well. I’ve been around quite a while now — I know I look pretty young — but I think John does it as good, if not better, than anybody that I’ve seen.”

Harbaugh knew he could not squander a moment with a team that climbed so close to championship form last season.

He’s been here before. In 2010, the Ravens won 12 games only to fall to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round of the playoffs. In 2011, they won another 12, only to fall a missed field-goal attempt short against the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game. They were an accomplished, star-studded team that needed to take another step.

We know what happened next; Harbaugh negotiated a roller-coaster season marked by locker room tumult and an on-field slump that led him to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron just three games before the playoffs. The Ravens responded with an immaculate postseason run, culminating in the franchise’s second Super Bowl victory.

The parallels between that team and this one are imperfect. With players such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in the twilight of their careers, the window was closing on the 2012 Ravens. With the 23-year-old Jackson at the controls, there’s a feeling that winning time has just begun for the 2020 edition.

But the essential question — how do you win the last game of the season? — is the same.

Harbaugh’s Ravens predecessor, Brian Billick, thinks he already took the most essential step by building around Jackson’s precocious physical and social skills.

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“Obviously, Lamar has been brilliant, but I don’t think people can fully realize just how brilliant it was for John and Greg Roman, and for them to give themselves over to, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do,’” Billick said. “A lot of people would not have done that. That was bold, particularly for a guy that was kind of on a hot seat, because that can go the wrong way real quick.”

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Harbaugh doesn’t believe in some magical property that must be unlocked to create a Super Bowl winner. The Kansas City Chiefs were an offsides penalty away from going to the big game after the 2018 season. Were they really that much different last season, when they went all the way?

“They lined up offsides one time,” Harbaugh said. “So much of it is circumstances. A play gets made or doesn’t get made, and it makes all the difference.”

He sees championship evolution as a matter of stacking fruitful days, one on top of the other, through the first week in February. Some days, that means changing course. Others, it means simply persisting.

“It’s something we talk about every day,” Harbaugh said. “Stacking days, stacking workouts. That’s how you write your story.”

BROWNS@RAVENS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Ravens by 7½

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