Baltimore Ravens new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg talks about his only job was being a player coach. (Baltimore Sun video)
As Ravens players reflected on their first days with new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, they described an atmosphere transformed by his crackling enthusiasm.
Gone was Marc Trestman's professorial reserve, replaced by the jaunty optimism of a coach who schemed big-play attacks in San Francisco and Philadelphia.
Mornhinweg has never struggled to project confidence — not as an undersized quarterback on the high school fields of Northern California, not as a young NFL assistant teaching some of the biggest names in the sport, not even as the coach of the bedraggled Detroit Lions.
"He brings an energy and an excitement that we needed," tight end Dennis Pitta said.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh hoped to jolt an offense that simply has not worked the first five weeks of the season, and to do so, he turned to a man he knew well from their days together on Andy Reid's Philadelphia Eagles staff.
"I think his style is obvious. It's enthusiastic," Harbaugh said. "He's very direct. He's very straightforward. … The things I've always admired about him [are that] he's a very descriptive teacher. He paints a really good picture for the guys. That's a gift."
Speaking to reporters Thursday for the first time as offensive coordinator, Mornhinweg, who has been the Ravens' quarterbacks coach since the beginning of last season, offered a simple explanation for why he coaches with such urgency.
"I'll give you one little thought process that I've gone by since I've been playing or coaching," he said. "This is day to day, man. You've got to prove yourself every day."
Mornhinweg, who officially took over the Ravens offense on Monday, has actually done this before. He began his first NFL offensive coordinator job with the San Francisco 49ers in 1997, replacing his fired predecessor … Marc Trestman.
Mornhinweg and Harbaugh are the same age, 54, but they took very different routes to the upper ranks of NFL coaching.
Where Harbaugh served a long apprenticeship outside the limelight generally reserved for offensive and defensive coordinators, Mornhinweg was a prodigy — one of the priests of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense.
He had worked with Hall of Fame quarterbacks Brett Favre and Steve Young before he turned 35 and was named head coach of the Lions when he was 38.
That great leap proved a mixed blessing. Mornhinweg took over the Lions at the start of Matt Millen's doomed tenure as team president.
With journeyman Charlie Batch and eventual first-round bust Joey Harrington as his quarterbacks, Mornhinweg could never get his offense clicking. The Lions plummeted from 9-7 to 2-14 in Mornhinweg's first season, then went 3-13 in his second.
And just like that, he was out, with a .156 career winning percentage attached to his name. If casual fans remember his tenure with the Lions at all, it's probably for the time he won a coin toss to start overtime against the Chicago Bears and chose to kick the ball away. In a cruel microcosm of Mornhinweg's time in Detroit, the Bears kicked a winning field goal before the Lions saw the ball again.
Nonetheless, he's always defended the decision, arguing that it made sense to avoid playing into the stiff wind that afternoon in Chicago.
Mornhinweg's embrace of risk traces all the way back to his days as a star quarterback for Oak Grove High School in San Jose, Calif.
There, he had the good fortune to cross paths with a young coach on the rise named Mike Holmgren.
"I remember Marty as a little Pop Warner guy, practicing at our high school," Holmgren said. " His dad was the coach."
Mornhinweg was one of four siblings. He was born in Edmond, Okla., but his family moved to Houston and then Boston before settling in San Jose when he was 12 and about to make a name for himself as a prep gunslinger.
Oak Grove had an heir apparent at quarterback whose mother happened to be the secretary in the school's front office. But Mornhinweg was so good, even in his first year, that Holmgren and head coach Phil Stearns felt they had to start him.
"The other kid's mom, oh boy, she didn't talk to me for a long time," Holmgren remembered with a chuckle. "Marty was an outstanding player. He was never very big, but he came in with tremendous skill."
Holmgren said he was very demanding and sharp-tongued, even working with high school players, but Mornhinweg accepted it all because he was so eager to learn everything he could about offensive football.
So Mornhinweg went to Montana, then Division I-AA, now Football Championship Subdivision, where he started four years, made all-conference and broke scads of school records.
To make a little money on the side, he cleaned up in poker games at a cowboy-themed bar and then mopped the floors on overnight shifts at another Missoula night spot.
Though he played one injury-shortened season for the Denver Dynamite in the nascent Arena Football League, he knew a lengthy professional quarterbacking career was not in the cards. So coaching seemed an obvious place to redirect his driving enthusiasm for the game.
He began, as many coaches do, with an escalating series of college jobs — graduate assistant at Texas El-Paso, running backs coach at Northern Arizona, offensive coordinator at Southeast Missouri State, tight ends coach at Missouri.
But perhaps the smartest thing Mornhinweg did was maintain contact with Holmgren, who helped him get a job as a training camp quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers at the height of the Walsh-Joe Montana era. Mornhinweg scribbled Walsh's plays, schedules and sayings onto legal pads and scraps of paper he's kept in a folder ever since.
Holmgren brought him to the Green Bay Packers as an offensive assistant in 1995. He was the quarterbacks coach for the 1996 team that beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.
Holmgren's staff was a breeding ground for future head coaches, and Mornhinweg forged important relationships with several of them, including Reid and Steve Mariucci, who brought him to the 49ers as offensive coordinator.
The performance of those high-scoring offenses, led by the veteran quarterback Young, set up Mornhinweg for his ill-fated head coaching shot in Detroit.
"He is a very confident guy, and he doesn't lack in that willingness to gamble. He'll take shots," Holmgren said. "But as a head coach, there are so many things you have to deal with — not the fun things like calling plays — that you don't have to deal with as a coordinator. I think if he had to do it over, he would probably do a few things differently."
Early in his first training camp, Mornhinweg slammed his sunglasses down a half-hour into practice, stalked off the field and rode off on his Harley-Davidson. He was trying to signal the need for a culture change in Detroit, but critics portrayed the gesture as an act of empty machismo.
They used such moments to bury him when the Lions did not perform on the field.
Not that Mornhinweg was ever daunted. He expected to turn the Lions around right until the day Millen fired him. "I never saw him get down," said Kevin Higgins, his quarterbacks coach in Detroit and now an assistant coach at Wake Forest. "I really admired that about Marty. He had this belief that he was going to get it done no matter what."
Reid threw Mornhinweg a lifeline, hiring him onto his Eagles staff in 2003 and promoting him to offensive coordinator in 2006. They stayed together another seven seasons, an unusually long time in the ever-changing NFL.
Reid, also a Walsh disciple, had enough faith in Mornhinweg's acumen that he ceded play-calling responsibilities to his coordinator, a move he did not make lightly.
"If I'm in a rut, I feel very comfortable turning to Marty," Reid said at the time.
Mornhinweg then worked as Rex Ryan's offensive coordinator with the New York Jets for two seasons before signing on as Harbaugh's quarterbacks coach before last season.
Away from the game, Mornhinweg is a family man who has four kids with his wife of 26 years, Lindsay, whom he met when he was working one of his first coaching jobs, at Northern Arizona. One of the couple's sons, Skyler, is a senior quarterback at Columbia; he began his college career at Florida.
Mornhinweg joked that Lindsay is tired of the clutter accumulated from 31 years in coaching. And his motorcycle? Didn't make the trip to Baltimore.
"I like to go fast," he said. "And it's not good."
Mornhinweg was a quarterback, he raised a son who's a quarterback and his most important NFL relationship at the moment is with another quarterback, Joe Flacco.
"I kind of like him a little bit," he deadpanned Thursday, drawing laughs from reporters.
It helps that they've already worked together for more than a year. And though Flacco adopted a muted tone this week, not wishing to speak ill of Trestman, he suggested the Ravens offense might operate with more swagger going forward.
"Marty is an exciting guy," Flacco said. "He is confident, and he brings a lot of confidence to the room. He is very sure in what he is doing and what we are doing."