There was a moment, during Mike Macdonald’s interview for the Ravens defensive coordinator job, when the student became the teacher.
It was that moment which convinced John Harbaugh he had found the next leader of his defense. He’d watched, firsthand, Macdonald’s apprenticeship as a coach, and now, the former Ravens intern was telling him how a defense could thrive.
“I was able to see his thought process, in terms of the way he built a defense on his own,” Harbaugh recalled Wednesday at Macdonald’s introductory news conference. “He took the defense and structured it and was able to teach me that, relay that to me, show me how he did it, how he solved the problems that the college game presented and that the pro game presents. … In the end, that was what did it for me.”
Macdonald is technically the first outsider Harbaugh has hired as defensive coordinator, but he “grew up as a coach” in the Ravens organization before taking a year away to work for Harbaugh’s brother, Jim, at Michigan. Now, he’ll replace one of his mentors, Don “Wink” Martindale, who parted ways with the Ravens 12 days ago after the team’s defense fell to 25th in the league in 2021.
Macdonald doesn’t speak with Martindale’s folksy swagger, but their defensive philosophies are more similar than different. “There’s a lot of carry-over from Wink,” he said, listing the lessons in “overcommunication” and preparation he drew from his former boss. Ravens fans will still see deceptive blitzes and fake pressure, even if the proportions might change.
“Just trying to create doubt [for the offense] at all times,” he said. “You want to be the one pushing the envelope.”
Macdonald grinned, recalling the offer he received from former special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg to join the Ravens staff as an intern in 2014. He had already accepted a job with the accounting firm KPMG, figuring he needed to abandon his coaching fantasies, which dated back to his high school days in Georgia, to make some real money. Given a last-minute reprieve, he opted to share a cramped office with two other Ravens coaching interns, including current special teams coordinator Chris Horton.
“We were just looking for stuff — let’s take that off your hands, let’s take this off this guy’s hands,” he recalled. “We came up with special projects over time.”
Harbaugh said that deep familiarity was a major factor in Macdonald’s favor as were his work rebuilding the team’s defensive schemes under Martindale in 2018 and his boldness in leaving to revamp Michigan’s defense last year.
He picked Macdonald, the youngest coordinator in the league at 34, over a pool of more experienced candidates, including current Ravens assistants Chris Hewitt and Anthony Weaver.
“The things that you see in Mike, it’s a great combination of intelligence, common sense, people skills and the really unique, hard to find balance of confidence and humility,” Harbaugh said.
Macdonald did not go into extensive detail about specific players or how he might tweak Martindale’s approach, but he suggested the Ravens defense will not look the same week to week.
“I think you’re building on what we’ve been able to do, really over the course of the entire franchise,” he said. “You want it to be multiple; I think that’s what we were aiming for in 2018, and we were able to achieve a lot of that. You want it to be flexible and adaptive, but it needs to be complementary as well. It needs to be light enough where you can adjust to certain things and it’s simple for the players.”
Harbaugh said he was struck by how quickly Macdonald taught his concepts to college players in a two-week period before Michigan began spring practice last year. The Wolverines would improve to eighth in the nation in scoring defense after ranking 95th during the abbreviated 2020 season.
“They had talented guys, guys who were into it, but he had to teach them a whole new system,” he said.
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Harbaugh said he and his brother had a congenial conversation when he called to ask if Macdonald would be available to interview for the Ravens job. He had recommended him to Jim Harbaugh for the Michigan opening a year before.
“Maybe a couple seconds of silence,” Harbaugh joked, recalling the fraternal chat. “And then he was like, ‘Absolutely, absolutely. You took care of me, and Mike’s a great guy. He deserves the opportunity.’”
Macdonald said his year at Michigan was invaluable. He had worn multiple hats for the Ravens, but he was never charged with bringing an entire defense together.
“Let’s get everyone on the same page; how do you do that?” he said. “It was great to get that experience, trying to create alignment within the organization. That’s something you don’t necessarily do as a position coach. You only have eight guys in your room at any given time. Now, you’ve got a room of 50 guys, saying, ‘OK, how do we get this thing to come together?’”
For now, Martindale’s old staff is intact under Macdonald. Weaver interviewed for the defensive coordinator job in Denver, which will reportedly go to Los Angeles Rams secondary coach Ejiro Evero. Harbaugh said Hewitt, who coordinated the team’s pass defense under Martindale, will be back. He expects the staff to be set by the end of next week.
Macdonald has already begun assessing how those coaches, and the team’s returning players, will restore the Ravens to their former defensive glory.
“I know Mike understands the standards,” Harbaugh said. “He’s part of establishing those standards.”