Baltimore Ravens

After tumultuous season, John Harbaugh has Ravens back in the playoffs

Perhaps it took another man who'd walked in similar shoes to appreciate the difficulties John Harbaugh navigated in this tumultuous season for the Baltimore Ravens.

Gary Kubiak was an NFL head coach for eight years before he became the Ravens' offensive coordinator in 2014. After the team rallied past the Cleveland Browns and into the playoffs Sunday, he pulled Harbaugh aside.


"I think it's been amazing," Kubiak said this week. "I told coach that after the game. Just to watch what the team has been through physically, emotionally, and John held everybody together. … His team is a reflection of him. He's a battler, and that's what his team has done all year."

Harbaugh coached the Ravens through national outrage over the Ray Rice scandal, numerous injuries to key players and the late-season drug suspension of star defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Even this week, Ravens security director Darren Sanders, a man who accompanies Harbaugh step for step on game days, was placed on paid leave after he was charged with a sex offense.


The coach also faced plenty of criticism himself, for his supportive comments about Rice and for his team's tepid performances in late-season games.

And yet the Ravens are in Pittsburgh for a playoff game Saturday night against the Steelers. Their consistency in making the postseason during Harbaugh's tenure is matched by just three other franchises in the NFL.

"Through thick and thin, they're always going to be fundamentally sound and they're never going to quit," says former Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills executive Bill Polian. "Those are direct reflections of John's coaching style. When you play the Baltimore Ravens, there are no easy days. There's no greater compliment I can pay to a coach."

Narratives of change and growth sell well in sports. But they don't fit Harbaugh, who has always seemed disinterested with questions about his personal evolution.

"I think all the core things are the same," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who's been with Harbaugh the entire way in Baltimore.

The guy even looks mostly the same — lean as a college athlete, light on his feet, unusually smooth-faced for a 52-year-old in a high-stress job.

It's hard to put a finger on exactly what Harbaugh does so well. He's never been known as an offensive or defensive mastermind. He's not combative like Bill Parcells or jovial like Rex Ryan. He's never perceived as an aloof genius a la Bill Belichick. In fact, he's generally overshadowed by his younger brother, Jim, who again dominated headlines this week with his coaching jump from the San Francisco 49ers to the University of Michigan.

Harbaugh's gift is a relentless ability to keep himself and a diverse crew of players and assistants zeroed in on the next meeting, the next practice, the next game. He's unyielding in this mission, even when the world roils outside his door.


He recently explained his philosophy for dealing with crises: "Generally speaking, the idea is to have empathy for the person involved in the situation — whatever it might be — whether it is an injury or a personal situation and try to work them through as much as you can. … And at the same time, taking the opportunity through what we do every single day — whether it's have a great practice or focus on your next opponent or your next challenge, not looking to the left or to the right, looking straight ahead at the next task at hand and not getting caught up in some 'civilian affairs' when it comes to taking care of our business on the field."

Nothing magical, but over the years, players have responded to Harbaugh's message more often than not.

Wide receiver Steve Smith came to the Ravens this season after 13 years with the Carolina Panthers. He often says the difference in Baltimore is that everyone expects the season to end with a deep playoff run, no matter what happens along the way.

The combative veteran grinned, as if thinking of a secret joke, when asked about his first year with Harbaugh.

"Me and him, we're very similar in some ways, and it has just been fun," Smith said. "He does a great job in the way he communicates, the way his style — the way he engages with the players, the way he motivates, the way he allows the other coaches to motivate as well."

Those who've been around the NFL for any amount of time will tell you every season is a minefield. Catastrophic injuries, internal disputes and off-field drama are the norm.


It's easy to forget because the season ended with a Super Bowl victory, but in 2012, Harbaugh coped with serious injuries to Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis, a run of blowout losses and a change in offensive coordinators as the playoffs loomed.

Shaky ground is nothing new to him.

"You always have to expect the unexpected, and most successful coaches understand that completely," Polian said.

Even in that light, Harbaugh faced difficulties after video emerged in February of Rice dragging his unconscious future wife from an elevator at an Atlantic City casino.

Blueprint didn't work

Through years of handling significant off-field distractions — from Lewis' murder trial on — the Ravens developed a formula. The organization's leaders would address the issue at an initial press conference and then everyone would resume the day-to-day business of football.


But the Rice story confounded the blueprint. Every time a supposed resolution was announced, it seemed only to feed public anger and suspicion. Critics lashed the organization for standing by Rice and then for cutting him when the facts of the story had not changed.

Harbaugh often stood, if not at the center of the storm, close to it.

Those who saw the NFL as callous in its response to domestic violence found ammunition in Harbaugh's description of Rice as "a heck of a guy."

The day Rice was released, it was Harbaugh, not owner Steve Bisciotti or general manager Ozzie Newsome, who had to speak for the organization.

For better or worse, he rarely changed his message on Rice. He always said he loved the player and his wife, Janay, as people and would support their efforts to heal. But he also maintained the Ravens would not let the scandal upset their game preparations one iota.

Harbaugh met with players a few hours after Rice was released and fielded questions about the franchise's handling of the situation. He said everyone felt the weight of Rice's fall from grace. And yet three days after the former Pro Bowl running back was released, the Ravens played one of their best games of the season, a 26-6 win over the Steelers.


The coach's role is multi-faceted at such moments, said several people who've been around NFL teams in crisis. He must absorb and deflect public furor so that burden doesn't fall on the players. But he must also make sure players — especially experienced locker room leaders — understand the organization's response and are unified in their plans to move forward.

"The goal is really to be a family," said Joel Fish, a Philadelphia-based sports psychologist who has worked with numerous professional teams over the past 25 years. "When you're family, you share pleasant things but you also deal with unpleasant things. Moments like that are really an opportunity for coaches and team leaders to rally around one another."

Unity can help teams

It might be a cliche, Fish said, but teams that remain unified through painful circumstances often come out stronger.

Former Ravens kicker Matt Stover watched the 2000 team deal with the reaction to Lewis' trial and plea deal on the way to an eventual Super Bowl victory. He said the Ravens loved it when coach Brian Billick began Super Bowl week with a full-throated defense of Lewis, thus steering the hubbub away from the players and onto himself.

"If you are a leader and as a leader, your job is to serve, part of what you have to do is take some shots for your team, for your family," Stover said.


Harbaugh might not have done it with quite the same gusto as Billick, at least not publicly, but he followed similar principles.

"You own it, and I know John, the type of man he is, owned it," said Stover, who keeps a close eye on his former team. "You have to make sure the message is clear on how to move forward. I think John did a great job of that this year. He understood the team needed to have stability amid all the chaos. And John's always been a guy who's able to deliver that."

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Stover and others said the responsibility for enduring crises has to be shared by the coach, leading players and front-office executives.

But Polian, a former general manager of the Bills and vice chairman of the Colts, said outsiders would be surprised how much players look to the coach in times of trouble.

'It's very important that the owner and the general manager back him up, and Baltimore is a great example of that," Polian said. "But the coach is the guy who's with the team every day."

The season didn't get any easier as the Rice controversy slowly receded. Injuries wiped out key performers such as Dennis Pitta and Jimmy Smith, with 19 Ravens ultimately landing on injured reserve. Then came the stunning news that Ngata, always a stalwart, would miss the last four games of the regular season because he had tested positive for the banned stimulant Adderall.


Harbaugh's handling of the suspension was illustrative. He offered a few subtle indications of his disappointment with Ngata but talked far more about the Ravens' depth at defensive line and ability to thrive without their star.

In fact, they went 3-1 with rookie Timmy Jernigan (now injured himself) filling in.

When Ngata returned to practice on Monday, he sat with Harbaugh for a few minutes in the coach's office. Neither man dwelled on the suspension. Harbaugh gave the 340-pound Ngata a little poke in the gut to see if he'd kept himself in shape. And the pair emerged smiling, their attention firmly on the business ahead in Pittsburgh.