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Ravens coach John Harbaugh put his team on NFL’s cutting edge by embracing change: ‘He’s not afraid’

"God's fingerprints are all over this (season) in many, many ways and many many levels," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh about this season's 14-2 record.

There’s a simple code that informs day-to-day business around the Ravens’ Owings Mills training complex: Never stand still.

If you had to pick words to encapsulate John Harbaugh’s 12 years as the team’s head coach, those might be the ones. They come from Bo Schembechler, the gruff titan who ruled University of Michigan football for 21 years and employed Harbaugh’s father, Jack, as an assistant.

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The meaning is twofold. In the literal sense, Harbaugh tries to squeeze productive purpose out of every moment; idleness is the enemy. On a more philosophical level, he tries never to settle for a familiar answer when there might be a better one around the corner.

“I think that should define what we do,” he said during a recent conversation outside the team’s weight room. “You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. Bo Schembechler had that mantra when I was a little kid: If you try to stay the same, people are catching up on you, they’re overtaking you. That could go for how we lift or nutrition or rehab or the way we practice or how the coaches meet or just the way I relate to players — what words you say or tone of voice. With all that stuff, you’ve got to keep chasing evolution.”

His approach has borne remarkable fruit this season as the Ravens have stormed the NFL behind an offense reconstructed around the unique talents of quarterback Lamar Jackson. Harbaugh did not design that offense, but he picked the man who did, Greg Roman, and turned him loose.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh reacts as Lamar Jackson returns to the bench after throwing a second touchdown pass in less than two minutes gains the Cleveland Browns. Dec. 22, 2019
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh reacts as Lamar Jackson returns to the bench after throwing a second touchdown pass in less than two minutes gains the Cleveland Browns. Dec. 22, 2019 (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

He rarely receives the football genius cred attributed to some of his coaching peers, but his open mind and instinct to delegate have put the Ravens on the NFL’s cutting edge. In the past two years, he’s asked his coordinators to rebuild the team’s offensive and defensive schemes from the ground up, and he’s become a poster boy for analytics-informed decision-making with his aggressive calls on fourth down.

“He's fantastic that way, always giving us a different look at it,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “It’s always, ‘Hey, what about this? What do you think about that?’ It's great to work for a head coach that challenges you like that daily.”

Just 14 months ago, Harbaugh faced a murkier outlook, with rumors swirling that his tenure in Baltimore might be nearing its end. The Ravens had missed the playoffs three straight years and seemed in danger of falling short again when they entered their midseason bye week with a 4-5 record.

But Harbaugh inserted Jackson as his starter and staked everything on the young quarterback’s development. The team made a surprise run to the playoffs, setting the stage for the most successful regular season in its history in 2019. Harbaugh is operating with job security afforded by a new four-year contract he signed in the offseason, and he’s a candidate to win NFL Coach of the Year honors for the first time.

“I think to have longevity in the National Football League, particularly as a head coach, you’ve got to be very open to change and very comfortable with who you are,” said CBS “NFL Today” analyst and former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher. “And I think you constantly see that with John. He takes a group of players and men, and he creates a plan based on the talent he has. … It’s hard; sometimes you get locked into loyalty, and you’re afraid to make change, but I think that’s one thing John has proven: He’s not afraid.”

After a victory, Harbaugh usually dispenses honorary game balls to those who made outstanding contributions. But after the season-closing win against the Steelers, defensive tackle Brandon Williams interrupted the proceedings to hand Harbaugh a game ball.

It was a personal gesture from the team to a coach once viewed as inflexible by his harshest locker room critics. Those voices grew particularly loud as the Ravens stagnated in the years after their 2012 Super Bowl season. In a 2018 interview with The Baltimore Sun, outspoken former Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said Harbaugh had broken up that team prematurely because “he’d rather have guys that are yes men instead of men who were going to step out there and go to war." Other former players were more circumspect but agreed that the team had lost many leaders.

Harbaugh never agreed with the criticism — “I think I’ve always been that way,” he said when asked whether he’s grown more attentive to one-on-one relationships. And many players defended him during the Ravens’ down years. Now, it’s common to hear team leaders praise him for encouraging their eccentricities.

“A big thing this year, he let us have music in the locker room before pregame,” defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. "When I first got here, [it was] super quiet, super intense. You could cut the tension with a knife. ... Coach Harbs is adapting to his guys, and he’s doing a great job.”

As the players celebrated their leader after the Steelers victory, they reflected on a more somber postgame scene 13 weeks earlier. The Ravens had just fallen to 2-2 with a stunning loss to the Cleveland Browns. Harbaugh told them they weren’t very good at that moment.

“He said, ‘We’ll find out what team we are the rest of the year,'” quarterback Robert Griffin III remembered. “And fellas, we didn’t lose another game.”

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Many Ravens veterans now describe Harbaugh as a “players’ coach.” They appreciate his candor in difficult moments and the way he consults them on major decisions affecting the team.

“He’s always asking the players how we think, how we feel about situations, addressing us, asking us things,” said running back Mark Ingram II, who previously played for highly acclaimed coaches in Sean Payton and Nick Saban. “We give him feedback, and it’s just transparency. He takes care of us. … When a coach allows you to be yourself and shows that he believes in you and cares about you, you want to fight for him that much harder.”

Cornerback Jimmy Smith has played for Harbaugh since 2011. In that time, Smith has struggled through all manner of problems, from persistent injuries to a four-game suspension last season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. In each instance, he said, Harbaugh has tried to understand his point of view.

“He’s been a great person in my life,” Smith said. “I’ve been through some stuff, too, and he’s been there for me every step of the way. I think that’s the reason our relationship is the way it is. … He understands circumstances; everything is not just cut and dry with him.”

He added that if a player from another team asked him about playing for Harbaugh, he would recommend the experience.

“You’re going to work hard,” Smith said. “Not in a bad way. A team takes on your coach’s personality, and our coach is a diligent, hard worker. That’s how we get down here. But he’s not afraid to do something different. Even if something worked the same way for a long time, he’s not afraid to go outside the lines.”

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Nowhere did Harbaugh’s adaptability and interpersonal skills prove more important than in the transition from Joe Flacco to Jackson, which began last season, with the Ravens at their lowest point. Jackson’s talent and drive are all his own, but his rise might not have been so swift if the head coach had not refashioned everything around so unusual a player. Harbaugh had never worked with a starting quarterback other than Flacco, who could not have been more different than Jackson. But when the time came to change, he did not hesitate.

Cowher went through a similar experience installing a young Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers’ starter. “John and I have actually talked about it; it’s refreshing to bring a young player in,” he said. “You try to give them a little bit of your experience and wisdom, but at the same time, let them be who they are and get comfortable with who they are.”

Roman, the offensive coordinator, described Harbaugh as a “remarkable leader” in the transition. He essentially gave his assistants a dream assignment: Create a new offense that would set the NFL on its ear.

“John is the one who really orchestrated the vision for this offense and kind of set us on our way to do it,” Roman said. “He painted the perimeters and painted a picture of what he wanted it to look like and let us do our job.”

Skeptics mocked Harbaugh when he predicted the Ravens would set off an offensive revolution in the NFL. But 14 wins, 531 points and a record 3,296 rushing yards later, he looks like a prophet.

The year before, Harbaugh asked Martindale to execute a similar teardown of the team’s defense. As a result, the Ravens blitz opposing quarterbacks at unprecedented rates.

They don’t play like any other team in the league on either side of the ball.

There are aspects of Harbaugh that have never changed. He does not have much time for people who will not match his commitment. He declines to ruminate about the big picture when there are detailed tasks in front of him. He encourages players and coaches to bring their families around the team, much as he and his brother grew up around the Michigan program 40 years ago. He often refers to his Christian faith in explaining his outlook.

Despite his relentless focus on the day-to-day, this has been a season for him to recognize the march of time.

His daughter, Alison, was a preschooler when the family moved to Baltimore. Next fall, she’ll leave the home he and his wife, Ingrid, have made to play lacrosse at Notre Dame. Harbaugh recently rushed off after practice to watch Alison deliver her senior speech at the Bryn Mawr School, an experience that moved him to tears.

“I don’t know what Ingrid and I are even going to talk about now,” he joked, sounding like any other middle-aged father anticipating an empty nest.

At 57, he’s roughly the same age Schembechler was when he coached Harbaugh’s brother at Michigan. With his trim build and unlined face, he doesn’t look it, but he does have a creaky knee, which is why Ravens fans have seen him limping on the sideline this season.

“I can’t even fathom that,” Harbaugh said of the Schembechler comparison. “It’s hard to put into words, but to be in any job for 12 years, especially in this profession … I’m just grateful. I thank God for it. To be able to get your daughter through elementary school and high school in one place, when you’re a coach, it’s unheard of.”

Professionally, Harbaugh understands he’s in a blessed spot, working with a superstar quarterback who pulls victories and good feelings toward the team like a magnet. Better yet, he doesn’t have to tell the 22-year-old Jackson that this grand ride will be for naught if it does not end in the Super Bowl. Jackson gets it.

Though he’s coached in the same place longer than all but three NFL peers, Harbaugh said he never feels bored with the work. In fact, he finds it more interesting than he did as a 44-year-old walking into the Ravens’ facility for the first time.

“A lot of the things that were really hard for me early on are not hard for me now,” he said. “I’ve been down those roads, and you kind of figure some things out. … So I get to enjoy the job a lot more. I enjoy the players a lot more than I did when I first started, for whatever reason. I think maybe because I’m further along?”

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