Ravens coach Har­baugh put his team on NFL’s cut­ting edge

Side­line leader al­ways look­ing for some­thing new

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Childs Walker

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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?”

KARL MERTON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Ravens head coach John Har­baugh re­acts as La­mar Jack­son re­turns to the bench af­ter throw­ing a sec­ond touch­down pass in less than two min­utes against Cleveland on Dec. 22.

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