INDIANAPOLIS - Ravens coach John Harbaugh celebrated his team clinching a playoff berth two weeks ago by waving a shovel and a sword in the locker room.
These are the symbols of his midseason rallying cry -- dig in and fight -- and they now adorn T-shirts for the players and patches worn on their practice jerseys.
But Harbaugh's influence goes beyond clothing, props and speeches. His own ability to dig in and fight has been a steadying force in a season in which the Ravens have gone from a wildly inconsistent team a few months ago to one that is clashing with the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts in tonight's AFC divisional playoff game.
Harbaugh stood his ground when fans blamed him for letting beloved kicker Matt Stover go to the Colts. He refused to waver when he was criticized for promoting Greg Mattison to defensive coordinator. He delivers motivational speeches and slogans often heard in college locker rooms even as some players say it's not needed in professional sports. And he didn't blink when a caller asked "are you over your head" as an NFL head coach during his own radio show -- less than a year after leading the Ravens to the AFC championship game.
Through it all, Harbaugh stuck to his convictions, which provided the foundation for the Ravens to win four of their past five games and make another Super Bowl run as the sixth seed.
"What I sense is this season has been a tremendous period of growth for John and for this team," said Harbaugh's father Jack, a frequent visitor to Ravens practices and games.
The Ravens are moving in the right direction because of the tone set by John Harbaugh.
He can be hard-nosed and affable at the same time. He wants the team to feel like a family, but everyone understands who's the head of it.
Even if a player could, it's hard to argue with Harbaugh about the results. He's the 10th NFL coach since 1990 to reach the playoffs in his first two seasons, and the first Ravens coach to do so. His postseason record is 3-1.
"I think John Harbaugh is the complete package as a head coach," said Dan Dierdorf, the television analyst for tonight's game and a former NFL lineman. "He has an idea of what he wants from a football team, and he doesn't ask the guys what they think about it. He tells them what they do. He came in and inherited a team with a lot of strong-willed leaders. And while he appreciates their input, they are doing it Harbaugh's way and that is the only way."
In his first season, Harbaugh had to change the culture of the Ravens. This season, he has had to defend changes made in the offseason.
After the Ravens and Stover couldn't agree on a contract (the team wouldn't guarantee the kicker's one-year deal), Harbaugh eventually had to cut his first choice to replace Stover (Steve Hauschka) before finding stability with Billy Cundiff in November. His commitment to Mattison paid off better, as the defense went from No. 19 at midseason to No. 3 by the end of the season.
The players say the constant for the up-and-down season has been Harbaugh. Whether it was a winning or losing streak (or the upcoming opponent was the Colts or the Detroit Lions), Harbaugh consistently preached hard work and attention to detail.
"He's kept an even keel all the way around," wide receiver Kelley Washington said. "That's been a great way for us to stay positive."
It didn't always stay positive. After the Ravens lost to Indianapolis two months ago, Harbaugh received a sobering phone call on his weekly WBAL show. The Ravens were 5-5, and some fans questioned the direction of the team.
The angered caller asked Harbaugh if he was over his head as an NFL coach and overwhelmed? "No and no," Harbaugh quickly responded that night.
Harbaugh said this week that you can't take criticism personally. "I just have to think about the other 98 percent of the fans that have a different perspective," he said.
The sword and shovel
The origin of the sword and the shovel goes back to the Biblical story of Nehemiah, who had to defend himself with a weapon while rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. The theme of fighting and building struck a chord with Harbaugh.
He shared the story when the Ravens struggled at midseason and decided to brandish the sword and shovel when they earned a postseason spot in Oakland.
"I think motivation is putting things in perspective," Harbaugh said. "If something resonates, you use it."
When he told the players that he wanted a blue-collar team a year ago, he put blue-collar shirts with their names written on them in each locker. There are signs throughout Ravens headquarters that reinforce the ideas of team and focus (a placard that reads W.I.N. -- What's Important Now -- hangs over the doorways to the team auditorium).
It's a collegial approach in an NFL world. Some players buy into it. Others don't.