Harbaugh steers Ravens through major changes

Turnover on roster and coaching staff has been dramatic

August 15, 2011|Mike Preston

When John Harbaugh walked off Heinz Field last January after a playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, he never imagined that the Ravens would go through such a dramatic transition period.

Since then, the Ravens have fired two offensive assistant coaches, lost another one to the Oakland Raiders, promoted a defensive coordinator, waived three of their best players and lost three more starters through free agency.

"No, I wouldn't be honest to say anything other than no, I didn't expect this," Harbaugh said.

A lot of NFL teams were in the same situation with the new collective bargaining agreement. Some teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers kept their rosters intact from a year ago, and why should they change? They might run the risk of getting old fast, but they went to the Super Bowl last year.

Then there are the Philadelphia Eagles. They created cap room by shedding players like quarterback Kevin Kolb, and getting three $1 million exemptions because they signed several players with five years experience for at least $1 million. Those moves allowed the Eagles to bring in players like cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, linebacker Jason Babin, backup quarterback Vince Young, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, running back Ronnie Brown and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Somewhere in between the Steelers and the Eagles are the Ravens. They got rid of some star players, but there weren't wholesale changes.

"It's interesting to watch the dynamics of how each of those teams have handled it," Harbaugh said. "Which one is right and which one is wrong? Maybe there isn't a right answer because we all did what we thought was best for our teams. I'll guess we'll find out at the end of the season."

In the overall picture, Harbaugh may have overhauled his team more than Philadelphia coach Andy Reid. Soon after the 2010 season, Harbaugh fired quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn and offensive line coach John Matsko. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattision left for Michigan and was replaced by secondary coach Chuck Pagano.

The Ravens also lost offensive consultant Al Saunders, who became offensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders.

In the offseason, the Ravens started from scratch in rebuilding an offense. They thought they might be able to work out some of the problems in several offseason minicamps. Because of the lockout, there were no minicamps or offseason conditioning programs. Team officials weren't even allowed to communicate with players.

So, when training camp opened, the Ravens were at ground zero as far as teaching the offense to the players.

"You're learning some of these new training camp rules as you go along," Harbaugh said. "We've tried to adapt, evolve and kind of experiment a little bit, and do the best we can with who was here at the beginning, and who wasn't. We're definitely behind our normal schedule, no doubt about it if we had our veterans here on time. Are we behind for the entire course of the season? I don't know. In terms of what we want accomplished in the middle of season, late in season and playoffs, we're going to find out as the season moves along."

The hardest part for Harbaugh is still getting adjusted to the new players. Shortly before training camp started, the Ravens cut key veterans like tight end Todd Heap, running back Willis McGahee, wide receiver Derrick Mason and defensive tackle Kelly Gregg to make salary cap room. Harbaugh said it was an opportunity for some of the younger players to show more leadership.

Harbaugh is old-school. He wants a certain player with a certain mentality and work ethic. But this season has been different, and he'll have to blend and be careful with this team chemistry. He has the strong personalities of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin and Terrell Suggs, and has added top-notch talent in fullback Vonta Leach and receiver Lee Evans. Harbaugh will have to keep an eye on young players like linebacker Sergio Kindle, cornerback Jimmy Smith and veteran running back Ricky Williams, who have had troubled pasts.

In the past, there was a belief in Baltimore that Lewis controlled his teammates both on and off the field. Harbaugh knows better. When there are off-the-field problems, the coach always handles the situation, which is why Harbaugh is trying to learn the new players and their personalities.

"As far as the players, it was a plan that started to unfold in February and March in meetings with [owner] Steve [Bisciotti], [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome] and [team president] Dick [Cass]," Harbaugh said of the roster moves. "It all goes together and it's a complicated process, but it's a good one and has worked in the past. Hopefully, it will be an effective one again.

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