John Harbaugh gets the Ravens ready for a season that may be their toughest yet

September 09, 2012|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

A football coach to the core, John Harbaugh loves motivational quotes and uplifting slogans.

He has some printed on T-shirts and others are framed and strategically placed in his office or around the Ravens' training facility.

One of his favorites, however, still resides in his phone. Seated at a table in his office recently, Harbaugh scrolls down and finds a message from a friend. He then reads the words of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. He pauses a couple of times and lets the words sink in. He then reads them again.

"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves."

To the football populace, the Ravens will always be Ray Lewis' team until the day the indomitable middle linebacker calls it quits on his Hall of Fame career. John Harbaugh? He's a good coach who has had many great players, they say.

How good?

Harbaugh is 49-24 since replacing Brian Billick, and he's the only coach since the 1970 NFL merger to guide a team to a playoff victory in each of his four seasons. He's won with a rookie quarterback and youth at other key positions. His teams have survived injuries, offensive inconsistency and a revolving door of defensive coordinators. They have exceeded modest expectations, and held up reasonably well to enormous ones.

He may not come across as charismatic as Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin or as quotable as New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and he receives nowhere near the attention or the credit that his younger brother, Jim, does as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. However, Harbaugh's influence is all over everything the Ravens do.

Under the fifth-year head coach, the Ravens have won consistently with an ever changing roster that now features just six players who were with the organization prior to Harbaugh's arrival. They've done it while playing a physical yet disciplined style, and embracing the concepts and principles that their head coach always preaches.

"In the end, the team belongs to the team," Harbaugh said. "Yeah, I'm part of that but so is every player and every coach and every person involved. It's our team. It's not the coach's way. It's the Ravens' way. It's how our team operates. It's having a shared ownership of everything we do. It's never been my way or the highway here. But the principles, they are rock solid. Like we say to our team, principles are written in stone, methods are not. We will not back down from our principles."

Starting Monday, when the Ravens host the Cincinnati Bengals and begin another run at that elusive Super Bowl, Harbaugh could face his biggest challenge yet. The Ravens will play eight of their 16 games against teams that made the playoffs last year. They are scheduled to face quarterbacks Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger and both Peyton Manning and Eli Manning.

The Ravens won't have reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs for most, if not all, of the season, and several other key pieces from last year's 12-4 team, including Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs, linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, are gone.

"I feel as good about this team as any team we've had," Harbaugh said. "That's not a predictor about our record or anything like that, but I really, really love this team. I love the work ethic, their outlook, their attitude. I just like the way they approach things. We have a confidence that whatever we do, it will be our best. Obviously, I feel we're talented and have a chance to be very good."

Almost there

Following nearly every practice of training camp, long after his players had gotten out of the hot sun, Harbaugh ran a series of sprints that left him breathing hard and drenched in sweat. Sometimes, he ran with team security personnel. By camp's end, Harbaugh was often a solitary figure, sprinting up and down the far field at the Under Armour Performance Center.

Fit and as competitive as ever, Harbaugh will turn 50 on Sept. 23, the same day the Ravens will play the New England Patriots in a rematch of the AFC championship game. In the Ravens' 23-20 defeat to the Patriots back in January, Lee Evans failed to secure a potential game-winning touchdown pass and Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard game-tying field-goal.

Still, as he walked back to the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium just seconds away from a Super Bowl berth, Harbaugh was overcome by a sense of calmness.

"We had done everything that we could do to be the very best that we could be, and it went down the way it went down," he said. "Everybody did their best. I didn't feel any animosity toward anybody. I was disappointed for all of us especially the guys that had the tough plays at the end."

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