Standing in front of his players in the team auditorium on Halloween morning, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was convinced he had the right response for an embarrassing 43-13 loss to the Houston Texans. On the Ravens' first day back from a bye week, he told players, they would have a full-contact practice.
Harbaugh's announcement didn't go over well. Veteran players, particularly safeties Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed, were so frustrated that they voiced their disapproval strongly.
By players' accounts, this wasn't a full-scale mutiny. They readily acknowledge, though, that it qualified as a noisy round of dissent.
While many coaches might have stiffened up and given a my-way-or-the-highway type of response, Harbaugh had a different reaction.
He listened — to the players' complaints about the length and intensity of practices, about offensive philosophy and about how their coach interacted with them. They wanted Harbaugh to be more positive.
Ultimately, Harbaugh relented on the practice. The players went back to work enthusiastically, and the eventual Super Bowl champions won their next four games.
“We had a little therapeutic session,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “It was huge that our coach was able to stand there and listen to some of our concerns. That takes a lot of heart and humbleness to sit there and listen to that. Once we got all of that out, we started communicating better. We started talking more coach-to-player and player-to-coach. It brought us closer and it definitely helped our team.
“Coach Harbaugh has done so many things for this team by the way he wanted this team to be and the way he wanted to run it. The first year or two, we definitely had some disagreements with him, but he definitely listened to some things that the players wanted. He was able to put his feelings down and let some things happen. This year has been totally where we've been able to communicate with Coach, and Coach has been able to communicate with the players. He's done a phenomenal job this whole year of communicating with us, and I think that's been the biggest change.”
It was a season filled with several emotional moments.
Wide receiver Torrey Smith's brother, Tevin Jones, died in a motorcycle accident the night before a September win over the New England Patriots in which Smith caught two touchdown passes.
The Ravens fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in December after an overtime loss to the Washington Redskins and replaced him with Jim Caldwell, a decision that jump-started a dormant offense.
Key players, including cornerback Lardarius Webb and inside linebacker Jameel McClain, were lost for the season with injuries, while linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs battled back from serious injuries.
Lewis, who tore his right triceps in October against the Dallas Cowboys and underwent surgery, later announced before the playoffs began that he would retire after the season.
But ask players about the key to altering the course of their season, and they don't hesitate to answer. They credit how Harbaugh handled that noisy Oct. 31 team meeting for the Ravens' later success and their strengthened relationship with their head coach.
“It was the turning point of our season,” running back Ray Rice said. “The way Coach Harbaugh handled that brought us a lot closer together. He wasn't defensive. He listened to us. He heard everybody out.
“He showed us a lot of respect, and that always needs to be a two-way street. All he wanted to do was make this team better, and part of that is listening to your guys.”
Pollard was surprised by how Harbaugh handled a potentially disruptive situation. Initially, Pollard thought the coach would simply cross his arms and overrule them.
Instead, rather than stubbornly rely on his authority, Harbaugh showed the players a different side.
“I think that tells you a lot about Coach Harbaugh, you know, to stand there in front of 60-plus guys and listen to things and what we had to say,” Pollard said. “That wouldn't have happened in a lot of other organizations, so for Coach Harbaugh to stand there and do that, it just said a lot about his character.
“Like I continue to say, it was a humbling experience for all of us. We all were humbled, and sometimes it takes you to be knocked down to be in the position that we're in right now, and we got knocked down, but we came together.”
A coach's evolution
Harbaugh, the only head coach in NFL history to win at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons, and the only coach to make it to three conference championship games in his first five seasons, didn't get to where he is today by being democratic.