clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Tao of Harbaugh: The Birth, Decline, and Resurrection of a Baltimore Sporting Legend

Neither pretty, nor perfect... but inimitable.

November 11th, 2018. Jason La Canfora files the following story for CBS Sports: “Ravens, John Harbaugh headed to a mutual parting of ways; in-season firing not discussed.”

It was a bombshell report by La Canfora that confirmed what many felt was the obvious sentiment at the time. That Harbaugh, the franchise talisman for the Baltimore Ravens had finally reached the end of what had proven to be an exceptionally long (and to be fair, well deserved) rope.

Baltimore sat at 4-5 fresh off of a home loss to the hated Pittsburgh Steelers in which their defense looked rudderless, and their offense (which had started out the season nicely) looked anemic, to put it kindly. How did they, at one point a championship winning outfit under Harbaugh, get there?

The first answer that springs to mind is the one that tends to when any longtime, once strong relationship reaches it’s end: that rather than one single issue standing out, it was a confluence of them that ultimately reached their boiling point. It began, perhaps predictably, right after what wound up being the zenith of the Harbaugh era, and likely still is at this point.

After a stroke of special teams’ genius in which John instructed his punter Sam Koch to run around in the endzone for an intentionally taken safety, Koch stepped up and boomed a free kick in the direction of San Francisco 49ers returner, Ted Ginn. After a harrowing few seconds in which Ginn looked to have some free space, special teamer Josh Bynes charged in and made the critical tackle for Baltimore causing the ball to pop out; so did purple-and-white confetti, and every able-bodied Baltimorean parked in front of a TV tuned into CBS. Ravens win... and scene.

The celebration was predictably jubilant. Harbaugh and his top field general at the time Ray Lewis share a moment together; Lewis, having just played his last game after a legendary NFL career leans into Harbaugh:

“Was it supposed to happen any other way?” he asks.

“No. Was it supposed to be easy, was it supposed to be a blowout?” John asks, jokingly referencing them nearly blowing a 22-point lead.

Lewis shakes his head and smiles, equally amused at how close they cut it in his ‘last ride.’ Harbaugh leans in again. “It wasn’t pretty... but it was us,” he says to Lewis with a smile.

“Nothing we ever did was, brother,” Ray responds. “That’s the beauty of it.”

“That’s the beauty of it,” Harbaugh repeats in agreement.

Finding beauty in the struggle. It’s a well-worn cliché at this point, but for good reason, and it’s one that maybe no better sums up the ethos of John William Harbaugh.

Baltimore Ravens vs San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl XLVII
Harbaugh and Lewis share a moment after finally reaching the mountaintop together.
Set Number: X156124 TK1 R1 F146

Born into a football family in Michigan (his Father Jack was an acolyte of Bo Schembechler for Big Blue) it seemed predetermined that someone like John would follow in his father’s footsteps, and indeed he did. After attending Miami of Ohio where he played defensive back, John worked the typical young college coach odd-job path trying to catch on in any way he could, and eventually, he landed his first long-term gig as Cincinnati’s special teams coordinator.

It was there that his star truly began to rise, recalled Jeff Filkovski (a UC grad assistant under Harbaugh at the time) in a 2013 Baltimore Sun article by Jeff Zrebiec:

“I don’t know if anybody could sit there and say, ‘Hey, this guy is going to be an NFL head coach’ or anything like that, but certainly you could tell,” Filkovski said, referring to Harbaugh and Rex Ryan, also on that staff. “They were both sharp and on top of their profession. Cincinnati has produced a lot of those guys. Mike Tomlin was part of the staff following them. Jimbo Fisher is doing pretty well. Not only getting there but keeping the job is what’s most impressive. If you look at Rex and John and even Mike, it’s impressive what they’ve done in keeping their jobs. Obviously, they are worthy.”

And John did prove worthy, eventually. In 1998, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Ray Rhodes, who apparently had a disdain for the machinations of special teams, hired him to serve as the coordinator of that unit for Philly. Following the ’98 season, Rhodes was let go following a disappointing season, and when he was hired in Green Bay, he attempted to bring John along with him to continue to serve as his special teams coordinator; it wouldn’t happen because John, after just one impressive season in the role, was offered to remain in the role in Philly by new Eagles’ head coach Andy Reid.

“I actually knew his dad and knew about John,” Reid said in 2018. “I had heard about John, and Ray Rhodes and I were friends, still are friends, and then Ray had told me about him, what a great coach he was. With all those things, I found out for myself that he’s a phenomenal coach. I have a ton of respect for him.”

It would prove to be the smart move by Reid and the Eagles, who over the course of the next decade would appear in several conference championships, and find themselves a few drives short of winning the Super Bowl in 2004 thanks in part to a rock-solid coaching staff. All along, serving as the special teams guru, John watched and learned as a Hall of Fame type head coaching career was unfolding in front of him, and many other respected careers (namely guys like Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott amongst others) were getting started around him.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Philadelphia Eagles
Andy Reid along with his young special teams guru, John Harbaugh, got a legendary head coaching career started in Philadelphia.

John now looks back on those days as incredibly formative, and he’s appreciative of them and those who gave him the chance to get the experience. Namely, the man who’s the head coach of the team that currently represents the Ravens biggest road block to getting back to the Super Bowl:

“I get asked that a lot, the impact Andy has had on my career, and I’m just grateful,” Harbaugh said ahead of a recent matchup with Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs. “If you start with people that do it the right way – good people, teach you the right things – it just gives you a chance, gives you a leg up, and Andy, for me, was a big part of that in every way. Andy did not have to give me a chance coming in at the time. I’m sure he had a lot of people he knew, but he decided to take a chance on me, and like I said, I’ll be forever grateful for that.”

A Super Bowl winner in 2012, Harbaugh at first seemed to be an example of student surpassing teacher when it came to these two, but after pairing up with Patrick Mahomes, Reid has gone on to get a championship ring of his own, with his Chiefs proving to be the proverbial big brother to John’s Ravens these days. In that regard it would seem things have come full circle, but as would become the case for John when the Ravens came calling following the 2007 season, the underdog role is one that he’s always ready to embrace.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

January 15th, 2008. Ed Werder files the following story to ESPN:

“Source: Ravens make offer to Garrett to be head coach.”

After winning the Super Bowl in 2000, things had gone sour between the Ravens and longtime head coach Brian Billick, who had proven unable to make any noise in the postseason since his landmark victory in Super Bowl XXXV. Baltimore let him go after a disastrous 5-11 effort in 2007, and seeking to bring the franchise forward into a new era, Steve Bisciotti and Ozzie Newsome had their eyes on Jason Garrett, a young offensive innovator who had been groomed in Dallas the prior season under Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips.

SAINTS COWBOYS
A young, energetic offensive mind, the Ravens were likely kicking themselves when Jason Garrett passed on their offer... Years later, it’s still regarded as one of the great sliding doors moments in franchise history.
Photo by Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

So impressed was Baltimore with Garrett that they put an offer on the table for him amidst a competitive market for the young candidate. But with (what would prove to be valid) rumors swirling that Garrett would be replacing Phillips as the leading man in Dallas sooner rather than later, he turned them down. In the wake of being publicly rebuffed by a high profile first choice, you’d think the Ravens next move would be to try and save face with what would be perceived as a safe hire – but Bisciotti, a tech recruiting maverick, and Newsome, the league’s first African American GM, would do anything but follow conventions.

When they turned to their next choice in John Harbaugh, who by that point had taken over as Philly’s defensive backs coach, they were very much bucking the trend of simply hiring the hot offensive or defensive coordinator which they had initially tried to do with Garrett. Pete Gilbert, WBAL’s longtime sports anchor, told me what his initial reaction to hiring was:

“My immediate thought was, isn’t he coaching college? The first of many times for many people to mix up John with his more famous brother Jim. But then, after Jason Garrett turned the Ravens down, John became the focus. I checked with my Philly in-laws who are also rabid Eagles fans and they had great things to say about John, so I was intrigued. But obviously, the idea of hiring a position coach nobody really knew, after getting turned down by the hot coordinator, did not provide a sense of ease for anyone who cared about the team.”

He became the focus indeed, but there was an interesting dynamic upon the hire due to his profile being dwarfed twofold: first by Garrett, who’s decision to spurn the Ravens would cast a shadow on the hiring of John, and also of his brother Jim, who despite being the younger of the two, was the more bombastic and well known of them after a first year coaching in college at blue-blooded Stanford. Regardless, Bisciotti intoned that he had come away impressed by Harbaugh’s interviews and got the impression that Harbaugh would be someone who would be a hot head coaching candidate within the next few years, and in that respect that the Ravens were buying low on someone they felt was sure to be an ascending property.

So there it was: the start of someone’s career who was seen as promising, but had his fair share of detractors due to factors mostly out of his control. But John felt that he had been born to be a head coach, something that Andy Reid alluded to at the time – alas, it wasn’t a pretty, nor perfect process, but it was in Baltimore that he finally got his opportunity.

North Carolina State v Maryland
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti gambled on Harbaugh as his first head coaching hire since becoming Ravens majority owner; that gamble would pay off big time
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

He arrived in Owings Mills at the team’s facility wearing a slate-colored suit to match his dark head of hair, with his wife Ingrid following him, and his daughter in his arms. He signed his contract, embraced his parents like a young man on graduation day, and spent a few minutes with team minority owner Art Modell, telling him he grew up a Browns fan and intimating how excited he was to now represent the organization. He posed for pictures ahead of his introductory press conference, conveying youthful exuberance and polished confidence alike – indeed he was going to need both to rebuild this operation into a winner.

It was all smiles and back claps in the opening days of his tenure, but John was walking into what looked to be something of a challenging position at the time. Inheriting a talented but underachieving squad that was full of big personalities such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs with nothing on the roster in the way of a future at the quarterback position, you wouldn’t have blamed anyone for not expecting much from him at first.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS VS. BALTIMORE RAVENS
Under Brian Billick, some had come to believe the team truly operated under the leadership of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, a sentiment that John Harbaugh was keen to dispel in the early days of his tenure.
Doug Kapustin/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

As would become a theme in his rookie season, and for the rest of his career on balance, Harbaugh wasn’t deterred. Joe Flacco was the pick at quarterback in the 2008 first round for Baltimore, and was expected to start the season on the bench behind Troy Smith, but it was an illness to the latter that forced John to turn to his rookie. An inauspicious start to the season for sure, but it was a season of simultaneous growth and success that saw Baltimore advance all the way to the AFC Championship game with a rookie passer and head coach.

Perhaps a reason for his early success, Pete Gilbert recalls that John had a curiosity about him in those days that was both something we never would’ve seen from his predecessor, and that we wouldn’t likely see in a genuine sense from John himself in 2021:

“In the first season John would often ask reporters opinions on what we thought of practice. Did we think the pace or the energy was good. It was quite a contrast from Brian Billick, who - while engaging with us - certainly didn’t care what we thought of something like that. I’m still not sure if John did that just as a way to build relationships or was actually curious, but the practice didn’t last that long. Now when he asks a question, I know he’s curious for our take, but already believes he has the right answer.”

Whatever his reasoning for showing that curiosity, it served John well early in his career as he advanced to the playoffs in each of his five seasons between 2008 and 2012. It sounds like a dream start (and in reality it was), but it didn’t come without it’s speedbumps. Where Brian Billick had encouraged his players to speak their minds and let their (sometimes volatile) personalities shine through, John was a bit more of a disciplinarian, or at least attempted to be over the course of those first several years.

Perhaps most representative of the old-style swaggering cult-of-Billick-personality was Ed Reed, by then the league’s best safety and a mercurial figure even on the best of days. He and Harbaugh clashed early and often, and in his struggle to bend the team’s mentality towards his way of thinking, John found in Reed a psychological sparring partner who proved to be his match:

“Ed is a great player and a great guy,” Harbaugh said years later. “He studied football, loved it and everything, but he was up and down. He would tell you to this day: When the hood was up and the face was covered up, that was an Ed that you really weren’t going to talk to that day. Other times, he’d come in, he’d smile and he’d be your guy. But we had a lot of clashes early on because Ed didn’t like the way we were doing things, didn’t see it. There were times that we didn’t talk to each other for weeks. I would make a point — I didn’t talk to him because I didn’t really appreciate the way he was treating me and he wasn’t being respectful of the program, and we’d walk by each other and not say hello. But I knew it bothered him. But before that happened, I told him, I said something along the lines of: ‘You may not like me and we may not be doing things the way you think they should be done, but that’s not going to change the way I feel about you, man. I love you.’”

Looking back and knowing what we know now, this interaction is pure Harbaugh: Hardheaded old school football guy meeting a family-centric, sentimental (but still genuine) interaction. That would prove to be the dueling identity dynamic that defined Harbaugh’s first several years in Baltimore.

“It was no doubt a roller coaster the first few seasons as Harbaugh tried to establish credibility and leadership, while the roster was loaded with alphas who loved to push the envelope,” Pete Gilbert said, reflecting on those days. “Ultimately, this is where I think he needs more credit. It all could have ended up like 2007 again if he hadn’t found a way to connect with team leaders. Harbs seemed to learn that the iron fist he witnessed from Bo Shembechler growing up could not succeed in the NFL circa 2008. I think his greatest asset during this time was letting go of being stubborn. If something wasn’t working, he wasn’t afraid to try something else whether on the field or in the locker room, or with his own staff too. Bernard Pollard, for all his physical heroics in 2012, simply did not like John Harbaugh. I think he was emboldened then by Ed Reed also wanting to do more of his own thing. Together they made life hard for John and drove the friction. There are a few stories behind the scenes I was told that I can’t share, but I think more than anything a truce was made but differences remained.”

And this is a dynamic that seemed to have come full circle (and in retrospect perhaps peaked) with Harbaugh’s interaction with Ray Lewis on the dais after winning Super Bowl XLVII. Two hardheaded, top of their profession alpha dogs had achieved all they could achieve together, and in the glow of it all, shared a genuine moment of appreciation for one another. It was in this moment that John Harbaugh no longer had anything to prove… it would be over the course of the next several years that it would come into question whether this was the moment he had lost his edge as well.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

December 31st, 2017. The Ravens have just trudged off the field after one of the worst losses in franchise history, a stunning collapse to the Cincinnati Bengals who made the final score 31-27 after a miracle heave from Andy Dalton on 4th and 12 wound up in the hands of a streaking Tyler Boyd who had inexplicably taken the top off of the Ravens defense.

“To battle our way back the way we did, and then not to be able to finish and win the game is about as tough as it can be,” John Harbaugh said to the media after the game, referencing the fact that their anemic start had given way to a second half charge that should’ve proven to be the difference for Baltimore. But alas, it didn’t.

The coming few weeks would prove to be extremely difficult for the franchise. Calls for Harbaugh’s job came from fans and media alike, and according to a report from Ian Rapoport, other franchises began to call around to gauge if the (by that point) disaffected Super Bowl winning coach would be coming available at some point soon.

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens
On New Years Eve, 2017, one of the most crushing losses in franchise history began to call Harbaugh’s job security into question for the first time ever.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

While these rumors were all struck down, it was still a sad fall from grace for a coach who just four years prior had been hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. How did he go from that, to narrowly missing the playoffs for several years since? In their follow up season after the Super Bowl they were 8-8; they won a playoff game in 2014, but after that, John’s squad finished 5-11 in 2015, 8-8 in 2016, and then 9-7 in 2017, with the devastating loss to the Bengals that cost them a return to the playoffs, and began to truly call Harbaugh’s job security into question.

Some questionable drafting by the front office, questions surrounding the health of Joe Flacco, and a general post-Super Bowl malaise seemed to have crept into every corner of what was at one point one of the league’s tightest ships under Harbaugh. According to Pete Gilbert, it was about halfway through this slump that John began to re-evaluate the way he ran his operation in a more tangible way than he ever had:

“For a few years after winning the Super Bowl, there’s a natural arrogance that comes with it,” he said. “Why not? Every year to the playoffs, 9 road playoff wins, a championship. But then, going through the hell of the 2015 season, an 11 loss campaign that brought on seemingly a new injury and creative way to lose each week, proved humbling. So, I think there became more of a willingness to re-evaluate at all levels. John clearly decided he needed better relationships with his players. He gave more credence to the player’s leadership council and they in turn listened more to him. And unlike during the first few years as head coach, Harbaugh had a resume and credibility that resonated with players. No longer was he the guy who hadn’t even been a coordinator, or played in the league, but was a champion. That made working together far easier.”

John may not have even realized it at the time, but it was the effort to become more open and relatable to his players that would set the stage for the next part of his career. It didn’t produce immediate results, and some followed the line of thinking that if certain things such as a “player council” had the Ravens consistently around the .500 mark, whether his turnaround in attitude and philosophy had been worth making in the first place. This reached a new height after the Week 17 collapse to the Bengals, and as the calendar changed over to 2018, some began to speculate if Harbaugh’s ra-ra mentality and messaging had begun to grow stale.

“It’s a result based business and the playoff wins had dried up,” Gilbert said. “And even though they still won more than they lost, they weren’t all that much fun to watch. Fans were loudly calling for his job, and there were plenty of hot seat columns written. But, I never got the sense that Harbaugh was ever really in trouble.”

And it of course turned out that he wasn’t in any real trouble following the 2017 season, though speculation was abound. One thing had become clear though – serious change was needed, and it would force John (someone who had already made some changes to his philosophy) to be fully on board with bringing the team into an entirely new era.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

By the Spring of 2018, the future of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was as in doubt as it had ever been. A player who even in his best days was fairly streaky had seen the previous highs that had kept him in favor with fans and decision makers alike give way to consistent mediocrity, and there were some in a city that had grown to love Flacco for his postseason heroics that began to vocally intimate that a change was needed. To be fair, Joe hadn’t been surrounded with the help he had needed, but he was also not doing enough to elevate the team around him for the price he was costing them with his hefty contract.

This was a dilemma that was assuredly on the mind of John Harbaugh in those days, and particularly in the Ravens first draft meeting of that year. In it, Dwuane Jones, a Ravens scout responsible for the Midwest, is called upon to provide his evaluation of a young, dynamic quarterback he seems to be very excited about.

“This guy has made plays,” he tells the room, including all the Ravens top decision makers. “He elevated a program on his shoulders. He brought people up around him. He’s explosive, he’s a great kid. I want the kid. I want Lamar. I think he’ll be a good Raven.”

He’s of course referring to Lamar Jackson, the electrifying 2016 Heisman Trophy winner who was already dividing opinions and defying norms in the draft process. In defiance of certain expert opinions that he should switch positions, Jackson refused to run the 40-yard dash at the combine; in an even more subversive move, he operated without the help of an agent. All of that combined with a low Wonderlic score, a polarizing playing style, and an all-around unconventional image for what people think a franchise quarterback should look like made Jackson one of the most interesting prospects in the entire draft.

Louisville v Kentucky
With an unconventional playing style and aytpical image for a quarterback, Lamar Jackson was as divisive a prospect as the Ravens had maybe ever considered - that they chose to select him is partially a credit to Harbaugh.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Opinions varied as to whether he should’ve gone top ten or fallen out of the first round altogether. Eric DeCosta, then the team’s assistant General Manager, kept careful note of Jackson and his scout’s thoughts on him as he was set to takeover as full-time GM in less than a year – he recalls a change at quarterback as something both he and the rest of the brass hadn’t gone into that draft process expecting, but something they were open to.

“It was hard as a decision-maker to picture Lamar as our quarterback because he’s so different from Joe,” he said. “But when the scouts talked about him, there was such an enthusiasm in their voices. They were really, really, really effusive in their praise, so my interest was piqued.”

Presumably, this was how Harbaugh was processing all of this as well. As he had learned from his father and Bo Schembechler growing up, loyalty was everything, and he and Flacco had been through thick and thin together since almost day one of his journey in Baltimore.

Wild Card Round - San Diego Chargers v Baltimore Ravens
Despite his struggles being clear, Joe Flacco was Harbaugh’s guy through and through, and a change at quarterback would essentially be putting John back at square one.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

A few weeks prior to the ’18 draft, another meeting has convened, and the team’s leadership is discussing the idea of pulling the trigger on a quarterback and officially moving into a post-Flacco world; Baker Mayfield’s name had come up often, but it was becoming clear that he wouldn’t be available, leaving the discussion to center entirely around Jackson who they also loved. Ultimately, the decision comes down to organizational philosophy upon which Bisciotti has built it to operate: that those in charge of actually running the football team make the final decisions in situations like this. In that respect, it comes down to the final endorsement of John Harbaugh.

The man who had been hired based upon his old-school Rockefelleresque charisma, and made his name thanks in part to the success of the staid and sturdy Joe Flacco at quarterback was facing the decision of a lifetime. Having built his program with a hardheaded style that led to clashes with some of his more eccentric players several years ago, it wouldn’t be a surprise if John, a traditional Midwesterner who built his name on special teams and great defensive play wouldn’t want anything to do with a change as radical as Jackson would represent. But this was a different man than the one who had been hired a decade ago, and even from the one who had hoisted the Lombardi.

This was a new John Harbaugh, one willing to embrace change, and empower his players. More curious than he was judgmental, this John Harbaugh (despite lacking the postseason success he had once consistently enjoyed) had slowly embraced the idea of fluidity and modernity.

“If we draft Lamar, I’m good with that,” he tells the room. “We can build an offense around him. We’ll play great special teams, great defense and be a ball-control offense. We’ll build a big, physical offensive line. We’ll get physical running backs. We’ll block on the perimeter. We’ll run all the elements of the college offense. We’ll do something different.”

Adapt or die. And the Ravens under Harbaugh would in fact adapt. A few weeks later after some trade creativity, Baltimore selected Jackson 32nd overall, officially ushering in said new era.

But the question still remained: would it all work? Could they actually build a team around someone like Jackson? And more importantly, had the newer, softer around the edges version of John lost that “us-against-the-world” fire that his family had raised him to utilize to his advantage? He, and the rest of Baltimore, were about to find out.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

November 18th, 2018. A week earlier, CBS had reported that the Ravens and John Harbaugh were heading for a “mutual parting of ways” following a demoralizing home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Joe Flacco had started off the season with a hot hand, but as had often been the case in the post Super Bowl Harbaugh years, a strong start had given way to an almost inexplicable downturn, and the Ravens found themselves at 4-5 heading into the bye week.

It was over that bye week that John had a decision to make. In the loss to the Steelers, Flacco had injured his hip and John could either go to backup Robert Griffin III, or attempt fully turn the engine over by making the switch to Lamar Jackson. Seeing a 1 PM home game against the Cincinnati Bengals (the very team that had knocked Baltimore from the playoffs and sent them onto their vision quest that ultimately landed them Jackson), Harbaugh saw an opportunity to get the rookie off to a nice start.

According to Pete Gilbert, they were significantly jumping the gun on their initial timetable, but with Harbaugh’s fate possibly already sealed, it essentially came down to one question: “Why not?”

“The plan was to wait until 2019. If Joe Flacco stayed healthy, and remember, while 4-5 they weren’t a bad team, just a few bad breaks, he would have started all the way through. But the injury forced the time table, and once everyone saw not only how electric Lamar was on the field, but how his teammates responded to him, there was no going back.”

Lamar was electric indeed. Baltimore ran by the Bengals in a 24-21 victory in which Jackson topped 100 rushing yards in his debut as starting QB, and the Ravens, for the first time in weeks, played inspired football. Marlon Humphrey made a critical fourth down stop to win it, and the Ravens walked off the field as winners for the first time in over a month.

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens
In the first start of his career, Jackson was deployed by Harbaugh as little more than a wishbone quarterback - his hard running and efficient passing were enough to get Baltimore the win, and keep him in the driver’s seat moving forward.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

After the win, they were a mere 5-5, just .500 in a competitive AFC. With a rookie quarterback in the lineup and an uphill climb ahead of him, the previous question about whether John Harbaugh had lost his fire was about to be answered. To Baltimore’s locker room though, it became clear immediately after that game that their coach wasn’t ready to pack it in.

Following his players into the locker room after a narrow victory that if anything had simply just kept his team in the hunt, the former Super Bowl winning head coach celebrated as if he had just hoisted the trophy for a second time:

“YEAH! YEAH!” he shouted. Harkening back to his old mantra, the presumed to be all-but-gone coach reflected on the identity that he had built in his decade plus with the team: “That was a Ravens victory. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t pretty, but it was the Ravens! Because the Ravens fight.” Beginning to feel it even further, he paces the room. “Remember that thing from yesterday, what did it say?” he asks, with rumbles of “good” returning from around the room. “Good! Good!” he confirms. “We lined up the wrong way on 4th down and 1! Good!” The players shout it back and laugh amongst themselves, half-inspired, half-amused at Harbaugh whipping himself into another spell after a mid-season victory... but he wasn’t done. “Lamar scrambling around, threw a pick? GOOD!” The players shout this one in unison with him, feeling it a bit now themselves. “We got down to the three yard line,” he says, shouting at this point. “I don’t even know what the hell happened, kicked a field goal? GOOD!” The players have fully bought in and are chanting it along with him, and now John is fully feeling himself: “What else happened?” he asks. “Oh, we had a kickoff return, whatever the hell happened, we get the ball at the nine yard line? GOOD!” He’s emphatically pumping his fist as he shouts “good” by this point, part motivational speaker, part footballing pied-piper, and the locker room is captive to his display. “Oh, too many men! They get a third down conversion, get the ball in scoring range! GOOD! … We got ‘em backed up to the NINE, YARD, LINE to win the game... the tight end runs a little shake route, high ass throw, he comes down with the SPECTACULAR CATCH! GOOD!He windmills his right arm for emphasis, and keeps it going. “What else happened? GIMME SOMETHING ELSE!”

After that last line, he begins jumping up and down and the whole locker room joins in, fully relishing in the thrill of victory, even if it all feels a bit tenuous. Jackson and fellow rookie Gus Edwards had led the way for Baltimore big time on that day, and if Harbaugh was presumably gone, it was good for those in the team’s plans (and the fanbase at large) to know that they might just be in good hands after John exited stage left in a few months. As it turns out they would be, but it was partially thanks to the emergence of those players, and the steely resolve he had developed over the years that Harbaugh would ultimately be going nowhere.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

January, 2021. John Harbaugh sits in front of the team’s presser backdrop for his end of season zoom call with the media. He’s dressed to what could aptly be described as “cool dad core” with a gray flannel over a black t-shirt to match his salt and pepper hair, and a darkly colored Maryland flag face mask and some stylish reading glasses adorning his face. It’s been over two years since CBS had reported he and Baltimore were heading for a mutual breakup. Over the course of those two years, the Ravens have lost 11 football games in two and a half seasons, including playoffs.

It’s by now that despite some of Baltimore’s documented struggles in the postseason following the Lamar Jackson era truly kicking off that John feels as secure in his position as he has since the glory days of Joe Flacco. It shows in his press conference that day. When asked about a familiar problem that he had faced over his entire tenure, and was now seeing reach a fever pitch – that would be the team’s seemingly eternal struggles to address the wide receiver position – he pushes back.

“I’m not going to worry about convincing anybody to do something,” he says. “I’m not going to beg anybody to be here. I’m not a college coach and I don’t have to recruit anybody. You want to win? You want to be part of a great organization, and you want to be part of a team? And you love coming to work every day and you’re a football player and you love football and want to play in the AFC North, then come here. If you don’t, if you’re all about stats and numbers and your stat line and how many balls you catch, and that’s all you care for, then there’s a lot of other teams you can go play for and we’d be looking forward to running up against you.”

The comments draw the ire of fans and media alike, and gasoline is poured on the flames when Eric DeCosta (now a few years into his tenure as full time GM) tells the media he’s “insulted” by the lack of faith in the team’s young receiving corps. The two men have struck a united front, seemingly determined to build the team in their image, and not the least bit shy about the chips that adorn their shoulders about it. At least, that’s what they’d have you believe.

After having already inked Sammy Watkins to a contract to serve as their number one wideout, DeCosta doubles down on the wide receiver position for his third draft in a row, selecting Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman and Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace, two media darlings at the position in their own right. DeCosta and Harbaugh had played the poker game perfectly. Publicly it was fire and brimstone, old school football guys who were adamant in their convictions, and not afraid to say it – privately however, they operated with a modern sensibility, checking their priors and continuing to seek out solutions where they maybe wouldn’t have several years ago.

Since Lamar Jackson had taken over at quarterback, something had demonstrably changed in Harbaugh. While he was still willing to get into it with the media, and some of the Schembechler fire-and-brimstone impunity would (and will always) continue to live within him, he had begun to soften a bit. It shows in this interaction with 2020 rookie running back J.K. Dobbins, akin to a Father who’s seen the world a bit, and while he clearly expects much of Dobbins, he also wasn’t afraid to him how much he was invested in his professional and personal success:

At one point, John had been infamous for sending running backs to the “dog house” after a fumble. Now, he was embracing the mistake, picking up his young talent from it, (quite literally) dusting him off, and sending him back out onto the field to score when the opportunity presented itself. Early in his tenure with the team he had told Ed Reed that despite their disagreements, he still loved him; now, with both his words, and his actions, he’s showing this to his players one game (and small moment) at a time.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

He still has, and always likely will have, his fair share of his detractors. There are those who lament the fact that he’s not as much of an X’s and O’s wizard like his former mentor Andy Reid. Some believe that Harbaugh isn’t willing enough to look introspectively at his and the team’s issues, and that in order to reach the promised land with Jackson, he’ll need some self-examination into what’s gone wrong in the playoffs over the last several years.

To some extent, these complaints may carry some weight, but they’re contradicted by some of things that John has done over the last few years. Turning to Jackson would be one example; embracing analytics during the 2019 season would be another. Most recently, his comments about the wide receiver position ahead of the offseason kicking off had many concerned that his philosophies were growing stale... but the proof of addressing the position just a few weeks and months later would wind up to be in the pudding.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Washington Football Team
First making a name with Flacco a decade ago, Harbaugh has now started back over at the position with Lamar Jackson, and the two seem poised for greatness together.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Now entering his 14th year with the team, Harbaugh has invented and re-invented himself a number of times over the course of his career with the Ravens. It hasn’t always been pretty or perfect, something that was most true amidst the doldrums of three straight seasons without a playoff berth, or the last several years when Baltimore has bowed out of the postseason. But Pete Gilbert believes that it was the combination of his humility to re-evaluate how he relates to his players, and it’s connections with his old school underdog mentality that will have the Ravens at the razor’s edge under his watchful eye for years to come:

“All you have to do is listen to Jimmy Smith talk about Harbaugh to understand how the players largely view him,” he said, referring to John having the at times embattled veteran player’s back. “Harbaugh demands effort and respect. If you provide that he will do everything he can for you. It extends to off the field issues as well. The players know and understand that, which makes for an unusually healthy NFL dynamic. Assuming a contract extension for Lamar and relative health, he and Harbaugh will enjoy a lengthy marriage. John believes in Lamar the way we all hope someone believes in us. Harbaugh could have gone back to Joe Flacco in the playoff game against the Chargers. He stuck with Lamar, something I know meant an awful lot to Jackson. Having that kind of big picture thinking, while in the heat of a playoff game, is why they will find a way to navigate the pitfalls of the NFL together for years to come.”

Innovation and re-invention where it’s least expected. An us-against-the-world mentality. Beauty in the struggle. These are all the things (combined with plenty else that we’re not privy to) that have made John Harbaugh what he is today: A Baltimore sporting legend still well within the throes of a story that has plenty of chapters left to be written, if he has anything to say about it.

Ensuring these chapters are full of success (especially in terms of a Championship) will be difficult. His old sensei in Andy Reid sits atop an already competitive AFC with the Chiefs, a team that has proven to be more than just the Ravens match, but their boogeyman. Unseating them anytime soon won’t be easy, and it will take all that John has and likely more to finally do it.

I can’t say for sure, but I have an inkling that Harbaugh would have one word to say about all the challenges that doing so will present to him and his players.

“Good.”