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New Sheriff In Town

January 22, 2008
John Harbaugh's reign as Ravens coach will definitely be different

By Joe Platania
PressBox Staff 

It should come as no surprise to any adult to hear that young people are always wanting things. Children want puppies for their birthdays and the newest video game for Christmas. High schoolers not only want cars for their 16th birthdays, they want the hottest, sportiest ones around. College kids want money, dates and high-paying jobs as soon as they set foot off campus.

Forty-five-year-old John Harbaugh, hired as the third Baltimore Ravens head coach, is still a kid by coaching standards. However, he has displayed plenty of adult savvy the past couple of years.


John Harbaugh
(Sabina Moran/PressBox)
Harbaugh had coached the Philadelphia Eagles' special teams units for nine years before taking over the defensive backs in 2007. At first, this might have seemed like a demotion, because coaching one position as opposed to coordinating an entire unit might seem like less work.

In reality, Harbaugh wanted to better position himself to be a head coaching candidate, taking on less responsibility in order to get more.

"I had a great time coaching the secondary," Harbaugh said last Saturday after he was introduced by Ravens majority owner Steve Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass and general manager Ozzie Newsome. "But special teams [coaching] is a unique situation. You're handling the entire team every day, and you get to work with the young guys. You're building the foundation for your team."

That's usually done with young players. While it has been said that youth is wasted on the young, new coaches aren't letting their talents go to waste in the NFL these days. The days of rumpled old men in topcoats striding the sidelines like sentries are long gone. It's all about clean-cut, sharp-looking hipsters anxious to make their mark on the league as soon as is humanly possible.

Under-40 types such as Oakland's Lane Kiffin (32), Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin (35) and the New York Jets' Eric Mangini (37) -- a former Ravens assistant -- are what teams want these days.

It's also important to remember that former Ravens coach Brian Billick was only 44 years old when he was hired, the same age currently shared by another Super Bowl-winning coach (Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden), two others who have come within one game of a Super Bowl (New Orleans' Sean Payton, Green Bay's Mike McCarthy) and another who could get there in the near future (Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio, a former Baltimore assistant).

As far as coaches go, all of the above have the same kind of ambitions and dreams held by young people in all fields. But in football, it's not always about what the coach wants, it's about the organization's goals as well. 

HARBAUGH'S GOALS

What the 18-day coaching search showed is that the Ravens want something new to come to mind whenever their name is mentioned or their logo is displayed.

With Harbaugh at the helm, the team's wants and needs fall under three main categories: 

1. YOUTH

It has often been said that a team is the reflection of its coach, so the Billick-type veteran swagger is likely to be removed from the roster sooner rather than later. The team has 14 players over the age of 30, a malady that is especially hitting hard on the squad's trademark defense.

However, it already appears the Ravens are getting younger at quarterback, running back, wideout and along the offensive line. This could translate into the kind of locker room that won't be old or cocky enough to make life difficult for Harbaugh, a much-discussed point of contention.

Coming off a 5-11 season, the younger Ravens will realize that it would serve them much better to acquiesce to what the new coach wants, rather than follow the time-worn, anachronistic message from on-the-field leaders whose time has come and will soon be gone.

That said, Bisciotti believes longtime Ravens such as linebacker Ray Lewis will be on board with Harbaugh.

"He's truly one of the greatest leaders," Bisciotti said of Lewis. "Leaders rise to the top and when he hears about [Harbaugh's hiring], he'll be thinking, 'What can I do to help this coach?' [Harbaugh] will be thanking his lucky stars that he has [Lewis]." 

2. CLASS

Harbaugh not only has a reputation as a diligent worker who crosses every “T” and dots every “I,” but he comes from a sports-minded family that has conducted itself with class and dignity for more than four decades.

That's because it has been through many trials and baptisms by fire.

Harbaugh's brother, Jim, quarterbacked the Ravens in 1998 and endured countless harangues from Mike Ditka on the Chicago Bears' sidelines for seven years in the late ’80s and early ’90s. 

Last fall, in his first major college head coaching job, Jim Harbaugh led Stanford to a tremendous road upset win over USC as his team scored a late touchdown to beat the 41 point-favored Trojans.

Father Jack led young men onto football fields countless times, culminating in a Division I-AA Bowl Championship Subdivision national championship at Western Kentucky in 2002 after coaching many years at Western Michigan.

The Harbaughs also had someone marry into their clan with similar traits; John Harbaugh’s brother-in-law, Tom Crean, is the basketball coach at Marquette University.

"We've had lots of great talks around the holiday [dinner] tables," John Harbaugh said. "My brother was on a recruiting trip to Grand Rapids, Mich., when I told him the news [about getting hired], and there was a lot of screaming on the other end." 

3. DETAIL

Despite his youth, his voice sports a distinct raspy weariness, born of years of "getting in guys' faces," according to current and former Eagles with first-hand experience of Harbaugh's techniques. 

Harbaugh will need to pay attention to detail, focus and execution. These were three of Billick's hallmarks, and they translated into four playoff appearances, two division titles and a Super Bowl win over his nine years on the job. However, that same kind of nose-to-the-grindstone approach was missing the last few years.

It was most noticeable last season when the team prepared to make its first regular season trip to Buffalo. Instead of focusing on that week's game, Billick and many of his players instead talked endlessly about the injured players that would not be there and their availability to play in Pittsburgh after the upcoming bye week.

The Ravens lost the first game despite having a good opportunity to win it and got drubbed in the Steel City before a national audience.

As a special teams coordinator, Harbaugh has had to help juggle personnel on every position unit in order to suit his own needs, so he is aware of the probable needs of each of his assistants.

In recent years, younger coaches have often been found to be better at delegating duties. That is why the makeup of Harbaugh's staff, due to take shape within the next week, will be key. 

STAFF MAKEUP

Fans who may be concerned that the offensively challenged Ravens hired a coach with a defensive and special teams background need to consider this: With such a hire, it will enable the next offensive coordinator to act with more autonomy than Matt Cavanaugh, Jim Fassel and Rick Neuheisel had under Billick.

Harbaugh does have one overriding offensive philosophy.

"We'll be tough," he said. "We'll be physical, we'll be disciplined and we'll play really hard."

Billick did allow previous coordinators to call plays, but there was always an underlying sense that he wanted his Ravens offense to resemble his record-setting 1998 Minnesota Vikings. That unit scored 556 points, a record that stood until this season’s New England Patriots broke it with 589.

That became evident when Billick took over the play calling after the 2006 bye week. From that point on, the offense performed as the league's seventh best unit, and the Ravens finished at 13-3.

However, the men seen as Harbaugh's two main candidates for the offensive coordinator's job are able to bring more balance to the equation. That could be a perfect tonic for a team undergoing a change to a more passing-oriented offense and a more athletic, versatile offensive line.

The two main candidates are former Miami Dolphins head coach and San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and current Philadelphia quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur, son of the late Green Bay defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur.

It was under Cameron's tutelage that quarterback Philip Rivers and the Chargers had their best year in recent memory, going 14-2 in 2006 and earning the top AFC playoff seed. The Chargers were able to throw downfield and ride the legs of stud running back LaDainian Tomlinson to that year's success.

Cameron was also head coach at Indiana University in 1997 when Harbaugh was the defensive backs/special teams coach.

As for Shurmur, he was running the Eagles' quarterbacking corps for three of Donovan McNabb's five Pro Bowl seasons. In his previous role as tight ends coach, he was able to oversee Chad Lewis' three Pro Bowl seasons and watch the passing game prosper through play-action fakes and numerous tosses to versatile running back Brian Westbrook.

On the defensive side of the ball, former Ravens coordinator Rex Ryan has helped build a unit that has led the league in most major categories since the 2000 Super Bowl season.

However, Ryan, who talked to San Diego about its opening after Marty Schottenheimer was fired early last year, is the only candidate asked back to the Atlanta Falcons for a second interview for their vacant head coaching job. 
Upon introducing Harbaugh, Bisciotti specifically stated that he would welcome Ryan back for another season as defensive coordinator if he did not land the Atlanta job. He  added that he hoped Ryan would get his head coaching opportunity.

"I coached at Morehead State and he coached at Eastern Kentucky," Harbaugh said jokingly of Ryan. "The only reason he won is because he had better players than we did."

Another candidate could be current Chargers linebackers coach, former Philadelphia assistant and ex-Chicago backup linebacker Ron Rivera.

Rivera played nine years for the Bears and would be the second member of that team's vaunted 1985 defense to work in Baltimore, Mike Singletary being the first. 

IT'S HIS TURN

Youngsters are often prodded by their parents to clean their plates before they leave the table. All in all, Harbaugh has a rather full one to deal with in Baltimore.

He has to prove that despite his age and lack of head coaching experience, he can be an effective and credible leader.

"I was looking for a leader," Bisciotti said. "I was looking for a guy that I could look at and say, 'This is someone I want standing in front of my team.' "

He has to show that, despite the salary cap vagaries that every team's roster goes through, he can get the Ravens back into contention and keep them there for as long as possible. The fact that only one of last year's starters, linebacker Terrell Suggs, is headed for free agency should help Harbaugh get off to a flying start. 

He has to maintain the same kind of winning expectations the Ravens' organization has placed on this team while dissipating the sometimes embarrassing on-the-field aura that has long surrounded the squad. But in a town like Baltimore, what resonates the most is the ability to work hard and get the players used to hard work.

"It's about core fundamentals," Harbaugh said. "We'll play hard, do the right thing, take care of one another, and you'll be OK."

Parents will understand that these aren't unreasonable requests. 

For all that's happened to them, the Ravens haven't even turned 13 yet -- and there's so much more they want.

Issue 3.4: January 24, 2008