Chapter 1: Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss

January 12, 2018 | Nestor Aparicio

next-door neighbors in the workspace in Owings Mills. “It’s a tangible expression as to what we’re going to be about as a football team,” Harbaugh said. “It’s human nature, right? In any business or social setting we tend to hang around the people we’re most comfortable with. As people, we’re cliquey. The offensive line hangs with the offensive line. And that goes on all over the team. It’s natural. But we want defensive backs next to offensive lineman and special teamers next to the quarterbacks and linebackers next to running backs. I want them to say, ‘That’s my brother. That’s my locker guy. That’s my guy.’

“It isn’t earth-shattering. To me, it makes perfect sense. I want the guys to know one another and learn to trust one another.”

At every level, Harbaugh’s message was about “family” and “trust.” And there were more than a few references to God and spirituality. To some ears, after the years of the transparent candor and psychology of Billick and the “he treats us like men” mentality, the new Harbaugh mantra was collegiate if not Old Testament in some ways. For many veteran players, they initially saw this as an almost high school sort of mentality that they didn’t understand or want to participate in at first.

Harbaugh started calling his group “mighty men” in chatting with the media. It was so hokey, so 1950’s Beaver Cleaver-esque, that it was immortalized with a whole set of stitched gear that said “53 Mighty Men” in purple that was gifted to the players when they made the squad. Harbaugh’s use of it was later explained as a biblical metaphor for David’s Mighty Men, something that offensive assistant Craig Ver Steeg brought to him in 2008. It caught on and the players loved the swag and wore it constantly. It was like an Owings Mills uniform of sorts during lounge time.

As you can imagine, changing a group of 53 “mighty men” led by several multi-millionaires and future Hall of Famers who just participated in getting their head coach fired was not the most pliable group to deal with for Harbaugh in the early going. As much as his message made sense in an ethical and righteous way, it wasn’t tremendously different than what Billick wanted in 2007. But the deposed coach didn’t fight with the veteran players on their wishes as long as they showed up and played hard on Sunday. Billick was known as the ultimate “player’s coach” in regard to easier practices, plenty of rest for veterans and a laissez faire attitude toward the militaristic side of clothing requirements or curfews. Billick took care of the players’ bodies, and the veterans in particular always seemed to appreciate it. He trusted the players.

Billick was proud of his “act like men and we’ll treat you like men” philosophy, which won him a Super Bowl with a responsible, veteran group in 2000 led by Hall of Famers like Shannon Sharpe and Rod Woodson who acted as policemen and leaders among the soldiers.

But that group was long gone by 2008 and Harbaugh inherited a locker room that featured future Hall of Famer Ed Reed putting his locker literally around the corner in the last stall of the facility past all of the developmental squad players who never made it to the field. Reed was by his nature very moody and oft-times detached from the scene and rarely addressed the media or had strong interactions with his teammates. Harbaugh had huge expectations already set by Ray Lewis coming to the end of his era in Baltimore and a pending huge payday coming for Terrell Suggs, who struggled with maturity at every level. Harbaugh also inherited a room with an aging, cranky Chris McAlister, who had already made more than $40 million playing football and whose attitude rubbed Harbaugh the wrong way, especially considering his salary cap number.

“He inherited a divided team,” one Ravens’ executive said. “There were agendas in the building.”

Most of the money and most of the talent was on the defensive side of the ball and it had taken a decade to build up that base and that reputation. But in Rex Ryan, Harbaugh had a coaching staff ally that already had a deep relationship with half of the team but trying to change the rules after a decade of one system and one set of expectations was hard enough, but finding a way to manage Ryan was its own challenge given their mutual desire for control.

“I liked Rex, and we always had a good relationship,” Harbaugh said. “Keeping the defensive system was essential and the easy part, but it was difficult at first because of the players. In some ways, for some of the guys who had been there, if they did it my way they were kind of being disloyal to Rex so we were always trying to get a buy in from some guys.”

Some guys, like McAlister, who Billick always had trouble reigning in, never bought in and were quickly jettisoned by Harbaugh. And other guys like Todd Heap and Matt Stover were big fans of Billick and were upset that he had been so summarily dismissed.

Meanwhile there was a pervasive arrogance on the defensive side of the ball, and it was easy to blame the offense for losing because