There will be story after story about the Harbaugh brothers over the next two weeks, but I’m not really fit to offer any analysis on the one who coaches the 49’ers because I don’t follow and cover them every single day during the season.
But I can certainly contribute a thought or two on John, the one who has just led the Ravens to their first Super Bowl since 2000.
What we’ve seen this season, particularly since the December 16 home drubbing at the hands of Denver, is as fine a piece of coaching work as you’ll ever see anyone do in the NFL.
And Sunday night in New England, Harbaugh and his team produced one of the best thirty minutes in his five years at the helm in Baltimore, outscoring the Patriots 21-0 en route to the AFC crown.
Those two elements – Harbaugh’s knack for leading men and his big-game players making huge plays in season-changing moments – have put him over the top in terms of NFL coaches.
Make no mistake about this: John Harbaugh is one helluva football coach.
Members of the media don’t often get a chance to share a private post-game moment with the coaches. They’re ushered in and out of the main media press conference room and shuttled to another obligation in such a fashion that, unlike the players, you rarely get an opportunity to spend a minute or two of one-on-one time.
Following last season’s heartbreaker in New England, I was walking out of the Ravens locker room through an area in the back that I thought would lead me to the main corridor when I literally made a wrong turn and walked smack into the team’s coaching dressing area. There sat John, along with Cam Cameron and Chuck Pagano. He looked up at me, eyes red, and said, “Hey, Drew, thanks for coming.” We shook hands and I said, “You’re a terrific football coach.” That’s what was in my heart to say, at the moment, because it’s what I believed then, and still believe now. We small-talked for a moment and then he said, “You know, this will somehow make us better. We won’t retreat because of this, I promise. We’ll be back next year.”
Last night after the game, I saw Harbaugh as he was making the rounds talking to his players and staffers. “Thanks for coming,” he said again. That’s his favorite saying, I think, but it’s the way he starts every press conference or media gathering and I don’t believe it’s just a throw-away line he uses like some would say, “How have you been?”
We spoke for a few minutes on Sunday night. For now, I’ll keep the contents of that conversation private, but I reminded Harbaugh that a year ago in that very same room he vowed his team wouldn’t retreat because of the stunning loss to the Patriots. “Yeah, I remember that!” he said, and the smile on his face was sincere.
That the Ravens didn’t retreat in 2012 is about John Harbaugh and his belief in God, hard work, staying the course and, having really good players come through at the right time.
As any player will tell you, the best coaches are the ones who can juggle all the locker room elements and keep – as best as humanly possible – harmony among men from varying backgrounds.
There are players who feel intensely connected to God or their faith and some who aren’t as open about it or even interested in making it part of their profile. Harbaugh has allowed his players to dictate how much religion has played a part in his team’s day-to-day happenings. This Ravens team seems – to me, anyway – to be a little more “faith based” than others in the Harbaugh era, so he naturally gives more time to players who wish to promote their spiritual beliefs within the locker room.
Some coaches might not allow that type of freedom, especially if that coach wasn’t religious in nature, but Harbaugh has always allowed his players to determine the environment they work in on a daily basis.
There’s no better example of that than the bye week, where the Ravens were coming off of a 43-13 thrashing in Houston. Harbaugh wanted to practice the players in pads before they all took off for their various vacations and so forth, but the veterans wanted no part of an intense, grueling practice session. Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed were among two elder statesmen who got the coach’s ear and asked him – strongly, as the story goes – to reconsider the “padded practice” idea. John could have easily said to them, “Guys, I’m the coach here. We just got walloped in Houston. You guys are all getting ready to head out of town for a few days. Let’s end this with one good, hard practice to get us back in the groove of physical football.” That’s what he COULD have said. Instead, he relented, allowing his players to make the call and, at the same time, gaining an incredible amount of respect from his men.
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