Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has made it clear to his team:
"We're not 'defending' a league title… we are going all out to win a league title again…"
There's a difference. Harbaugh knows that so many circumstances change during a typical NFL offseason, you don't have the luxury of declaring yourself a "defender" of the crown…
You're a different team. All your opponents are changing rosters in key spots, too. Everyone is in effect brand new— and immune from past history.
Harbaugh, age 50, is well on his way to carrying out his 2008-era job-interview vision of molding a dynasty team in Baltimore. His mind has been fixed on building a champion since that first interview – probably even long before then. Almost six months since hoisting his first Lombardi Trophy, the Ravens head coach is as driven as ever to keep his team on the summit.
“Now we are legitimately a step closer to building what we’re talking about building,” he said. “That’s always been the idea. The idea is to build that dynasty. That’s always been what we’ve said we’re trying to accomplish here and that was the ultimate mission.”
Harbaugh has fit perfectly with the Ravens, which makes it easy to forget that the decision to hire him went against some conventional wisdom. Baltimore was his first head coaching job at any level, and he had not been an NFL offensive or defensive coordinator. Owner Steve Bisciotti said at the time that “you have to take chances in life to be successful” and that he liked a coach who had to “earn his resume.”
But the great thing about Harbaugh is he doesn't take himself too seriously.
"I will tell you and any other Ravens reporter that cares to listen," Harbs told the Machine… "Last year doesn't matter anymore. We don't defend a title—we have to get after another one."
He has guided the Ravens to five straight playoff appearances, three AFC championship games and a Super Bowl title. The team has won at least one playoff game in each of those seasons, and Harbaugh’s 63 total wins over that stretch is tied for the best mark in the league.
Harbaugh has established himself as one of the top coaches in the NFL, and he still has bigger goals to accomplish – namely bringing more championships to Baltimore.
“It’s entered my mind since the first day of getting hired here,” Harbaugh said about the idea of winning multiple Super Bowls. “It’s constantly on your mind. It’s always been on my mind.”
“If you’re going to be successful, you have to develop your relationships with your top players, and your leaders and veterans especially,” Harbaugh said. “You have to have the ability to share and partner with your top players in the process of becoming a great team. If you don’t have that, there’s no way you can be successful.”
The cultural change Harbaugh brought to the program – a “change of character and integrity,” Ray Lewis said in 2008 – was stark and recognizable. The immediate, most striking change for the players was the practice routine. Training camp practices were long and physical, and privately some of the veterans had reservations about the new system.
Former Raven Matt Stover, an 18-year veteran in 2008, recalls going to Harbaugh to express some of the team’s concerns.
“You’re going to have to trust me,” Stover remembers Harbaugh telling him.
Stover relayed that message to the locker room and Harbaugh remained consistent in his approach, and over the next few weeks the team got on board with their new coach.
“We bought in,” Stover said. “And we made it to the AFC championship that year.”
Lewis and Reed were two of those veterans who supported Harbaugh.
“The guys in that organization embraced John when he came,” father Jack Harbaugh said. “Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were two guys who embraced John and what he was doing.”
When this offseason came, Lewis retired and Reed signed with the Houston Texans. Their departures ushered in a new era in the franchise’s 17-year history. The icons Harbaugh inherited are now gone, leaving him and the players he’s brought to Baltimore to continue the legacy.
“It all comes to an end,” Harbaugh said. “That’s just the nature of it, in life, and professionally, and in football. It’s an experience that we all have, all the time, in every area of our life. And you move onto the next thing.”
When Harbaugh steps in front of his team to open training camp next week, it will be the first time in his tenure he’ll address the full group without Lewis or Reed looking back at him. Outsiders will wonder whether he can maintain the same level of success without his two future Hall of Famers.
“It’s different,” Harbaugh said. “But it’s always different. Every year is different."
Harbaugh has a unique ability to connect with players. He talks with them about their children and wives, and spends time with the practice squad just like the stars. He’ll challenge them with a grueling practice, but then he’ll walk off the field with his arm around a player’s shoulder. Harbaugh will take feedback and has an open-door policy with everyone on the roster.
Like most coaches, Harbaugh has gone through tense moments with his team. There have been blow-ups and arguments. The difference between Harbaugh and most head coaches, Stover said, is that he’ll make amends.
“Most coaches will blow up and they won’t apologize for anything,” Stover said. “John understands it. He’s not too prideful. That’s a real man.”
The Ravens were just days removed from winning Super Bowl XLVII. Harbaugh had taken down his younger brother and was one of the biggest stars in the sports world. He was flooded with requests for interviews, speaking engagements and late-night talk show gigs.
But the coach was more interested in getting back to work, preparing for the scouting combine. The draft was just a few months away. As much as possible, Harbaugh wanted to stick to his routine.
“I don’t think anything changes,” he said.
That singular focus has kept Harbaugh from getting caught up in the spoils of victory and pressure of his own success. Some coaches talk about the weight of success – and stress to sustain it – bearing down on them year after year.
Harbaugh doesn’t see it that way.
“I never give pressure much thought,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve never thought about pressure, per se. I don’t even know what that really means.”
“I don’t think pressure is a word that he has in his vocabulary,” his father added.
It’s not just pressure that can get to a coach. Part of the challenge with staying on top of the sport is the trap of complacency. Coaches and players can become victims of their own success, and start to believe all the praise they garner.
After winning a Super Bowl, Harbaugh’s competitive fire is still burning bright as ever.
“No question about it,” Jack said. “He’s someone that wants to be the best.”
Harbaugh is now heading into his sixth training camp in Baltimore with the same mindset and approach that he’s always embraced. He is still carrying out the vision he laid out in that very first job interview. And he still has his eyes set on more Lombardi Trophies.
“I love it as much now as I did five years ago, maybe even more,” Harbaugh said. “Every day is so valuable and every single day has such an impact. That’s what makes it so exciting.
“It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a cool challenge."