When the Baltimore Ravens showed up for work on Halloween morning, coach John Harbaugh presented them with a piece of news that was the football equivalent of passing out parched apple slices to trick-or-treaters: The Ravens would be practicing in full pads later that afternoon.
Groans filled the auditorium at the team's training facility. October had been a rough month for Baltimore, which 10 days earlier had suffered a 43-13 defeat to the Houston Texans — the most lopsided loss in Harbaugh's five seasons as coach — before taking a bye-week break. The Ravens' most respected leader, legendary linebacker Ray Lewis, was back at home in Florida, having suffered a torn triceps on Oct. 14 that seemed destined to end his season.
Practicing in pads did not go over well with some of Baltimore's other veterans, including safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, and several of them openly challenged Harbaugh's edict. Rather than squashing the mini-uprising, the coach welcomed the dialogue and solicited additional criticism. Soon, the meeting turned surreal, as the subject shifted to Harbaugh's treatment of his players and perceived mood swings.
"It was practically a mutiny," one Ravens player recalled. "It came very close to getting out of control. But the way Coach Harbaugh handled it was amazing. He let people have their say, and he listened, and he explained himself, and pretty soon it was like a big group-therapy session. In the end, a lot of positive things were said. We didn't practice in pads, but we came out of there stronger as a group."
Designating Harbaugh's deft handling of that emotional give-and-take as the pivotal moment of the Ravens' season might be difficult to prove in a court of law. However, there's no question that the 50-year-old coach's leadership has been a key element of Baltimore's 9-2 start, tied for the best in the franchise's 16-year history.
Coming off a campaign in which they narrowly missed a trip to the Super Bowl, the rejuvenated Ravens are 4-0 in November, having pulled out an overtime victory over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium last Sunday after halfback Ray Rice converted a semi-miraculous fourth-and-29 off a screen pass. With a three-game lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North, Baltimore appears headed for its fifth consecutive postseason appearance under Harbaugh, perhaps the league's most underrated authority figure.
If the older and less celebrated of the NFL's first pair of head-coaching brothers wasn't secure and evolved enough to tolerate feedback from some of the league's most strong-willed and vocal players, the Ravens wouldn't have won more than 70 percent of their regular-season games (53-22) and reached two AFC championship games since he replaced Brian Billick following the 2007 season.
Because no NFL player of this era is as influential within his team context as Lewis — and given the presence of other decorated veterans (Reed, pass rusher Terrell Suggs, wideout Anquan Boldin) with big personalities — coaching in Baltimore is a unique challenge. Harbaugh, who had no experience as a head coach or offensive or defensive coordinator on any level, has managed to provide assertive leadership without drowning out dissenting voices.
On Sunday in San Diego, after wideout Torrey Smith caught a 31-yard pass from quarterback Joe Flacco to give the Ravens a first down at the Chargers' 16-yard line with two minutes remaining in overtime, Harbaugh huddled on the field with a small group that included offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Boldin and Flacco. Boldin exhorted the coach to summon the field-goal unit immediately. "Let's end this now," Boldin yelled, "and get the [expletive] out of here!"
Boldin is not a subtle man, but Harbaugh had other ideas: Seeking to mitigate the possibility of a San Diego score should Ravens rookie Justin Tucker miss the kick, he had Flacco take a knee on three successive downs, forcing the Chargers to burn their remaining timeouts and draining another 42 seconds off the clock.
Forty-five minutes after Tucker drilled his 38-yard game-winner, Harbaugh sat in the cramped coaches' locker room at Qualcomm and reflected upon his willingness to let his players be heard.
"Well, I don't know about [being] secure enough or anything like that, but I think it's really important to let them be them," he said. "And to me, the more I'm able to give them leadership, the stronger that we all are together, as leaders.
"I don't know how to put it in words, and maybe someday there'll be a way to express it, but we have such great leaders. You've got to let 'em lead, but you also have to lead 'em, you have to direct them, and someone's gotta make decisions. But, we've just got some incredibly strong men on this team. I mean I could tell you some stories, but I'd probably rather not."
Given the opening, I brought up the story about the contentious team meeting that turned into a Dr. Phil episode. When Harbaugh convened that gathering on Halloween morning, he probably thought it would be uneventful. However, the resistance to practicing in pads triggered a scab-pulling session that he navigated with a firm but refreshingly fallible touch.
"I've never seen a head coach handle anything like that as well as he did," said a Ravens assistant who attended the meeting. "There were some things said where we were like, Damn.
"A lot of coaches would have acted like dictators and been very sensitive about the way their authority was being questioned. John said, 'Hey, let's talk about this.' He showed great leadership. Instead of worrying that it would make him seem weak, he turned it into a strength."
According to witnesses, the subjects discussed included a proposed shift to a no-huddle offense (pushed by Cameron) and some players' perceptions of Harbaugh's demeanor as uneven. When some Ravens told the coach he had been overly brusque and negative on certain occasions, he asked for examples and eventually owned up to his behavior.
"He said, 'I don't remember saying that, but if I did I apologize,' " the Ravens assistant said. "He said, 'Hey, you know what? That was in the heat of the moment, and I was wrong.'
"John's great quality is that even if he goes down the wrong street, he's willing to say, 'I went down the wrong street' and correct it with the team. Whereas other coaches are so damn stubborn, they won't admit they were wrong, and it splinters the team."
By meeting's end Flacco and linebacker Jameel McClain had given constructive speeches that helped bring the team together, and Harbaugh actually felt enriched by the experience.
"I wasn't threatened by it," Harbaugh said. "That's the main thing. And, you know, they had some good points, and I had some good points. Other guys stood up and said some great things. To me, it embodied everything that you should have on a team.
"The point was that, we have what I call 'Open Mic,' and we can all say anything that we need to say and have to say. You know then that you're responsible — when you say it, everybody's gonna hear it, so you'd better make it your best stuff.
"That brings out the best. Otherwise, it's 'Why are they sneaking around talking behind corners?' You know what I mean? If you've got something, you put it right out here in front of me. I'm man enough to handle it. If you're right, then you're right! It's OK to be right. But more important it's OK to be wrong. And it's OK for me to be wrong, too."
Certainly, Harbaugh has grown into his role. Early on in the coach's tenure some Ravens considered him hokey and overly combative. Two seasons ago, Harbaugh famously had his players' cleats spray-painted black in an effort to make them look tougher, resulting in eye-rolls all around.
If that stunt seemed patronizing to some Ravens, it has long since faded in their memories. They now see a coach who treats his players like men and has their backs publicly (as evidenced by his "Pay the Man" endorsement early in the 2012 season of Flacco, who is seeking a lucrative contract extension) and privately, even when they call him out in front of their peers. While Harbaugh's kid brother, Jim, makes headlines in San Francisco for an abrupt quarterback switch the 49ers' coach won't even publicly acknowledge, John has become the patron saint of unvarnished discourse.
"I've got a rule: I never, ever, ever hold a grudge," Harbaugh said. "And I kind of have a rule that nobody else is allowed to hold a grudge, either. There are no grudges. We're a bunch of guys. We don't hold grudges. Right? We move on."
With the Ravens moving toward a second consecutive division title — Baltimore can take a major step in that direction by beating the Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday — they can look back to that Halloween hell-raising session as a galvanizing moment. And, in retrospect, they may reflect on Harbaugh's decision to rescind his padded-practice decree as a counterintuitive stroke of genius.
Upon the conclusion of that Wednesday's spirited afternoon workout, as the team knelt in a circle to hear the coach's closing remarks, Reed stood up and said, "Hey, if we were gonna practice this way, we should have practiced in pads."
No worries, Ed: As Harbaugh would say, it's OK to be wrong.
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