When Leonardo da Vinci was painting “The Last Supper,” he would sometimes stare at his work for an hour, make a single stroke, then leave, according to Walter Isaacson’s epic biographical tome. In it, Isaacson wrote that da Vinci told the Duke Ludovico that creativity requires time for ideas to marinate and intuitions to jell.
“Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least,” da Vinci reportedly said, “for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.”
Da Vinci, of course, was an unrelenting perfectionist, a label that could also be applied to Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald in his own creation of a masterful and historic unit.
There is perhaps little in common with the Italian Renaissance man and a finance major with a master’s degree in sports management from the University of Georgia who, upon graduation, accepted a job at an accounting firm. But dig a little deeper and, while the applied trades differ wildly, the genius and strive of da Vinci and Macdonald are not so dissimilar.
And like da Vinci, Macdonald’s genius bubbled to the surface early on.
At Centennial High School in suburban Atlanta, Macdonald was actually better as a baseball player than at football, Xarvia Smith, his former football coach there, told The Baltimore Sun. But the running back and linebacker was able to routinely and quickly break down opponents’ tendencies and pass them on to Smith.
“He picked up my system really fast,” Smith said. “That’s why when he asked about coaching with me later at Cedar Shoals High, I hired him.
“He’s probably the smartest person I’ve met in my life, and I think because he’s so smart and so humble, that allows him to coach in the NFL for a guy who really didn’t play high school or college football.”
Macdonald, of course, did play football, but his skills on the field were not what made him stand out. And, during his junior season he suffered a series of stingers in his neck, for which doctors advised him that he risked serious injury if he continued to play. So he worked out an agreement with Smith that he would make an exception and play in the last game of his senior season.
He never got the chance.
Macdonald suffered a torn ACL on the final play of the team’s final practice — essentially a walk-though, Smith said — and that was that. The injury caused him to miss most of baseball season, too, Smith said, though he did eventually get a taste of schoolboy glory with a game-winning hit coming off the bench.
By the time he arrived in the Ravens’ Owings Mills offices in 2014 after serving as a graduate assistant and safeties and defensive quality control coach at Georgia, it was obvious Macdonald was equal parts brilliant and a tireless worker.
“There’s certain tests we do in out [coaching intern] program,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told The Sun. “It’s merit-based, and it’s kind of an honor to even be in that deal, so that was part of [his intelligence]. But smart is a lot of things. What we were looking for and what we want in all of our coaches are guys who can see it all and are willing to relentlessly chase it all; every idea, every loose end, every relational thing, empathetically relating to the guys whether it’s a star player or not a star player.
“He was just out of college, and he was very eager and very smart and very motivated and hardworking and all those kinds of things, and you could just tell. He had all those kinds of traits. … What you see is [that] he’s just got a really good feel for it. He’s got a feel for the game itself, but he’s also got a great feel for applying the principles that he’s been a part of developing, actually, over the last nine or 10 years.”
Macdonald — also a skilled if not obsessive golfer, which in part explains his ability to see lines, patterns and small details — made a quick impression on other coaches on the staff, too.
“When I was there he was just cutting his teeth, figuring it out,” former Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who was the Ravens’ secondary coach in 2016, told The Sun. “I would have Mike assist me with some of my cards or some of our meetings and presentations and he was always on point and rarely did anything I ever needed to correct.
“It was rare, and rare to have the boldness to say something to a guy. When you’re that young, you’re trying to find your spot. You’re trying to figure out how do I say something to [veteran cornerback] Jimmy Smith or [safety] Eric Weddle. But he had the gumption to say something. That takes a little courage. I’m not surprised, because the ingredients were there way back when. You just knew as time would go on this guy, if he wanted to stay with it, would have a chance to be a good coach. He had a good way about him with people. He’s not a big talker, but when he does talk, what he has to say makes sense. Some of his ideas, even back then, players respected.”
So when Michigan had an opening for a defensive coordinator after the 2020 season, Harbaugh suggested Macdonald, who’d worked his way up the Ravens’ staff to linebackers coach, to his younger brother Jim. In his first and only season in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines went from ranking 84th in total defense the year before Macdonald’s arrival to 20th. Michigan also routed Ohio State and went on to the College Football Playoff, with three of its defensive players being selected in the first 45 picks of the NFL draft.
When the Ravens parted ways with defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale after the 2021 season, Harbaugh wooed Macdonald back for the job. In his first season as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, only four teams had more sacks.
This season, they’ve been even better.
The Ravens became the first team to lead the NFL in sacks (60), takeaways (31) and points allowed per game (16.1) in the regular season. They also ranked first in passing yards allowed per play, first in rushing touchdowns allowed per game and second in overall yards allowed per play. And over the past two seasons, the defense has ranked in the top five in scoring, total yards, rushing yards, red zone touchdown rate and third-down conversion rate.
His system has also resonated with players, old and young.
Kyle Van Noy, 32, registered a career-high nine sacks in the regular season. Fellow outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, 30, matched his career high with 9 1/2. Defensive tackle Justin Madbuike, 26, led all interior linemen with 13 sacks. Inside linebacker Roquan Smith, 26, led the team with 158 tackles. And fellow inside linebacker Patrick Queen, 24, surpassed his previous career high from a season ago with 133 tackles.
Of the Ravens’ six All-Pros this year, two (Smith and safety Kyle Hamilton) were first-team selections, while two more (Queen and Madbuike) were chosen for second-team.
“I’ve been saying it since I got here, Mike Macdonald is the smartest defensive coordinator I’ve ever had,” Clowney said. “He puts the guys in the right position … He leaves nothing that we haven’t seen going into a game that we haven’t seen during the week.”
Added Smith: “He gives us such a unique plan [to] dissect offenses like it’s no other, like he’s a mad scientist in a sense, and then [he] gives it to us in a way that we understand it.”
The scheme is challenging, Hamilton said, but the beauty is in the difficulty and the confusion and chaos it creates.
It has also fostered relationships with players that go beyond transactional, unburdening them and allowing them to thrive at their highest capabilities.
“I like the duality of it,” Hamilton said. “First off, we have guys upfront who allow us to do a bunch of stuff on the back end, in terms of doing their job correctly. Moving around, everybody doing different things, it doesn’t make us one-dimensional. We have a bunch of guys who can do a lot of different stuff, and it makes it hard on the offense not to know who is doing what on each snap. I feel like everybody has done a good job of buying into that.”
It’s also why Macdonald, 36, has become one of the hottest head coaching candidates in the NFL. Among the teams he interviewed with are the Los Angeles Chargers, Tennessee Titans, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons. The Washington Commanders also requested an interview.
Among those, only the Commanders job remains unfilled, with the Seattle Seahawks the only other team currently with an opening. Should Macdonald get hired, he would become the league’s youngest head coach.
“It’s a long list of the stuff that he does well,” Macdonald said of last year’s NFL Most Valuable Player and two-time Super Bowl champion. “He’s an ultimate competitor, so we have our hands full. It’s a great challenge.”
Just the way all the great artists like it.
AFC championship game
Chiefs at Ravens
Sunday, 3 p.m.
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 3 1/2