John Harbaugh, with mix of love and old-school rigor, has Ravens set for playoff run

Anxiety percolated behind the scenes. How could it not? Lamar Jackson, the superstar quarterback around whom the Ravens had shaped their roster and their plans, asked to be traded.

John Harbaugh, entering his 16th season as the team’s coach, faced the prospect of starting over at the most important position in football. He had made the call, back in 2018, to fashion a new vision around Jackson’s unique talents. Now, it was in jeopardy. But he did not feel jeopardized.

“I was in a good place,” Harbaugh said, reflecting on those uncertain days in March and April. “I felt really strongly that God had it, to be honest with you. Whatever direction it was going to go, it was going to be good. I was rooting for Lamar to be back because I knew Lamar, but I knew that if he didn’t come back, there was going to be a reason for it, and I was going to be OK with that.”

Jackson signed an extension with the Ravens in late April, and nine months later, he’s poised to lead them into a playoff matchup with the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium. It will be the team’s 11th postseason run under Harbaugh. Though he still feels “like a young coach,” with Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll at least temporarily out of the trade, he’s the NFL’s second-longest-tenured and second-oldest.

Never in that span has Harbaugh, 61, lost his team’s attention, but Jackson’s contract saga presented a fresh test. In his public statements, he reiterated his admiration for the quarterback and his faith that the team and player would both end up satisfied. His upbeat calm stood in contrast to fan and media roiling over Jackson’s fate.

The man at the center of all that scrutiny heard and appreciated Harbaugh’s tone.

“Being the quarterback of the franchise and knowing the head coach has your back, every quarterback would want that. Every player should want that,” Jackson said recently.

ESPN commentator Domonique Foxworth played for Harbaugh from 2009 to 2011, when the coach was still feeling his way through leading an NFL team. Even then, Foxworth was struck by Harbaugh’s understanding that the interpersonal side of his job was at least as important as the tactical.

“Some coaches are focused on the micro, which he is too, but he also has an awareness of the macro, the relationship side of it,” Foxworth said. “He knows there are buttons there to be pushed also. The benefit of maintaining a good culture is that you will get the best out of your players no matter what the game plan is. I think the head coach can affect that more than anybody else in the organization. It’s one of the few responsibilities you cannot delegate.”

Harbaugh doesn’t have a tidy explanation for why he’s never lost the thread with his players. “Standing up in front of the team, it just always comes to me what to say,” he offered.

But when current Ravens are asked why he has endured, they note the genuine interest he shows in them as athletes and people.

“You know when people care for you,” said wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who’s on his fourth NFL team. “It’s not politics or you’re just … like this is your job to act this way. This is a genuine act that he has. I feel like it kind of reflects throughout this building and definitely reflects on values and things that I stand for — love, all of those things. He’s been everything that I can ask for. He goes on my Mount Rushmore of coaches that I’ve had, for sure.”

The thing is, Harbaugh’s just as apt to converse with a practice squad player as with Beckham.

“He goes out of his way to make sure he has these relationships to every single player on the team,” said fullback Patrick Ricard, who has played for Harbaugh since 2017. “Guys open up to him. I know guys who come here from other places, they tell me, ‘I’ve had head coaches who didn’t even know my name.’ Harbaugh knows where everyone’s from. He knows their families. I think that’s why he stays very connected.”

They don’t hand out NFL Coach of the Year trophies for subtlety, and there’s not much talk about Harbaugh winning that award as he did in 2019, the last time the Ravens claimed the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. But his delicate hand with Jackson, on top of changes he made to his defensive and offensive staffs the past two seasons, spoke to his gift for adapting. Fans still call for his ouster every time the Ravens blow a lead or mismanage the game clock, but that’s part of the gig. Harbaugh just keeps winning; the Ravens made the AFC championship game in his first season, won the Super Bowl in his fifth, earned their conference’s top seed in his 12th, and finished with the league’s best record in this, his 16th.

This year’s team bears only modest resemblance to the 2019 edition and little at all to Harbaugh’s world champions from 2012. But he endures, wedded to bedrock principles he learned from his father, Jack, and from Bo Schembechler, the great Michigan coach of his youth, but never so wedded that he won’t adopt new systems suited to new generations of talent.

“They are one of the more flexible teams,” Foxworth said. “To be able to go from a [Joe] Flacco-led offense to the original Lamar offense to the new Lamar offense — I do think when the league is constantly changing, having the ability to change along with it is like a Belichick characteristic that Harbaugh has also.”

Harbaugh laughed and nodded recently when it was suggested that his Ravens’ defining trait might be having no defining trait.

“You’ve got to be really versatile as an NFL coach,” he said. “Because circumstances are ever-changing.”

The coordinators he chose — Todd Monken on offense and Mike Macdonald on defense — are shape-shifters, more interested in tailoring their plans to the talent on hand than imposing rigid visions.

Harbaugh saw a future head coach in Macdonald, who’s a candidate for at least five NFL openings, when he was still a fresh-faced staffer, learning the ropes in a cramped office he shared with Chris Horton, who’s now the Ravens’ special teams coordinator.

He did not know Monken well before he hired him away from the University of Georgia, but he liked the way the veteran coach had run everything from the pass-happy “Air Raid” at Oklahoma State to a more balanced attack for the back-to-back national champion Bulldogs.

Harbaugh has football principles — “When you come here, you know you’re going to have good, hard practices, and every situation’s going to be detailed,” Ricard said — that he expects his top assistants to reinforce, but otherwise, he gives them wide tactical latitude while he focuses on the Ravens’ big picture.

“Consistency,” Monken said when asked what he’s learned to appreciate about his boss. “His day-to-day approach, his positive energy, his connection with the team, whether we’ve won or whether we’ve lost — I’ve never been around anybody like that. I think that allows you, when you have a season as long as we do, to sustain for the long haul.”

Whatever serenity Harbaugh felt before Jackson decided to return, he’s still a practical man. He knew the Ravens’ prospects for 2023 soared with their franchise player back in the fold.

“It was like, ‘And now we can launch,'” he recalled.

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As soon as the Ravens got to work in the summer, he sensed he was dealing with an unusually mature team, one for which living in the moment was not an empty cliche but a driving belief. These guys liked one another and knew how good the team could become. Jackson was at the forefront, again a lively presence in the locker room and a leading proponent for maintaining moment-to-moment focus.

“I think this is maybe the most connected team, the most tied-together that I’ve seen here,” Harbaugh said. “They’re very evolved that way. You know it when you see it, and I’ve seen it all year. … You’re not having too many awkward conversations with guys, where you’re scratching your head, wondering what a player or a coach might be thinking. Because they’re thinking the right way.”

The Ravens added veterans such as Beckham and Jadeveon Clowney in part because they thought it would be fun to play for Harbaugh, who has developed a reputation for encouraging individual expression within the team’s greater mission.

“I believe guys like that want to run through a wall for him,” Jackson said.

Thirteen wins later, the Ravens have their best chance to reach the Super Bowl since they won it 11 years ago, led by the likes of Flacco, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

Two nights after they finished their regular season, Harbaugh beamed as confetti rained around him, marking the national championship his younger brother, Jim, had just won for the Michigan program they both grew up worshiping. He listened to his father bellow out the family catchphrase — “Who has it better than us?” — to an eager crowd clad in maize and blue.

And for a moment, Harbaugh violated his credo. He thought ahead, to a Sunday evening in February when the championship confetti might rain again, on him and this Ravens team he has come to appreciate so deeply.

“It sinks in, ‘Like man, I really want to experience this for our team. I want our team to experience this,'” he said. “That’s the big picture, the ultimate goal for the season. And then with that, back to one day at a time, one play at a time.”

AFC divisional round

Texans at Ravens

Saturday, 4:30 p.m.


Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 9 1/2