Camp Hardball ready to start

OWINGS MILLS -- The launch of the so-called Camp Hardball is unlikely to represent a total culture shock to the Baltimore Ravens, a rebuilding football team growing accustomed to the demanding regimen established by new coach John Harbaugh.

Just in case the message about the new sheriff in town hadn't entirely crystallized, Harbaugh issued a few reminders about the rugged personality he's looking for in his first training camp since replacing former coach Brian Billick.

Prior to players reporting to Westminster for what promises to be a strenuous three weeks heavy on contact in the wake of Billick's veteran-friendly atmosphere, Harbaugh han ded out blue, button-down shirts with players and coaches' names sewn across the front to signify a blue-collar approach.

This was on the heels of a competition where players flipped monster truck tires and pulled weighted sleds across the practice field.

A lunch-pail, gritty atmosphere is the reaction to last year's 5-11 campaign. Camp Creampuff is about to become a memory for a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game in six years.

"I know we're going to r un a tough training camp," said Harbaugh, a first-time head coach and a former Philadelphia Eagles assistant who coached special teams and defensive backs. "That's Andy Reid's way. That was my dad's way. That's the only thing I've ever known. I think training camp is a time to build your football team.

"You've got to make camp tougher than what they're going to see on Sunday. When you do that, they know they can handle that pressure. It's going to be tough-smart. We're not going to be dumb-tough. It's going to be an old-school training camp."

For Harbaugh, 45, his coaching style is steeped in motivational techniques and policies intended to build camaraderie. He's not a throwback disciplinarian in the mold of Tom Coughlin, but he does have a certain edge and he believes strongly in the adages of his father, former college football coach Jack Harbaugh, and Eagles coach Andy Reid.

Harbaugh began shaking up the culture immediately by changing the locker=2 0room, mixing the position groups together to discourage cliques and promote communication. No one, including star linebacker Ray Lewis, is allowed to have more than one locker.

Harbaugh removed benches from the sidelines, so no players are allowed to sit when they're not on the field. The no-sitting applies to reporters covering practice, too.

Harbaugh cancelled a team-produced television show called Ravens Wired that miked up one player for a weekly feature because he felt it was too individualistic.

As he stated during his introductory pres s conference and placed on a large sign at the locker room entrance, Harbaugh is all about, "Team, Team, Team."

"He's trying to change the culture," cornerback Samari Rolle said. "You have to go with the flow and embrace that. What I like about him is he doesn't talk down to you. He looks you right in the eye and speaks to you like a man. He listens to you instead of trying to talk over your head."

Harbaugh has mandated that all players must stay at the team hotel during camp. Billick had a policy of allowing veterans to spend the night at home after the first few days of camp.

"There's a certain camaraderie that goes with that, a certain sacrifice," Harbaugh said. "I don't see any reason for guys to be driving home at night during training camp.

"It 's late at night and then they have to be back first thing in the morning. Maybe it's even a safety issue, but that's wha t training camp is, everybody there together. It's how you do training camp."

Harbaugh has instituted bed checks, an expansion of an existing curfew that will be strictly enforced.

"It's no problem," linebacker Bart Scott said. "I'll be in my room anyway. If someone wants to knock on the door, I'll be asleep. If somebody wants to stop by and play some PlayStation, I really don't care."

The players appear to be buying into Harbaugh's precepts. Attendance was high at minicamps, including voluntary sessions. The public dissent that became commonplace the past few years has grown silent.

Initially, all the changes were a shock.

"I think there are a lot of people that are anxious and uncertain," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "We want it to be chaos. That's what John has talked about. It's more pressure on everybody."

Nonetheless, several players have described Harbaugh as personable and receptive to input.

"John is a great guy," Lewis said. "There's no person you'll ever find that says, 'I lo ve training camp, training camp is the greatest.' Most people like to sleep in their own beds and things like that.

"The change that he brought in is a great change, the change of character and integrity, and it's really all about the team concept. This is John Harbaugh's era. If you're with that, you're with that."

During a minicamp, a full-team brawl ensued after a fight between rookie offensive tackle Oniel Cousins and defensive tackle Amon Gordon. Practices have become testier.

"Everybody's a little bit on edge," tight end Todd Heap said.

Afterward, veteran defensive end Trevor Pryce quipped that it was like "San Quentin."

Yet, Pryce said he's not worried about the hard-nosed camp that Harbaugh is planning.

"As long as he doesn't waver, and I know he's not going to, I think we'll be fine," Pryce said. "In three weeks, it will be over. I know what the schedule is, and it tapers down. Ed Reed won't be hitting Todd Heap in the knee, I can tell you that.

"From the time I've spent with John, he's about building us up, not tearing us down. It's going to take a minute for the team to catch up and get used to this kind of camp. Some guys will take it as that's not the way to do things. I'm like, 'Yeah, it is. That's the way we do them now.'"

Another observation about Harbaugh is that he doesn't micromanage his staff, trusting offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and Ryan to run their units.

"He delegates," Pryce said. "I thought Brian was a fantastic football coach, but he tried to do everything and you can't do everything. You can't be the coordinator and the head coach. I get exactly where John is going, and I think the organization will be better off for it."

Reid was known for running lengthy, hard-hitting practices. Likewise, the Ravens will be in full pads at least once per day, mirroring the NFL norm.

"Football is a contact sport," Harbaugh said. "You've got to practice blocking and tackling, finishing blocks. You best do that with pads."

That doesn't mean the Ravens should be bracing for the Bataan Death March. Harbaugh hopes to strike a balance between testing wills and preserving players' health.

"We know we have guys over 30 years old who don't need as many reps," Harbaugh said. "How many reps does Ray Lewis need taking on an iso block? He knows how to do that.

"You temper that with certain guys need more reps than other guys, but you can't build a camp for the old guys and then the young guys don't get the work they need. You can't build a camp strictly for the young guys and then the old guys get worn down. We're going to be tough-smart, but it's going to be a tough training camp."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Timesa and the Annapolis Capital.

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