Harbaugh, Zorn linked through status, success

OWINGS MILLS -- The common ground between newly-minted NFL head coaches John Harbaugh and Jim Zorn began at a palatial, historic hotel. Finding their way through the swanky, ornate lobby of The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., earlier this year at the annual league meetings, Harbaugh, Zorn and their respective wives watched as the established NFL royalty made their rounds.

Several months later, both rookie coaches are finding out they belong on the sidelines as they have steered their teams into playoff contention heading into Sunday night's game between the Baltimore Ravens (8-4) and the Washington Redskins (7-5) at M&T Bank Stadium.

"You do feel a link," Harbaugh said. "We came in at the same time. We were the guys at the NFL meetings trying to find our way around. We didn't know where to go, didn't know who to talk to, didn't know where to sit.

"So, we had that in common. We felt like the other guys were looking at us like, 'Who are these guys. You feel that link a little bit, that bond."

Both Harbaugh and Zorn emerged as surprise hires following extensive coaching searches to replace established coaches in Brian Billick and Joe Gibbs.

Neither had achieved the distinction of ever being an NFL coordinator on offense or defense.

Outside of their own households or hometowns, neither was a huge name even though in NFL circles they were highly respected for their behind-the-scenes work.

Active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Harbaugh and Zorn have stayed in touch before and occasionally throughout their inaugural seasons.

"It was kind of like, 'Here we go,'" Zorn said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "When we were at the NFL owners' meetings late in the spring, we talked, we visited and we just called each other and exchanged encouragement.

"Then, we were off and running. It's pretty exciting to be starting your program. There's a lot of optimism. You haven't lost a g ame yet, so there's all kind of positive encouragement between each other."

Both Harbaugh and Zorn had to roll up their sleeves with young quarterbacks and instill their own imprint on strong, preexisting cultures and opinionated personalities on veteran-laden teams.

Between Harbaugh and the other first-year coaches, including the Atlanta Falcons' Mike Smith, the Miami Dolphins' Tony Sparano and Zorn, they have a collective record of 30-18. A year ago, those teams finished a combined 19-45.

None of the above had been an NFL head coach before, a new trend breaking away from the traditional retread route.

"Well, I just think it's pretty neat that maybe four owners took a little bit of a chance on four guys and it's paid off," Harbaugh said. "It's a little different, so it's neat to see.

"I've known Jim for a long time, but passingly, and this spring we had a chance to spend a lot of time with them, him and his wife. Tremendous people, great coach. I can see why the players enjoy playing for him."

The Ravens rank one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North title race and would make the playoffs as a wild card if the season was over today with a matchup against the New York Jets in the offing. Baltimore has won six of its p ast seven games.

Harbaugh has instilled a stronger sense of discipline with the Ravens, building camaraderie through various motivational messages and mixing up the locker room. There's also a harder edge with Harbaugh than Billick in terms of practice routine, strictness of rules and intensity.

"We might not always see eye to eye, but we are a family," center Jason Brown said. "Nothing is going to separate us. It's like when you were a kid and you didn't like your parents always telling you what to do, but later on you thank God for those parents telling you what you needed to do so you could grow up and do the right thing. You might not always like what someone tells you, but sometimes you need to hear it."

The Redskins are trailing the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants (11-1) in the NFC East, but remain in solid position to earn a wild-card berth.

They are struggling following a strong 4-1 start. Their 23-7 collapse against the Giants at FedEx Field last week represented the Redskins' third loss in the past four games, losing each game at home.

During that span, the offense has scored just 43 points. Now, the fan base is growing restless following a 6-2 start.

"I think it's showing us that we haven't reached that elite status," Zorn said. "It doesn't mean we're not good. It just means we are one of the teams that didn't separate. We're battling. We haven't lost hear t, and we haven't lost hope of putting a good game together."

The Redskins have dipped to 28th in scoring, averaging 17.3 points per game despite having the NFL's second leading rusher in Clinton Portis and the NFL's sixth-ranked defense.

"A lot of it has to do with big plays," Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell told Washington reporters. "We really haven't had any big plays to put more points on the board or to keep the crowd pumped. We haven't had the big plays that can just separate a game."

Conversely, the Ravens are 6-1 since an Oct. 19 win over the Dolphins and lead the league in scoring over that period with a 30.6 average as rookie quarterback Joe Flacco has registered an NFL-high 99.1 quarterback rating over the past seven games. He has thrown 11 touchdowns with just two interceptions during those seven games.

The Ravens' defense hasn't allowed a score in 10 quarters.

A strong Coach of the Year candidate with Smith the early favorite for the turnaround he has engineered, Harbaugh has his team poised to make a playoff run one year removed from a 5-11 disaster that cost Billick his job after nine seasons and one Super Bowl victory.

"He just seems to have a real peace about where he is, and I think he's brought tremendous enthusiasm," Zorn said. "I think he coaches with encouragement. I always hear him encouraging his players, and he seems to have a positive effect on me.

"I think that's what you need. This will be the first time we've gotten to watch them extensively, and they're very organized. They know what they're doing."


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