Ravens: 'They hired him for a reason'

OWINGS MILLS -- John Harbaugh hasn't wavered, hasn't blinked and definitely hasn't bent in his hard-nosed approach to reshaping and retooling a football team that had lost its way.

Along the Baltimore Ravens' road to the playoffs Sunday one year removed from a disastrous 5-11 campaign that ushered out the Brian Billick era, Harbaugh's beliefs, character, leadership and sense of humor have continually been on display as a rookie head coach.

Whether it was how he handled internal discipline problems with cornerback Chris McAlister and running back Willis McGahee quietly behind the scenes, won over hardened veterans like middle linebacker Ray Lewis and defensive end Trevor Pryce that have heard every motivational saying or made a special point of consulting older players on how to approach the Christmas holiday or guiding the team through enduring 15 consecutive weeks without a break, everything about the Ravens' surprising season has carried the Harbaugh touch.

Nearly a year after team owner Steve Bisciotti relied on his gut instinct to hire a relatively unknown Philadelphia Eagles assistant to run his football team after Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett turned down the Ravens' job offer, that decision has paid dividends with the Ravens (11-5) returning to the playoffs and currently favored by three points in Sunday's AFC wild-card game against the Miami Dolphins.

"They hired him for a reason," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Had he ever been a head coach? No, but there are some head coaches who have done it their whole life and couldn't get the job done. One thing was whatever he was trying to preach, to buy into it. Then, some success is going to come out of it."

Harbaugh had his work cut out for him when he took over the Ravens last January. He had never been a head coach before at any level. The Ravens had injury and attitude problems that manifested themselves on a regular basis last year. Plus, starting quarterback Steve McNair and future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden opted to retire during the offseason.

By building a strong coaching staff that features offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and instilling a hard-nosed work ethic and a more demanding training regimen, Harbaugh has revitalized the Ravens. This marks their first playoff appearance since a franchise-record 13-3 mark in 2006 that ended in an AFC divisional playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

"It's been a great transition," Pryce said. "You know what? I'm proud for the team, but I'm happy for him. I don't know if everybody thought he could do it, but we bought into it and it's been great. He didn't blink once, not once, from the things he wanted to do. He had a plan and he stuck with his plan.

"You have to respect a coach that win, lose or draw he says, 'This is what we're going to do,' and not, 'Let's change this or that.' The great thing about John once he set a path, he wasn't going to deviate from it. His path was that he wanted to do the right thing for his team."

Harbaugh has definitely had the courage of his convictions and has been a strong disciplinarian whenever it's been called for. Although injuries were also a factor, Harbaugh benched McAlister for violating team rules, including showing up late for meetings prior to a 31-3 loss to the Colts. Eventually, McAlister was placed on injured reserve and had knee surgery. But the Pro Bowl cornerback lost his clash with the coaching staff long before that decision was made.

McGahee led the Ravens with 1,207 rushing yards last season, but admittedly showed up out of shape for training camp and skipped valuable minicamps where a new offense was installed. Deemphasized in the game plan as fullback Le'Ron McClain and rookie Ray Rice have had good seasons, McGahee hasn't been completely banished and has made valuable contributions in the past two weeks.

Despite criticism from media and fans of McGahee, Harbaugh has stuck behind a player who hasn't meshed ideally with the new regime in order to get the maximum production o ut of the former centerpiece of the offense for the greater good of the team.

When asked how Harbaugh handles discipline issues, Pryce replied: "The way a head coach should. Sometimes, you have to take yourself away from the team, be a disciplinarian with certain things. I think he did the right thing in every case."

When Harbaugh took over the Ravens, he had large signs that say, "Team, Team, Team," emblazoned all over the training complex.

Harbaugh continually has called the players "mighty men," which draws amused smiles from reporters, but his praise has paid off with mutual respect.

"He tells us all the time that he's proud to stand with us as our coach on Sundays," Pryce said. "How could you not want to play for someone who is proud to be your coach? You play hard because it's your job, but he makes it more fun to do it."

The son of successful former Western Kentucky and Western Michigan coach Jack Harbaugh, Harbaugh had designs on being a head coach one day for a long time, including during stints working for his father as a young assistant.

"You could see then that he had a love and a real passion for the game, not only the X's and O's, but he cared deeply about the players he coached," said Jack Harbaugh, who has become a fixture around the team at practices, meetings and games. "John had, and still has, tremendous character and integrity. With those qualities, you know that if you work your way through the ranks, hopefully, good things will happen."

Now, Harbaugh is paired against fellow first-year head coach Tony Sparano on Sunday at Dolphin Stadium. Neither had been a coordinator in the NFL ranks prior to being tabbed during the offseason to take on major leadership roles.

"I think it says something about two organizations and the jobs that the players did this year," Harbaugh said. "It's two teams having good seasons and playing well and making the playoffs, more than anything else."

Remaining true to form, Harbaugh has deflected introspective questions about his feelings and the reasons behind his career progression.

"It's a good question, but I haven't thought about it," he said. "That's the type of stuff you think about when the season is over. We're excited. Our team is excited. The coaches are excited. The organization is excited to go play a meaningful game in January, and that's what we're about to do."

Besides instilling toughness through more physical practices, Harbaugh has also demonstrated a capacity to care. He didn't rush cornerback Samari Rolle back to work when his father, Harry Rolle, died of a sudden heart attack, encouraging him to take as much time as he needed to grieve. Where Billick's occasionally high-handed message had grown stale with some older players after nine seasons, Harbaugh has been described as a breath of fresh air.

"We have a new leader," Rolle said. "He's humble. He treats everybody with respect. You have no choice but to play hard for a coach like that."

Harbaugh gave veteran players ages 30 and over every third day off during a grueling training camp at McDaniel College and gradually built in more time off into the practice schedule when the Ravens were forced to have their bye in the second week of the season when Hurricane Ike caused the postponement of their game against the Houston Texans. Plus, he gave the entire team Christmas off prior to a pivotal regular-season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"I think really what's most impressive about coach is just his flexibility with his players," said Lewis, who has championed Harbaugh's team concept and even cancelled his radio show at team officials' suggestion prior to the season. "He's very interactive with his players. There's really no decision he makes without coming to us to really figure out what's best for the team.

"That's a great thing to have when you have a first-year coach and you're trying to adapt to things. You realize that he's not just trying to run you into a program and say, 'Do what I do, do what I say.' It's about what makes us better as a team, that's what you appreciate about him just from a man's perspective."

Harbaugh allowed the players to vote on what to do about Christmas before suggesting an even more inviting schedule change. He said they could practice on Tuesday, which is usually their normal day off, and take Thursday off for Christmas Day to be with their families.

"He asked, 'Well, what do you want to do?' We were arguing about whether it should be Christmas morning, after Christmas morning," Pryce said. "He said, 'Why don't we try this? And we said, 'Yeah, that's it.' That's the kind of guy he is.

"The Christmas thing was a big thing. That was his idea. He doesn't want to be out on an island by himself."

More than anything, Harbaugh has demanded attention to detail and timeliness while delegating authority to his coordinators. With a rookie coach and an impressive rookie quarterback in first-round draft pick Joe Flacco, the Ravens have defied low expectations and enter the playoffs having won 9 of the past 11 games.

Harbaugh has straddled the line between being a so-called players' coach and instilling a harder edge for a team that was known for complaining about officiating a year ago and drawing costly personal fouls. Now, the Ravens run a tighter ship under Harbaugh.

"He's always the same, there's no maybe, no waffling," Pryce said. "He means what he says and says what he means. When minicamp was over, you could see the enthusiasm in him. When training camp started on the third day when he told me to take my pads off, I was like, 'Wow, what's this. Count me in.' I bought in."

Notebook: Ryan in demand

By Aaron Wilson OWINGS MILLS -- Interest in highly-regarded Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is growing in NFL circles, a percolating development that coincides with his second-ranked defense spearheading the Ravens being back in the playoffs.

The New York Jets have already asked for permission to speak with Ryan, and there has been preliminary back-channel contact with the St. Louis Rams and the Detroit Lions.

Could this finally be the year where Ryan lands a head-coaching position after being narrowly edged for jobs with the San Diego Chargers two years ago and the Atlanta Falcons last year?

Ryan is flattered by the inquiries while intently preparing for Sunday's AFC wild-card game against the Miami Dolphins, whose top executive, Bill Parcells, passed on him after an interview last year to hire Tony Sparano.

"Right now, my focus is strictly on us preparing for Miami and on these playoffs," Ryan said. "I've prepared all my life to be a head coach. If somebody sees fit of giving me that opportunity, that would be great. If not, I'll stay here with this organization and with our players and our coaches and I'll be happy."

Ryan hopes he remains too busy with the Ravens' playoff run to conduct interviews with potential NFL employers.

When asked if he wishes the Jets had waited longer before declaring their intentions, Ryan replied: "No. I hope that they've got to wait until after the Super Bowl if somebody wants me. That's the real deal."

Under Ryan, the Ravens have finished sixth or higher in total defense for the past six seasons. This year, the Ravens have allowed just 261.2 yards per contest, ranking third in rushing defense (81.4 yards), second in passing defense (179.7 yards) and points allowed per contest (15.3).

"I'm sure Rex is definitely a capable head coach anywhere in this league," Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed said. "I'm sure Rex is not focused on it right now, but I'm sure in the back of his head he wants to be a head coach and will be a great head coach."

TRAINING ROOM: Cornerback Samari Rolle didn't practice for the second consecutive day due to an ankle and foot injury, but is expected to play Sunday.

Cornerback Fabian Washington (hyperextended right big toe) was upgraded to practicing on a limited basis.

"I'm on schedule to play Sunday," he said. "It feels much better.

Four other players were upgraded to limited participation, including Reed (hamstring), wide receiver Derrick Mason (dislocated left shoulder/trapezius), linebacker Jarret Johnson (left calf) and defensive tackle Justin Bannan (foot).

Wide receiver Mark Clayton (knee) was limited again as well as right guard Chris Chester (back), linebacker Antwan Barnes (strained left pectoral muscle), running back Ray Rice (left shin/calf contusion), safety Tom Zbikowski (thigh) and kicker Matt Stover (sprained right ankle).

ENDORSEMENT: If Ryan had a vote, Reed would be named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year over Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware.

Ware led the NFL with 20 sacks, and Reed led the NFL with nine interceptions. That includes eight picks in the past six games.

"I think it's coaching, no doubt to give him those kinds of instincts and everything," Ryan quipped. "No, it's Ed Reed being Ed Reed. I think he's still not 100 percent healthy, but he's playing like he is.

"I hope he gets that Defensive Player of the Year. I know it's tough. That kid in Dallas had the 20 sacks, but he's watching Ed Reed. So, I think you give it to the playoff guy. Go ahead and just give it to Ed. We'll take it."

TAMING THE WILDCAT: The Ravens held the Dolphins' vaunted Wildcat offense to a mere four yards in the teams' first meeting, a 27-13 Baltimore win. And studying how the Dolphins confused the New England Patriots was a major plus for the Ravens' preparation.

"I'll be honest, I'm glad they ran it against New England the first day then they did it against us because it would have been like, 'Oh, I mean you want to talk about scrambling,'" Ryan said. "They do a nice job of it. If I was just watching the game as a fan, I'd appreciate them. But we see all kinds of stuff with our offense, too, so I think we're prepared for it.

"It really makes you prepare. We'll take 10 minutes extra after each practice and just go over Wildcat type plays. And they're doing it differently. They're doing it out of multiple personnel groupings and things like that."

LOOKING UP: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron finds himself in the playoffs one year removed from being fired by the Dolphins after a 1-15 season.

Now, he's leading an offense that set a franchise record with 20 rushing touchdowns in addition to overseeing rookie quarterback Joe Flacco's rapid development.

"It's fun to be a part of this team," Cameron said. "We've got a team here that's special, but the season is just beginning. It's a new year, it's a new season.

"In this profession, last year means very little as it relates to the upcoming season. I think you can see that in a ton of ways, not just for me personally. For a lot of people, it's just the nature of this business."

Although Cameron hasn't been linked to any of the coaching vacancies yet, that doesn't mean he would rule out any future opportunities.

"There may be a time for that discussion," he said. "I am zeroed in and focused on the responsibility I have here and my commitment is to that. Like you've heard other guys say, really for any of us to talk about ourselves at this point is really counterproductive."

RETURN GAME: Special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg was noncommittal when asked if Zbikowski would return kickoffs again Sunday now that return specialist Yamon Figurs has recovered from a concussion that forced him out last week. Rosburg said that Rice has also been returning kickoffs this week in practice and is in the mix for playing time on special teams.

"That kind of depends on what the roster looks like on Sunday," Rosburg said. "We haven't gotten to that point yet, so we're practicing more than one returner in preparation for that."

QUICK HITS: Dolphins tight end David Martin (head/neck) and former University of Maryland defensive lineman Randy Starks (ankle) were upgraded to limited work after missing Wednesday's practice. ... Defensive end Trevor Pryce's healthy return has made a big impact on the Ravens' defense. "He's a tremendous player," Ryan said. "I told Trev, 'Hey, we've been resting you during the season, all right? You don't come off the field anymore.' Clearly, he's one of the premier players in this league. When we lost him last year, it definitely hurt us. But he's healthy and he's ready to roll through the playoffs." ... Since being signed by general manager Ozzie Newsome after trying out for the Ravens in a spring minicamp, strong safety Jim Leonhard has taken over for an injured Dawan Landry and ranks fourth on the team with 85 tackles to go with one sack and one interception. "He actually came here on a tryout basis, one of those weekend deals," Ryan said. "We were like, 'You know what? This guy is pretty good. He's smart.' What do you mean he's smart? 'Well, he's running with the first team if that means anything.' So, I guess Ozzie decided to keep him then." ... The Ravens don't seem too worried about the muggier weather conditions of South Florida. "I think there's always some concern about that because you've got to make sure your players are hydrated and they're going to bed at night, getting their rest, which our guys are," Ryan said. "If our guys weren't taking care of themselves off the field, I think you'd have major concerns. For us, quite honestly, when you go into the heat, your body feels better. I think our players are looking forward to feeling that nice, warm air."

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