Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo nods as he discusses the email suggestion box in which players can request changes in policy that make the team a little bit better and a little bit happier.
Safety Ed Reed leans forward on his podium and reminisces about the midseason mutiny in which Harbaugh and the team figured out how to move past an incident that could have destroyed the team's season.
If we're talking about the John Harbaugh of five years ago, when he took over his current job, these players wouldn't be discussing any of these traits. Mostly because they didn't exist. Harbaugh was too stubborn, too busy trying to rebuild the franchise's foundation in his own way.
Yet one reason the Ravens will play in Sunday's Super Bowl is because the hard-line Harbaugh of 2008 has softened. Enough to tell his players that he loves them, enough to take their suggestions under serious advisory, enough to soothe a team that he probably wouldn't have tried to heal before.
“Coach had to come in that way,” Reed said, referring to Harbaugh's stubborn stance in his early years as Ravens coach. “If you don't put your foot down as a coach, you're just getting run over by your players. Coach understood he had a bunch of men, but he also had to get us to build something to get us to this point. It's a matter of structure, discipline and doing the right things. Having a true leader that you follow, a coach that's going to guide you to do the right things. Guys bought it. I'm not going to say he broke [this year], but he bent to give us leeway to do things our way.”
Never was that more evident than during the near mutiny in the middle of the season. Harbaugh wanted the team to practice in pads. The team refused. An intense meeting ensued. Harbaugh relented. Eventually, the team figured out how to win with its more player-friendly coach.
After the meeting, Reed and Williams sat for an hour discussing what had happened. Williams was in disbelief at what had just occurred and how Harbaugh had responded. Then, Williams made a prediction. “We will,” he said, “come back to this moment.”
Harbaugh asked players to email him with proposals that would help the team -- the so-called suggestion box. He told players that he had an open-door policy and that he really meant it. He worked on becoming more flexible.
“If there's an issue, he's going to take it head-on,” Ayanbadejo said. “He's a guy who never backs down. He believes in things a certain way, and he says we're going to do these things until doomsday. Then, we send in our suggestion box, and he's goes, ‘OK. Maybe I can change this up a little bit.' That says a lot about him. He's so strong-minded, but he also understands that he has to be open. You can't be so set in your ways that you can't improve.”
Said Williams: “If we think they should add something that will benefit the players -- like adding a stretch guy -- he'll slot out times to stretch out in practice so we can work on flexibility. Some coaches would be like, ‘Do that on your own time.' No, he'll take time out for us all to get better at it together.”
Asked Wednesday how much he has evolved during his Ravens tenure, Harbaugh laughed and said he wasn't sure his team would agree. But he also made it clear that he understands the importance of having an open relationship with his players.
“Those are the benefits of growing up in the house as we did as coach's kids,” he said. “We saw that with our dad. There are some principles you live by. One of them is, put your players first. You're a coach; that's why you're doing it. You're doing it for your players. You're doing it for your students, just like a teacher. We learned that as kids.”
From Jack Harbaugh, whose college coaching career spanned five decades, John leaned the importance of those relationships. He remembers as a kid when his father invited his players over to the house. Not just the players. The players' girlfriends. The players' wives. The players' kids. One big happy family. When John tells his players that he loves them, you can look to his father to discover where that affection was born.
Former Philadelphia coach Andy Reid helped nurture it. Williams could see that when he played for the Eagles from 2001-03, when Harbaugh was the special teams coach. Harbaugh learned from Reid, and now Harbaugh has a chance to do Reid one better and win a Super Bowl title.
“[Philadelphia] was a first-class run organization,” Williams said. “What 'Coach Harbs' has done has taken some parts of that regime and taken it to Baltimore, but he has taken it to another level. I've never seen anything like what he's doing here.”
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