Bold coaching choice triggered new era in Baltimore By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
John Harbaugh's rise through the coaching ranks came after a prolonged tryout on sidelines.
In the winter of 2008, the Baltimore Ravens had a choice to make.
Upon firing a popular, outspoken, media-savvy coach with Super Bowl credentials, the franchise could have doubled down on the headline-friendly approach and hired a familiar face -- long-term incumbent defensive coordinator Rex Ryan -- to succeed his former boss, Brian Billick.
Instead, they changed the tenor of the conversation.
And now, five Januarys later, the gamble on an untested John Harbaugh has yielded a Super payoff.
"If I thought Brian Billick was going to be the best coach, I would have brought him back and hired him," said Steve Bisciotti, who succeeded Art Modell as the Ravens' majority owner. "If I thought Rex Ryan was ready, I would've hired him. There's no statement underlying my decision."
Though it was ultimately topped off with the front office's bold move, the reserved Harbaugh's rise to the top of the coaching ranks actually came after a prolonged tryout on sidelines.
He began the climb as a 22-year-old running backs/outside linebackers coach at Western Kentucky University in 1984, then wound his way through college campuses at Pittsburgh (tight ends coach), Morehead State (special teams/secondary coach), Cincinnati (special teams coordinator) and Indiana (special teams coordinator/defensive backs coach) through 1997.
The apprenticeship on the NFL level was nearly as long -- 10 years -- but significantly less chaotic, featuring a single stop in Philadelphia, where he spent nine seasons as special teams coordinator (one under Ray Rhodes, eight with Andy Reid) and one more as Reid's secondary/safeties coach.
A 13-3 run with the Eagles in 2004 led to Harbaugh's initial taste of the sport's biggest game, which ended with a 24-21 loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX eight years ago.
"I think the experience of going through the Super Bowl one time is positive for a coach, and it's positive for a player," he said. "You have a sense of the timing a little bit. You understand how the week goes. You understand the distractions, the potential distractions and you understand the timeline for the game as much as anything. That will be a plus, but they're all different.
"I remember it was Jacksonville (and) it was kind of cold that week. That's the biggest memory I have of that week. And the fact that we did not win, you never forget that."
Harbaugh's wait to lead his own staff was extended by a day when the Baltimore job was initially offered to Jason Garrett. But when the then-Dallas assistant decided to stay with the Cowboys as offensive coordinator and presumed coach- in-waiting, he got the call.
And upon being formally introduced a day later, Harbaugh quickly converted the masses.
"They would have been crazy not to hire that dude," said Reno Mahe, who returned 95 punts and 35 kickoffs with the Eagles from 2003 to 2007. "He took this undrafted rookie and formed me into a player. He made me do things I didn't think I could do. In 2005, I led the league in punt returns, and 99 percent of that had to do with him."
Within months, the new coach initiated a similar transformation of the Baltimore roster, which had long eschewed offensive star power while hoarding some of the league's top defenders.
Though Harbaugh inherited a 2008 cupboard stocked with veteran quarterbacks Steve McNair and Kyle Boller -- along with youngster Troy Smith -- he quickly added Delaware's Joe Flacco with the No. 18 draft pick that April, then provided his new passer a weapon in the form of Ray Rice in the second round.
Neither McNair, nor Boller, nor Smith ever took another snap for the Ravens, leaving Flacco to start all 80 regular-season games since while advancing to the playoffs in each of his five years -- winning an NFL-record (for quarterbacks) six road postseason games along the way.
"Joe has transformed us in a lot of ways. It's been a process and Joe has been hugely successful doing it," Harbaugh said. "Obviously he's got talent, everyone can see he's a big strong guy, he can throw the ball, he's accurate, he's a tough competitor, he's a winner, he's a leader, and he's ours ... he's a Raven.
"That's what I like about him the best. He embodies the things that the Ravens are always about. People talk about a transformation; I would say it's more of an extension of who the Ravens are. That kind of mindset, Joe fits right in with that and he's just built on that."
Rice, meanwhile, quickly went from a little-used rookie novelty out of Rutgers to a three-time Pro Bowl performer who's caught at least 60 passes and run for at least 1,100 yards in each of four seasons since, while scoring a combined 39 touchdowns -- 33 on the ground and six on receptions.
"The last few years have definitely helped out. I didn't know what playoff football was about my rookie year," Rice said. "The second year was good, but after my third season, that's when I really started to understand what playoff football was about. We started getting guys on the team that hadn't been to the playoffs and they've been in the league 10 years. I've been blessed and fortunate enough to play in the playoffs five years ... three AFC Championships and one Super Bowl."
The Ravens won no fewer than nine games and as many as 12 (twice) in Harbaugh's initial four seasons, capturing two AFC North crowns and adding at least one playoff win each year before falling short in a pair of conference title games at Pittsburgh and New England.
Still, the long-awaited Super Bowl berth came after what was arguably Harbaugh's most trying stretch, when Baltimore tumbled from a 9-2 start with four losses in its final five games. The ill-timed tailspin -- during which offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was abruptly fired -- prompted a plummet to the No. 4 seed entering the AFC playoffs and had most observers expecting a quick exit.
Instead, Rice said, the coach insisted the new season meant new possibilities.
"You grind all season and everybody was talking about us when we lost a couple games, but we really knew we only needed one (to clinch the playoff spot)," Rice said. "You grind to get into the playoffs. And everybody knows when you get in those games, it's totally different. You can wipe your schedule out, your yards; wipe everything out to start 0-0 in the playoff schedules. We knew it was two seasons."