John Harbaugh reflects on Baltimore Ravens' image makeover

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh stood up, then sat down. He moved from his desk to a conference table in his second-floor office at Baltimore's stately facility. And then Harbaugh gazed out the window at a field about to be filled by the 90 players who would report to camp the next day.

This is his place now.

Like the other 31 head coaches in the NFL, Harbaugh doesn't know what the next six months have in store for his team. But on this Wednesday afternoon, he did know exactly what he'd be looking at four hours later, when he'd address his Ravens before kicking off training camp. He'd see straight backs. He'd see eyes forward. He'd see feet on the ground. He'd see a singular focus.

Know this: It wasn't always this way for Harbaugh in Baltimore.

"Somehow, last year, and now, this year, more so than ever, I feel in my element as the head coach," he said, leaning back in his desk chair. "It looks the way I always wanted it to look. I remember I told the team in some of the tough moments back then, 'I know what it's going to look like, the picture is as clear as can be in my mind, and we're not even close to being there yet. But we will be, no matter how long it takes, we will get there, I promise you that.' And right now, it looks as close as it's ever looked."

For Harbaugh, "back then" represents his first year or two in Baltimore. "Tough moments" is also a relative term, considering he's the first coach in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first four seasons. So it's even more interesting that, the way he sees it, his efforts to recast an already successful franchise are just now nearing completion.

The job Harbaugh inherited in Baltimore could have been simultaneously viewed as the best and toughest in the league. Under the direction of owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome, talent and resources were never going to be a problem. But the standard for success was high -- the Ravens weren't undergoing a rebuilding project, in which a 7-9 record would be acceptable. And while the players Harbaugh was to lead were gifted, they had also become entitled and inconsistent, and would be a challenge to reach.

The real system failure of the old way might have come on a Monday night in December of 2007, with a 4-7 Ravens team going toe-to-toe with the 11-0 New England Patriots. Baltimore outplayed New England for most of that game and carried the lead through most of the fourth quarter. An epic meltdown followed, punctuated with Bart Scott firing a penalty flag across the field in frustration in the waning moments. Even faced with an undefeated behemoth, talent wasn't the issue that night. Being the bad guys had finally caught up with the Ravens, leading to bad football. Baltimore, wearing black head-to-toe that night, went on to finish 5-11.

Those uniforms had been mothballed when Harbaugh took the job in the offseason that followed. For his part, Harbaugh thought the Ravens had just been "playing into everyone's stereotypical thinking."

"Individuality and personality are really important," he explained. "That's what America's built on -- rugged individualism. But we're not talking about selfishness. We're not talking about selfishness, we're not talking about self-promotion or self-glorification. That's the difference between the black hat and the white hat. The black hat is self-centered, self-oriented."

That might explain why, after winning the Super Bowl in 2000, the supremely gifted Ravens were so up-and-down. From 2001 to 2007, they compiled records of 10-6, 7-9, 10-6, 9-7, 6-10, 13-3 and 5-11. The foundation, as originally laid by Newsome, was always there. But there were cracks in the armor. Given how headstrong the players on the roster were, reforming and refining the group's collective, trademark swagger wasn't going to be easy for Harbaugh.

He had to pass, in his words, "the credibility test and the trust test" with a team of accomplished professional athletes. Harbaugh now feels fortunate that there was enough talent in the locker room to make it possible for the Ravens to keep winning while he implemented his changes. But it wasn't an easy process.

Asked what would make him feel good when he looked at his players later that day, he said it would be the way they look back at him. No slouching, no distant eyes, no one dozing off, no one thinking they're too good -- or too famous -- for the guy next to him.

"That's exactly what I'm most proud of, is the connection I'll feel in that room between coach and team," Harbaugh said. "When I first stood in front of that team, the rift was palpable, shockingly so. And now the connection is intense. The relationships are so strong, and they continue to need to be built and worked on. But that's what I'm most proud of."

Interestingly, the turnaround came to life most vividly for Harbaugh in another loss to the Patriots by the thinnest of margins. This time, it was on the road, a devastating defeat headlined by a Lee Evans drop and a Billy Cundiff shank that left the Ravens just shy of Super Bowl XLVI six months ago.

"You walk off the field after a championship game you probably should've won, and you lost it. Where does a man stand at that moment?" Harbaugh asked rhetorically. Where his team stood after that loss -- together and accountable -- told him all he needed to know.

Harbaugh admits now that the loss hurt, "maybe even more so" than the previous three playoff defeats. But the way the Ravens responded reaffirmed his belief that this team, his team, wasn't far from the top of the mountain.

"To me, the whole thing is, become better, become so much better that it's not even an issue," Harbaugh said. "Let's make our team so good, there's no question. Because there's going to be that moment, 10 minutes before the victory celebration ... In acquiring coaches, acquiring players, putting the schemes together, the way we practice, the way we meet, the way we train, all that is going to come into play 10 minutes before the victory celebration. And we're going to do everything we can to be as good as we can be in that moment. And then you've got to let the chips fall."

The team he'll go forward with now is similar in talent and construction to the "Big Bad Ravens" of last decade, but the makeup inside the locker room is much different. Now, the visions of Bisciotti, Newsome and Harbaugh have melded.

Asked again about shaping the Ravens, Harbaugh turned his chair and pointed to a flat-screen television affixed to his office wall.

"I talk about it, what's on that screen, that's your team's work of art, that's your Picasso," he said. "You're the artist, as a coach, of your team. You're the artist, as a player, of what you look like. And now the beautiful thing, that picture, that vision, I feel like it's, to one degree or another, in everybody's eye. Everybody sees it more close than ever to the way I see it, and therefore it's becoming more reality. That's really exciting. So I walk out there and I'm happier, because I know that it looks (how) it's supposed to look."

Harbaugh dusted off the all-black uniforms for a game against the New Orleans Saints in December 2010. He broke them out again last October against the New York Jets.

"Yeah, we got out of (using those uniforms) for a couple years, until we'd clearly established the style of football we were going to play," Harbaugh said, cracking another smile. "And then it was just a uniform choice."

And that speaks volumes about where this coach is now and how his team has grown around him.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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