Smaller pictures offer a good idea of how they've overcome their inexperience in guiding a team in this league to get there.
» Harbaugh has his players buying into the philosophy of "What's Important Now," reinforced by the "W.I.N." banner hanging above a goal post in the Ravens' indoor practice facility and signs carrying the same slogan over the doors that lead out of the club's auditorium. He has gotten them to treat every week as a one-game season, to not look ahead or become preoccupied with circumstances beyond their control, such as when veteran quarterback Steve McNair announced his surprise retirement in the offseason or when the next two quarterbacks in line took ill. Harbaugh simply turned the offense over to another rookie, Joe Flacco, and the daring decision to go with the product from tiny Delaware has paid off handsomely.
» Smith has connected well with his players, gaining their trust by treating them as people first. Trust wasn't easy to come by in Atlanta, given that his predecessor, Bobby Petrino, bolted for the University of Arkansas before the end of his first year as an NFL head coach in '07. An early sign of change was when Smith made a point to visit every injured player in the trainer's room during training camp. The idea wasn't to brow-beat them into getting back on the field; it was to let them know that he genuinely cared about how they were doing. Smith also wasn't afraid to start a rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan, who hasn't let his rookie coach down.
» Sparano became an NFL trendsetter early in the season when he boldly sought to improve his running game by employing the "Wildcat" formation, featuring direct snaps to halfback Ronnie Brown. Sparano doesn't get caught up in the star system. He takes an open-minded approach that gives opportunities to under-the-radar players -- such as fullback Lousaka Polite and tight end Joey Haynos -- to make meaningful contributions.
Harbaugh, Smith and Sparano each enter the final two weeks of the season with a 9-5 record. For Harbaugh's Ravens, that represents an improvement of four games over 2007. For Smith's Falcons, it's a five-game jump. And for Sparano's Dolphins, who were a 1-15 laughingstock, it's an incredible eight-game leap.
So much success so quickly is hardly the norm for NFL coaching, but there is more than one reason that we shouldn't be shocked.
Three highly respected former coaches in the league -- Don Shula, Marv Levy, and Dan Reeves -- certainly aren't.
</center> Here are some do's and don'ts for rookie NFL head coaches from Marv Levy, Don Shula, and Dan Reeves:
Levy: "To be a good coach, he needs three qualities: He has to be a good teacher, regardless of his personality; he has to work well with others in the organization, and he has to avoid micromanagement. At the same time, the head coach does have to have the final word on decisions. During staff meetings, you listen to your assistants and there are going to be all kinds of pressures to do it differently than you want to, but you have to make decisions. For instance, our defensive coaches in Buffalo never wanted us to run the no-huddle offense, but I made the decision that that was the best way for us to go."
Shula: "Every day you have to prove to your players that you've got them pointed in the right direction. As a rookie coach, you're going to be questioned more than if you were an experienced coach that has been there and done that. You've got to make sure that you win every meeting and you win every practice by demonstrating to the players that you're teaching them the things that are going to be beneficial to them when they're tested in game situations. And then, hopefully, in the preseason, you're in a position to win. That gives them the confidence when the games count."
Reeves: "When Mike Smith was getting ready to interview for the Falcons' job, he asked me my advice. I told him, 'I'm going to tell you the same thing (former Dallas) Coach (Tom) Landry told me: Be yourself and tell the truth. Because if you don't tell the truth, how are you ever going to remember what you said? If you stick with those two things, you've got a chance to be successful.' And don't assume you have all the answers. No matter how much experience you've got, you always think, 'Well, I'll handle everything. There's nothing that can happen to me that hasn't happened before.' And the next day, something will happen that you haven't experienced."
"What they've accomplished is amazing, don't get me wrong," said Reeves, who coached the Broncos, Giants, and Falcons. "But all of these guys prepared themselves for this. They've been through the National Football League, they've been with successful organizations, they've been with winning teams. They know what it takes to be successful."
Reeves learned plenty about putting together and maintaining a winning team as a player and assistant coach for the legendary Tom Landry in Dallas. He points to the positive coaching influences that all of the current rookie coaches -- including Washington's Jim Zorn -- had before ascending to their new positions.
For instance, Harbaugh was a special teams and secondary coach in Philadelphia for Andy Reid, who showed him the value of operating with a steady hand and focusing on the moment. Smith learned organizational skills from his brother-in-law, former Ravens coach Brian Billick, and picked up the finer points of player relations from Jack Del Rio, for whom he served as defensive coordinator in Jacksonville.
Sparano was an offensive line coach in Dallas for Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells, who was never shy about taking risks and constantly preached the importance of relying on as many different players as possible regardless of their draft pedigree -- or lack thereof. Zorn was the quarterbacks coach in Seattle for Mike Holmgren, from whom he absorbed a great deal of knowledge about how to develop a passer and maximize overall offensive production.
Influences on a macro level, such as the salary cap and free agency, enhance the chances for immediate success because rosters can change dramatically from one year to the next.
"If you're down in the bottom, you've got a better chance of getting better quickly than you used to," said Levy, who coached the Bills and Chiefs before entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "You not only can get better quickly, but the top-of-the-line teams all of a sudden can't hold onto all of their stars and they have a better chance of going down maybe more quickly."
No one understands rapid improvement better than Sparano, whose team is two wins from matching the 1999 Colts for the greatest one-year turnaround in the NFL. He didn't get his starting quarterback, Chad Pennington, until training camp had already begun because that was when he was released by the Jets to make room for Brett Favre. Pennington was a perfect fit for a system, installed by offensive coordinator Dan Henning, that emphasizes high-percentage passing while keeping mistakes to a minimum. Dolphins defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni constructed a 3-4 scheme that has done plenty to help revive the career of outside linebacker Joey Porter, who ranks second in the NFL with 17.5 sacks.
Harbaugh and Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron wisely eased Flacco into his rookie season by having him make mostly safe throws and utilize his running game to the max before allowing him to become more aggressive with his passes. Harbaugh also has shown wisdom in giving the highly talented defensive coordinator he inherited, Rex Ryan, the freedom to push all the right buttons on the NFL's second-ranked defense.
"The thing that I always tried to do was to surround myself with the best people," said Shula, the NFL's winningest coach who built a Hall-of-Fame career at the helm of the Dolphins and Colts. "I'd hire the best assistant coaches that I could hire. And I'd give them the opportunity to coach and to speak up, knowing that ultimately the final decision is yours, but why have coaches if you don't give them the opportunity to coach and to speak up?"
Harbaugh, Smith, and Sparano are in the most challenging phase of the season as they look to lead their teams into the playoffs.
What can these rookie coaches do to handle the increased pressure of December football? Nothing they didn't do in September.
"You draw on your experiences," Reeves said. "I came from Dallas. I had been in playoffs for 16 years (as a player and coach), and I knew that we approached them the same as you do a regular-season game. If you do that, you've got a chance to go out and execute the same way that got you into the playoffs in the first place."
Said Levy: "They can't be blown away by the magnitude of the situation. They've just got to be focused on the opponent."
Sounds a lot like the essence of what Harbaugh stresses to his team every day: "W.I.N."