Wednesday June 18th, 2008

It has become something of an NFL cliché in recent years, the notion that a new head coach or general manager taking over a losing team must before all else effect a dramatic culture change throughout the entire organization. First you supply a sweeping shock to the system, rejecting much of the way the team previously did business, and only then can you begin to revive, restore and rebuild.

If there's a general blueprint for turning things around in the NFL, it would fall within those basic parameters. That's exactly the process that's well underway in Baltimore this offseason. From my vantage point, the transformation project that John Harbaugh's Ravens have become is the league's most intriguing storyline to watch as the 2008 season looms.

In Baltimore's case, the dynamics in place are undeniably and deliciously combustible. You have a veteran-laden team that has long since grown set in its ways, but not without a great deal of success being realized this decade because of those methods. And you have a untested rookie head coach in the enthusiastic and energetic Harbaugh, whose determination to remake the Ravens into a more cohesive, disciplined, and less self-destructive unit is his every waking hour's goal.

As they say in the movie trailers, something's gotta give.

I talked to some sources within the Ravens organization this week to check in and find out how it's going in Harbaugh's attempts to teach a pretty old dog some very new tricks. Are the Ravens, who will return 19 of 22 starters this year -- including all 11 on its veteran-led defense -- being remade from the dysfunctional and disheartened 2007 unit that was fairly well torn apart by both injuries and the long-standing fissures that have existed between the team's ineffective offense and dominant defense?

Does Harbaugh at this point have enough team leaders who have bought into his program, thereby bringing the rest of the roster around to his vision of Baltimore as a resilient and resourceful club ready to shed its league-wide reputation as an undisciplined and somewhat self-centered collection of players? And after the debacle of last year's 5-11 collapse, could the still-talented Ravens be in the midst of building the foundation for one of those quintessential NFL worst-to-first turnaround stories?

People in position to know in Baltimore say Harbaugh, the former longtime Eagles special teams coach, has already made a remarkably quick impact on how the Ravens approach their work, how they think of themselves, and how they regard the importance of team chemistry.

"Everything has changed,'' said one Ravens source. "Everything. From the actual lockers, to the layout of the locker room, to the practices, to the weight program and how we lift. Our players even look physically different. They're bigger and stronger. That's been a huge difference, especially among our younger guys. It's very, very impressive.

"Just one example is that we used to do our lifting based on seniority. Now it's by positions. So the guys all compete against each other, against the guys they play with. There's more conditioning. High-tempo practices at all times. Lots of energy. Lots of accountability. It's a different mindset. We had become more of a walkthrough, stand-around program. But we've gone to the other extreme, and the players have responded.''

Not that the results were immediate by any means. Sources indicate there was a pretty strong locker room backlash to Harbaugh's new code of conduct in the early months of his tenure, with several players challenging him on such detail-oriented edicts as no slouching in meetings, no feet up on chairs, no hats pulled low over the eyes, and the wearing of game jerseys at practice. Harbaugh's priority at every turn has been to instill a sense of discipline to everything the Ravens do, believing that nothing typified Baltimore's lack of that essential ingredient to winning quite like its meltdown late in that Week 13 Monday-nighter against undefeated New England last season.

You remember that one. The Patriots would have never had to suffer the galling fate of losing at 18-0 in the Super Bowl if the Ravens' vaunted defense hadn't self-destructed beneath an avalanche of penalty flags and personal fouls in the pivotal moments of the fourth quarter. No other snapshot so perfectly sums up what needed fixing in Baltimore, and that near-upset ended by the Ravens' own hand seemed to presage the demise of coach Brian Billick's often-successful nine-year run.

"Initially there was a backlash,'' a team source said. "It was when the players didn't really know John yet, at least not face to face. He came in making all these changes, and the players said, 'Who is this guy?' But once they got to know him a little bit, all that uneasiness was kind of gone and they started to think this is going to work.

"It was kind of like for an alcoholic, they first have to admit they have a problem. Our players had to admit they had a problem. The way things were here before, the inmates were running the prison.''

Preaching character, accountability and discipline in things both large and small, Harbaugh has run the Ravens through a demanding offseason of workouts. Baltimore scheduled the maximum number of practices, and they have been ultra-competitive and fast-paced, with little tolerance shown for mistakes. Players have been yanked off the field for jumping offsides or committing other penalties, and fights have not been a rarity.

Seeking to "turn things upside down,'' Harbaugh has adopted a challenging, confrontational style at times with his players, sources said, even squaring off face-to-face with one defensive team leader who got mouthy with him in the midst of one particularly heated practice. One source called it a potential "corner-turning'' moment for the team.

Baltimore's new head coach even went so far as to tell Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti before he was hired that the job demanded he transform the team's mentality, and that the process would undoubtedly make for some trouble this offseason, a source said. "If you're not going to be comfortable with that, don't hire me,'' Harbaugh said, according to the source. "There could be guys running up to your office and saying 'This guy doesn't do things the right way.' But there's a right way to do things, and that's what we're going to do.''

Sources tell me that the most pivotal Raven in terms of being a team bellwether -- middle linebacker Ray Lewis -- has fully signed on to Harbaugh's program and has embraced Baltimore's culture change in all ways. If nothing else, Lewis is no dummy. He's seeking one more huge contract before retirement beckons, and he knows he has no shot of getting it from the Ravens -- or anyone else -- if he doesn't play ball and play it well this season.

"Ray wants the whole world to see who the real Ray Lewis really is,'' a Ravens source said. "The perception of him out there, it isn't right. Ray is totally in line with things here this year and has grabbed onto it as his own.''

More of a question mark at this point are Ravens veterans such as safety Ed Reed, cornerbacks Chris McAllister and Samari Rolle, and running back Willis McGahee. They haven't exactly been religious about attending the Ravens' offseason workout program this spring, and Harbaugh is said to be hopeful they'll fully fall in line with the rest of the team's all-out commitment to change in what promises to be a grueling training camp. If they don't, I wouldn't be shocked to see some of them weeded out of Harbaugh's program in the not-too-distant future.

Harbaugh believes Lewis and many of his other players are desperate to change the team's identity, and the lingering perception the Ravens lack discipline, integrity and character. He's convinced they crave the kind of structure and accountability he's working to instill in the locker room, but were so set in their ways that they didn't know how to change.

"This group of men, they are men of integrity, and they've got character,'' Harbaugh told me this week. "For whatever reason, that perception wasn't out there. But I've really been impressed to see them work throughout this offseason. They love to compete and they love to play this game.''

In particular, Harbaugh and new Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron have vigorously attacked the inferiority complex that Baltimore's offense has always labored under in relation to its much more celebrated defense. Throughout Billick's tenure, the belief the Ravens quarterback-challenge offense would in the end eventually wind up wasting the defense's stalwarts efforts became a sad and almost self-perpetuating cycle.

Harbaugh has worked hard to stop the internecine warfare, to the point where the defense's practice-field penchant for trash-talking to the offense is no longer acceptable. "There's a difference between building up your teammate and showing up your teammate,'' a team source said. "The defense here was always pointing the finger at the offense. It became all about the offense and about Billick. It was all Billick's fault. That became the easy excuse, and that had to stop.''

According to a team source, Cameron has excelled at starting to get the offense to be seen as equal partners to Baltimore's defense. "The offense is not backing down,'' the source said. "The offense used to just crack when they were against the defense. But they're coming off the ball and they're finishing blocks. Little brother is not backing down any more.''

Said another Ravens source: "We had to create a sense of self-worth on offense, and while a lot of it remains to be seen, Cam has done a great job of instilling some pride and some confidence and a sense of tempo to our offense. That's been fun to see. Before on our team, the defense won maybe nine out of 10 times. Now it's maybe seven out of 10. That's a difference.''

And here's another key difference that you might quickly notice about Baltimore this season: They've got a quarterback who can get it done. And maybe two. Even with Steve McNair opting for retirement in May.

Last year's fifth-round pick, Troy Smith, has made huge strides this spring and has passed up veteran Kyle Boller as the odds-on favorite to be the Ravens opening-day starter. Smith can still struggle with his accuracy on some throws, but he has excited Ravens decision-makers with his rapid development after starting the final two games of 2007, and it's understood that there will be no real competition between him and Boller in camp.

Cameron has infused Smith's game with plenty of plays that get him moving around and throwing on the run, in part to better utilize his athleticism and minimize the problems the 6-foot Smith has in finding clear throwing lanes at the line of scrimmage.

"When Cam was head coach at Indiana, he coached Antwaan Randle-El (at quarterback) and made him maybe the most dangerous player in college football,'' a Ravens source said. "We're doing some very exciting things with Troy Smith, and he's much better than people are expecting.''

Which is the same optimistic sentiment that Ravens insiders are quietly expressing about rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, the team's first-round pick this year. Smith's only competition for the Week 1 starting job is Flacco, and the sense I get from Ravens sources is Baltimore expects to have a much tougher decision to make than anyone foresaw. Prudence will likely dictate that Smith gets the nod, with Flacco not getting his chance until mid-October or so, but it's a much more fluid situation than most anticipated.

Ravens sources told me Flacco never makes the same mistake twice, and at this early date has already exhibited a good command of Cameron's offense. He's smart, poised and the former Division I-AA standout has yet to look in over his head against Baltimore's veteran defense in offseason workouts. If he looks solid in camp and puts together a quality preseason, prepare for the Start Flacco Now campaign to be off and running. And the movement may have backers among the Ravens coaching staff and front office.

"When it all comes together, he could be really special,'' a Ravens source said. "He's made some throws that make you have to fight the urge to throw him in here from day one. He looks so good, so strong, so accurate. But the best case for us is that Troy keeps playing really well and we don't have to play Joe early. If that's the case, all the better.''

Two quality quarterbacks to choose from in Baltimore? That would pass as a pretty dramatic culture change in and of itself. Could anything in the NFL this year top that transformation?

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