The New Noll

Tuesday January 6th, 2015

PITTSBURGH — I got the craziest thought covering the Ravens’ wild-card win over the Steelers on Saturday night at Heinz Field: John Harbaugh has a chance to be the modern-day Chuck Noll. He’s not the only one, of course. His rivals in the AFC North, Mike Tomlin and Marvin Lewis, have been with their franchises longer. But Harbaugh, who on Saturday leads the Ravens into their fourth playoff game at New England in the last six seasons, has so many things going for him. Such as:

He wins. Starting from scratch with a rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, in 2008, Harbaugh’s Ravens have averaged 11.7 wins per year, including playoffs.

He wins in January. In his seven years as coach of the Ravens, Baltimore has won 10 postseason  games, including five in a row entering Saturday’s AFC divisional game at New England. Ten postseason wins in the last seven years is twice as many as any other team in the league since 2008. His 10-4 lifetime postseason record is the same as Bill Walsh’s career mark.

He has an owner likely inclined to be patient. I've got an apocryphal story later, but Steve Bisciotti does not want to hire another coach—if he can help it. He’s a believer in the Rooney/Mara school of patience with coaches, even after firing a fairly successful one, Brian Billick, to make his marriage with Harbaugh.

He has a 29-year-old quarterback who is one of the best playoff quarterbacks in football. Flacco turns 30 on Jan. 16, and eight of his last nine postseason games have been 95-plus rating performances. Flacco has won five playoff games in a row, throwing 13 touchdowns and no interceptions in them. He’s got the kind of Joe Cool vibe about him that some of the best had. One other thing to like: He shows up. Baltimore has played 126 games since drafting Flacco in 2008; Flacco has started them all.

His front office is well-trained in the art of staying the course. Harbaugh is 52. Bisciotti is 54. Baltimore’s ace GM, Ozzie Newsome, is 58, but the GM-in-waiting, Newsome’s trusted assistant who keeps turning down GM interviews elsewhere to stay in Baltimore, Eric DeCosta, is 43. Flacco, at 30 in 2015, probably has seven to nine good years left, based on his health and aversion to injury. The owner, the GM, the quarterback … those are a head coach’s three best friends. And Baltimore is rock-solid at the trio of spots for a few years, minimum.

Harbaugh, with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti (Doug Kasputin/Getty Images) Harbaugh, with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti (Doug Kasputin/Getty Images)

His rapport with players helps. When Harbaugh became coach, he did a few unpopular things with respected veterans like Ray Lewis, taking away some of the freedoms they had under Billick. But as a career assistant coach who’d never had anything handed to him, he preferred to treat everyone as equals. “Coaching is about relationships," said Steve Smith Sr., the 35-year-old wide receiver, “and John has one-on-ones with everybody on the team, all the time. Breakfasts, lunches, dinners, on the practice field."

Of course, the challenge to be another Noll is not just coaching the team. It’s having an owner who doesn’t sway in the breeze when public opinion is beating him up. Noll coached the last 12 years of his career without winning even a conference championship. It’s hard to imagine any coach, anywhere, lasting 12 seasons in one spot without getting to a Super Bowl.

But think of everything Harbaugh has going for him. He also knows how to lead, and he’s a smart person, and though he has some bully tendencies, Bill Parcells did too. Sean Payton does. Vince Lombardi did. That’s part of coaching.

Noll lasted 23 years in Pittsburgh. Could Harbaugh last another 13, 15 years in Baltimore? That would mean he’d have finished a third of his career now. He seems like such a fixture, but to think he could still be coaching the Ravens until he’s 67 in 2030, is difficult to comprehend in this 24/7 football life. Noll, in his day, could disappear and sail or study wine for weeks in the offseason, and he had no interest in some of the things that trap so many coaches today. Noll never did a commercial in 23 years. “Give those things to the players," he’d say. Harbaugh’s no fame hound, but the demands on a coach’s time dwarf what they were when Noll made the Steelers famous.

I met Harbaugh in a corner of the Ravens’ locker room Saturday night. I said to Harbaugh after the 30-17 win over the Steelers: I could see you being a Chuck Noll, lasting a long time in Baltimore. Could you?

“Personally," he said, “that would be the ultimate accomplishment. The Chuck Nolls, the Don Shulas … What those guys did, that would be the ultimate thing, because having success over a long period of time, the way the National Football League is set up nowadays, that would be an incredible thing. That would be … that would just be something, really."

He was surprised by the question, and he got a little emotional answering it.

* * *

When Bisciotti decided to fire Billick after the 2007 season, he gathered his Ravens braintrust in a team conference room in the Baltimore suburb of Owings Mills. “We’re going to do this right," Bisciotti said. “We’re going to do it so we don’t have to do it again for a long time. Whoever we pick, we’re going to grow with this guy."

John Harbaugh has been with the Ravens one less season—and has one less Super Bowl win—than Mike Tomlin's been in Pittsburgh. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) John Harbaugh has been with the Ravens one fewer season—and earned one fewer Super Bowl trip—than Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

So the Ravens hired Harbaugh at 44. For 18 of the previous 19 years, he’d been a special teams coach, with the University of Cincinnati, Indiana University and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Ravens not only hired a relative unknown to be their head coach; they hired a special-teams man. Bisciotti sat in the room with Harbaugh and saw the charisma and the leadership and the football intelligence and the work-within-the-system guy he wanted as a head coach.

I was thinking about Bisciotti’s decision Saturday night. The Ravens had six defensive backs out for the season with injuries. On this night, for a playoff game against a quarterback who strafed them for six touchdown passes the last time they played, the Ravens dressed eight defensive backs. Six of them were either picked up off the street or picked off a foes’ practice squad. The six, on this night, played 72, 64, 48, 32, 31 and six snaps against the Steelers.

In modern football, some teams survive this spate of injuries. The Ravens have. This year, the Giants, with 20 men down, didn’t. The 49ers, with their linebackers wiped out, didn’t. But there’s something about the Ravens. During the season, dating back to training camp, I know they were chasing cornerbacks. They knew they were thin there, and getting thinner with each injury, but they wouldn’t pay a ransom. The Broncos were dangling their fifth corner, Tony Carter, for a mid-round pick, and the Ravens thought it was robbery and left it alone. During the summer and early fall, they studied 40 cornerbacks, men either on practice squads or low on teams’ depth charts, and pursued them. Nothing. No nibbles, even. Cornerbacks are at such a premium now that no team would accept a realistic price for a fifth cornerback. So week by week, Harbaugh and Newsome and some in the personnel staff would meet to talk personnel, particularly cornerbacks.

“We met every Thursday," Harbaugh said. “We went over every player in the league who was either on a practice squad or the bottom of somebody’s roster, or guys on the street, that we would have some interest in. We studied all of them. So when we lost guys, we didn’t have to start a search for guys. We already had our list. We had to sort ’em one last time with the coaches. That’s how we found Melvin. Rashaan Melvin. Last time we played these guys, he was on Miami’s practice squad.”

Melvin is the prefect example of the Ravens working in concert. He started at cornerback against Ben Roethlisberger, covering deep threats Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. Here is his story: undrafted out of Northern Illinois, signed by Tampa Bay, IR’d by Tampa in 2013, waived by the Bucs last September, signed by Miami to the practice squad in Week 9, practiced with Miami for eight days, and coming off the practice field in South Florida one November afternoon, a coach said to him, “You’ve been poached by the Baltimore Ravens."

Poached. That was a word Melvin didn’t know.

“I was trying to figure out if that was good or bad," he said Saturday night. “I asked my coach, ‘Is that good or bad?'"

It was good. Baltimore poached Melvin, added him to its active roster, and when Asa Jackson went on IR in December, Melvin became a crucial part of the defense. He started Saturday night and played 64 snaps, and the Ravens somehow held Roethlisberger, at home, to three field-goal drives and one touchdown, and picked him off twice.

“I owe this team a lot," Melvin said. “I guess they saw a couple of films on me and decided to take a shot. But after [Jackson] got hurt, Coach Harbaugh came up to me one day and said, ‘Rashaan, you’re up. Be ready.’ That was big. So I got ready. I just didn’t want to disappoint him or the team."

Said Harbaugh: “It starts with Steve Bisciotti, Ozzie Newsome and [president] Dick Cass. Nobody cares who gets the credit. Nobody’s trying to out-do somebody else so he’ll look good. Nobody’s doing anything to get a job. We don’t make decisions … I mean, we’ll disagree, and we’ll argue things out. But it’s always from a position of respect."

Harbaugh won’t say if he thinks this has been the toughest season for the Ravens to be a competitive team. “We had 20 guys on IR in ’08," he said. “We had a lot of things happen in our Super Bowl year—a lot of things. I’m not going to compare. But what we are is persistent. Relentlessly persistent in what we do. Over time, that pays off."

When the team gathers Tuesday to hear Harbaugh's message for Patriots week, it'll be the same stuff it heard last week. Harbaugh said he told the team last week: “We just gotta win a game. Just gotta play better than them one game. It’s gonna be about football. Not about a rivalry. Not about a playoff games. Not about where we play. It’s just football. Play football better than they do for one night. One game." The reason that’s applicable this week is because of their rivalry with New England. They have played three times in the playoffs, and Baltimore has won two and lost one by a field goal—with kicker Billy Cundiff missing a 32-yarder in the final seconds.

"While you might think about something like longevity," Harbaugh says, "the only way you survive is by thinking one second, one play, one minute at a time."

Harbaugh will figure a way to impact his team. He has guests—players, sometimes, and people from the community at other times—talk to his team almost every day. When veteran Ravens guard Marshal Yanda talked to the team after a spate of hot weather one year in camp, Yanda told his mates to “embrace the grind.” When Harbaugh got back to his office, he asked one of the equipment guys if they could have shirts made up with “Embrace The Grind” on the front. And they did. Earlier this year Harbaugh asked a special-teams player, Anthony Levine, to speak to the team, and Levine told them he’d been on a Super Bowl team in Green Bay in 2010, and though he was injured that year, he felt he could compare that team with this one. “Let me tell you one thing," Levine said. “We have a lot more fun here.”

Free of NFL allegiances, Jim Harbaugh watched as a fan Saturday in Pittsburgh. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images) Free of NFL allegiances, Jim Harbaugh the fan watched his brother's team win in Pittsburgh. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Said Flacco: “A lot of times the coach might not have a big impact. I’ve been on teams where the players basically are the ones with the biggest impact. But the thing with John is, he’s there every day in the team meeting, so confident, and I think we feed off him. He does a great job not only setting up the schedule every day for us to be our very best, but also portraying the confidence. I think now, even more so. I’ve been here every day he has. He’s even more confident this year. For whatever reason it definitely rubs off. I see it every week."

John Harbaugh is not his brother. Jim was in Pittsburgh on Saturday night, thrilled to watch a game he wasn’t coaching. “An honor he was here," said John. It’s probably wrong to say one is a short-termer and one a long-termer, because if Jim Harbaugh had seen eye-to-eye with the 49er architects, maybe he’d have stayed for a decade or more. But you don’t have to ask or wonder whether John Harbaugh will stay in Baltimore. If he wins enough, and if Bisciotti keeps owning the team, and if the personnel side keeps the same character, John Harbaugh will grow old in Baltimore.

"That’s an incredible thing to think about,’’ he said. “But it’s like I tell the guys: It’s year to year, it’s game to game, it’s hour to hour, it’s minute to minute, it’s play to play, it’s second to second. That’s the way the National Football League works. So while the reality is that you might think about something like that, the longevity, the only way you survive is by thinking one second, one play, one minute at a time. Our guys, they’re not looking left, they’re not looking right. They had a lot of things that could have distracted them in the course of this season, but they didn’t let that happen. They ask their questions, process it, then move on. They keep the important things important. That’s what I’m proud of."


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