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Eisenberg: The Harbaugh Way Is Working

Posted Aug 10, 2014

Some coaches struggle to get through to today's players, but the Harbros discovered what it takes to prosper.

More and more NFL teams have held joint training camp practices in recent years, but there’ll never be two teams more suited to sharing a field than the Ravens and San Francisco 49ers.

They’re coached by brothers who share ideas and philosophies. When Jim and John Harbaugh held back-to-back separate interview sessions before their teams’ joint practice Saturday at the Under Armour Performance Center, you could only shake your head at just how alike they really are – and as a result, how alike their teams are.

The brothers have the same jaw and same smile, bristle with confidence in the same way and give the same kinds of answers to questions. Not that any of that is breaking news. They were “raised in the same house, ate the same food, came from the same mother, lived in the same room for 16 years. There’s bound to be some similarities, I would think,” Jim said Saturday.

They certainly coach football the same way. Just ask receiver Anquan Boldin, who played under John in Baltimore for three years and under Jim in San Francisco last year.

How the Ravens practice is “real similar to the way we (in San Francisco) practice,” Boldin said Saturday. “In a lot of instances, the practice field (in Baltimore) was tougher than games because of how hard we work, how we compete, how we go after one another. It’s very similar to how we (in San Francisco) practice.”

For both teams, practice is fast-paced, competitive and demanding, which is a pretty good description of what we probably should call The Harbaugh Way. The brothers aren’t old school taskmasters or extreme disciplinarians, but they’re firmly in charge and know what they want their players to understand:

They need to practice hard. They need to play like they practice. They need to be tougher than the guy across the line from them.

The Harbaugh Way is working. Some NFL coaches struggle to get through to today’s players, finding them so coddled and well-paid that they’re harder to motivate, a bit of a mystery. But the Harbaughs have discovered what it takes to prosper, the right tone to set, the right edge to calibrate.

In six years with the Ravens, John has gone 62-34 in the regular season, taken three trips to the AFC title game and won a Super Bowl. In three years with the 49ers, Jim has gone 36-11-1 and also taken three trips to his conference title game.

Combined, they have a .680 regular-season winning percentage, a .667 winning percentage in the playoffs (they’ve won 14 of 21 postseason games) and have made six conference title game appearances in nine seasons.

There are a lot of ways to excel as an NFL coach. Vince Lombardi rose to the top by stripping down his playbook, making things simple and demanding perfection. Bill Walsh and Tom Landry were innovators, pioneering new ways to play. Bill Belichick was the smartest guy in the room.

The Harbaughs are winning with their own, unique blend of old and new, preaching physicality and teamwork while still allowing for individual expression.

Yes, they do have some differences. As the Ravens and 49ers plowed through the first of their three days of joint practices Saturday, Jim was right in the 49ers’ offensive huddle, calling plays; a former NFL quarterback, he runs the show on that side of the ball. John delegates his units to coordinators but oversees with a CEO’s meticulousness and interjects what he wants.

“They’re both leaders,” Boldin said. “Their biggest similarity is the work ethic that they have and that they try to instill in the teams they coach. You try to go out and out-work everyone.”

Putting two teams with that philosophy on the same practice field could lead to trouble, but there was barely any chippiness Saturday. The players wore full pads and there was plenty of intensity (though no tackling to the ground), and the offenses dominated, but no one got hammered and there was plenty of helping each other up. A level-headed vibe prevailed.

It was clear that the head coaches had laid down the law as only they can, telling their players to behave.

And on these teams, when the head coaches speak, everyone listens.


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