After losing to the Chiefs on the Sunday before Christmas, John Harbaugh drove home thinking of ways to make the Ravens better and finding a way to beat the Steelers the following week.
"I made the decision that night that we would start Ryan [Mallett]," the head coach said earlier this week. Pretty bold considering Mallett had just joined the Ravens on Dec. 15. And, well, it was the Steelers, a team noted for its complex defenses.
"First, I thought he was good enough to help us win," Harbs explained. "And, it would give us the opportunity to see him in real games for two weeks. We had seen since he arrived that he was willing to work. He basically didn't leave the building, learning the offense, becoming one of the guys. He made a real impression on all of us."
John talked with Offensive Coordinator Marc Trestman about the quarterback change on Monday and volunteered to talk with the three signal callers on Tuesday morning. (The players were off on Monday.)
"We all received a text from Coach Harbaugh on Monday night, early Tuesday. He wanted to see us first thing," 12-year veteran and two-time Pro Bowler Matt Schaub told me on Tuesday. "I've been in the league a long time and knew that he could be telling me I was starting over Jimmy, or that he was going in a different direction."
While Coach Harbaugh wanted to meet with the trio at the same time, it didn't work that way.
"I saw Coach early, and he said, 'Why you don't come up now,'" Schaub said. "We ended up talking for 15 minutes. I was ready to play, healthy enough (after missing the previous two games) and was disappointed when he told me that they were going to start Ryan. I am a competitor and wanted to finish the season as the starter and help us beat Pittsburgh and Cincinnati."
"Matt and Jimmy are real pros. They didn't like it. Who would? They hadn't done anything to be taken out. Matt got hurt, and Jimmy played well against two of the best defenses (Seattle and Kansas City) in the league," Harbaugh explained. "We weren't surprised when each said they would do all that they could to get Ryan ready. What does it say about them? Honorable, really outstanding teamwork. They are good, good guys.
"The three worked. The hours they spent in the building last week were the full spectrum."
Trestman said the entire week was special. "As corny as this sounds, it was a week of selflessness by two mature men (Schaub and Clausen) putting the team first. The core principal for the week was, 'How can we help Ryan be as ready as he could be.'"
"This is a cut-throat business, and I've seen some of it," Clausen said. "But, no one is above the team. Certainly not me. I was disappointed. I thought I had played well against two good defenses, and I wanted the chance to win against the Steelers. I was becoming more comfortable. That was my frustration, not the Ravens.
"We're all competitive, and we do try to take each other's jobs. We all want to play. This was a time to help someone else get ready, and that was the focus for Matt and me. Matt helped me get ready, and now it was my turn to help Ryan."
Mallett, for his part, was more than surprised when the head coach told him he would start. "I guess I was a little shocked. I was willing and able, but I had been here for just a few days. It was early when I met with him, and I was a little sleepy, and I was wondering a little, 'Did I just hear him right?'
"It did mean a lot to me," Mallett continued. "I know this isn't the typical season for the Ravens, but they, no we, are all about winning, and I was going to get the chance to contribute."
It wasn't an easy preparation for the five-year veteran. "The football language here was brand new to me. Literally, it's like trying to learn a new language five days before you go visit a new country. Matt and Jimmy were very helpful, and the coaches were unbelievable. They gave me confidence."
"It is about team here," Schaub added. "Put yourself in Ryan's shoes. It was going to be hard for him. He had a lot of information to process, a lot of nuance."
Mallett said, "Tidbits Matt offered all week were significant." The trio of QBs met daily in the cafeteria around 6:30 a.m. "We'd take care of some of our training room and other stuff and then meet over breakfast."
"What Matt and Jimmy did for me meant a lot. I've been in quarterback rooms where it's every man for himself. They didn't have to be as helpful. You hear things are different in Baltimore, and I was seeing it," Mallett complimented.
There was also the matter of who would be the backup to Mallett on gameday. "My recommendation to John [Harbaugh] was that Matt back up Ryan. Matt had worked hard to come back from his injuries and would not have been replaced if he had been healthier," Trestman explained. "A tough part was telling that to Jimmy, who had played well in the losses and did everything we asked. To his credit, Jimmy embraced the change to Ryan and was in here 24/7 helping."
Trestman also applauded the "collaborative effort of the offensive coaches. [Quarterbacks Coach] Marty [Mornhinweg], [Offensive Quality Control Coach] Andy [Bischoff], [Senior Offensive Assistant] Craig [Ver Steeg] … Everyone was involved in helping Ryan be ready and editing a game plan that worked for Ryan. We knew from practice that it could work on Sunday. Ryan was especially locked in on Thursday and Saturday. His foot work, his throws, the command of the play call – all were in sync."
"The coaches gave me confidence during the week," Mallett added. "By Saturday, I was comfortable with the plan and knew I could do this."
Schaub summarized Mallett's winning performance against the Steelers. "He was fantastic. What he did was difficult when you have a full offseason and training camp in a system. He did it with just a few days of prep. It was impressive."
And, as Mallett said on Wednesday, "I would not have been ready for it without Matt, Jimmy and the coaches. I'm just thankful – and very happy and excited to be here."
We're excited to have you, Ryan. Let's do it again Sunday on the banks of the Ohio River. Let's beat the Bengals.
Talk with you next week,
P.S. Have we mentioned that things are a little competitive around here? I noted in an earlier column that Coach Harbaugh said he was impressed at how early Schaub arrives for work. "He beats me into the office every now and then," Harbs said. I asked Matt who arrives first. "I get here every day at 5:40. He comes in right around then. I think he's changed his alarm clock to beat me in now, but it's close."
P.P.S. Reminds me of a great line from former Ravens Head Coach Brian Billick. We were playing Tampa Bay, coached by Jon Gruden. Legend was that Gruden slept in the office often, and when he didn't, he'd arrive at 4 a.m. Gruden had said publicly that he "tries to get into the office around 4." The week we played the Bucs, a reporter asked Coach Billick when he arrived in the office. Brian smiled and said: "A half hour before Gruden says he gets in."