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They didn't always like it. A year ago, someone turned in the team in for violating league rules governing the intensity and tempo of offseason Organized Team Activity (OTA) practices. The Ravens had to forfeit a week of drills.
But Harbaugh's approach, like Billick's, has also achieved results. He had a 32-16 regular season record, and for the first time in franchise history, the Ravens have made the playoffs three years in a row. They're the only team in the NFL to win a playoff game in each of these last three seasons. His success led to a contract extension earlier this year, assuring the Ravens' future as a team that practices hard.
But now Harbaugh's approach is being attacked by the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement, which contains numerous concessions to the players regarding the length and intensity of practices, both in and out of season.
The players wanted fewer hits to the head and less general wear on their bodies, and they won surprising gains during negotiations with the owners. Training camp two-a-days are out. There will be a limit of one padded practice per week in the first 11 weeks of the regular season. Organized Team Activities are being reduced.
What's a hard-driving coach like Harbaugh supposed to do? Fight back, that's what.
Two-a-days might be out, but the Ravens' one practice a day at training camp this year is no picnic. They're going for three straight hours in the middle of the afternoon, when the summertime heat and humidity are peaking.
"I'm really disappointed in myself the last three years, that I didn't think of this, this three-hour practice," Harbaugh said as camp started last week. "This is the best thing for us. A game is what, three hours, three hours and 15 minutes? You have to train yourself to get ready and go out there and play like maniacs for three hours. Well, that is exactly what we are going to get a chance to do. So, I appreciate the Players Association for getting that done, because this is a tough practice … the best thing we could have been doing, and should have been doing all along."
He made the comment with a straight face, but there was subtle, underlying sarcasm. If the new work rules are intended as a rebuke to tough-minded coaches, this is his reply.
Don't misunderstand, Harbaugh is taking great care, making sure players hydrate even in the middle of drills. And he is well aware of the new research indicating that too many hits to the head can cause major problems and need to be limited. He knows player safety is a critical issue and wants to take care of his guys.
But he also wants to coach his team the way he wants, and rest assured, he will. Think of it as an old horror flick along the lines of "King Kong vs. Godzilla." This is "Harbs vs. the CBA."
The New York Giants are practicing in the evenings, when temperatures are cooler, and the Washington Redskins are getting their major work done in the mornings, as are some other teams, but the Ravens are marching headlong into a month of three-hour afternoon marathons.
Although the work rules in the new CBA are bound to change pro football, the spirit of Camp Creampuff will remain dormant, like a ghost from the Ravens' past. The School of Hard Knocks lives on!
John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*