Harbaugh: Special Experience Offers Edge

At this time last year, John Harbaugh was looking to make himself more attractive for a potential head coaching gig.

The immediate answer was to abandon his post of nine years coordinating the Philadelphia Eagles' special teams to lead the secondary.

While that move may have broadened his coaching horizon on the professional level, the Ravens think his special teams prowess could be the difference between a flashy, young unknown and a potential Hall of Famer.

"[John has a] special teams background, which to some is a disadvantage and to others it's quite an advantage," said owner Steve Bisciotti when he introduced the new coach last weekend. "He's dealing with the entire team, he's dealing with Pro Bowlers, he's dealing with the 53rd man on the roster and making him feel like his contribution is/could be the most important one of the day. He's done that very successfully."

Harbaugh, 45, joined the Eagles' staff from the collegiate ranks in 1998, taking over the NFL's 29th-worst special teams unit at the time. In just four years, Philadelphia improved to first. In fact, from 2000-05, Harbaugh's teams were cumulatively ranked first in the league.

His consistency with such a volatile component is impressive. As Bisciotti noted, the special teams coordinator is in charge of six units: punt, kickoff and field goal - and their attendant coverage teams.

That means every player on the roster (with the usual exception of quarterbacks) is on Harbaugh's side of the ball.

"The thing about special teams that a lot of people don't realize is you are handling the entire team every single day," he said. "You're dealing with offensive linemen, you're dealing with the defensive backs, the wide receivers - they're all a little bit different.

"You get a chance to coach them every single day. You touch them in football, and then you kind of mold your team."

One thing Harbaugh is well-schooled in is shaping the malleable minds of young players. With a new wave of rookies entering the league every year, many of the former college stars are forced to earn a locker through special teams.

If it's a youth movement Harbaugh wants, the Ravens are one of the better teams to start. At the end of the 2007 campaign, Baltimore boasted 12 rookies and one first-year player on the roster, a total that was third highest in the NFL. Additionally, the Ravens started six different rookies, tying four other teams for second most.

"That's where you develop the young part of your football team, and that's thrilling as a coach because you build a foundation for your football team with those young guys," Harbaugh continued. "I think that's probably the greatest part of coaching special teams. It's the most fun part."

Harbaugh follows in the footsteps of head coaches that launched their career on special teams to the sideline's top spot.

Bill Cowher began as a special teams coach for the Cleveland Browns, eventually taking over the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1992-2006. He brought the fifth Super Bowl to Pittsburgh in 2006. Dick Vermeil, another Super Bowl winner, was head coach for three teams after becoming the NFL's first-ever special teams coach in 1969.

And of course, there is Bill Belichick, whose New England Patriots are preparing for their fourth Super Bowl in the past seven years.

With an entire offseason ahead of him, the confident and strong-willed Harbaugh embarks on the task of mimicking those championship predecessors.

For Harbaugh, the message to his team will be simple, and it certainly doesn't end with the special kind.

"There are three important things [to] putting together a football team: No. 1, the team; No. 2, the second most important thing, is the team; and the third most important thing is the team," he said. "We'll stick with that through and through, beginning to end. That's what it's all about."

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content