Inside John Harbaugh's Grueling Camp Practices


It was near the end of Saturday's training camp practice when Head Coach John Harbaugh deviated from the script – something that's not uncommon.

New Offensive Coordinator Marc Trestman came closer to the middle of the field to listen as Harbaugh shouted directions. He wanted each first team on the field, with the offense backed up against the 3-yard line. The objective was to get a first down.

That was not long after putting the offense in a third-and-long situation backed up against its own end zone. And then later he challenged them with a fourth-and-20 scenario.

Across the NFL, training camp is a grind. Harbaugh takes it to another level.

It's not that he physically wears his players down. He's very mindful to give certain plays rest at key times, he meets with his player leadership group, and is keenly aware of practice parameters set by the NFL and NFLPA. But he challenges his team both physically and mentally in creative ways. 

Trestman has worked for 10 NFL teams and said Harbaugh's training camp practice is "as good as any."

"It's a highly-competitive practice," Trestman said. "The thing that I think John does an exceptional job of is – and you can see it out there – we are stressed in a number of very, very difficult situations early."

Trestman pointed to Saturday's practice, in which they simulated a fourth down to win the game, a two-minute drill and a third-and-9 situation from inside the offense's 10-yard line. They did the fourth down to win the game at the very end of practice when everybody was gassed 

."I think John is really mindful of the toughness and the backbone that a team has to have, and this is where you build the backbone," Trestman said. "John does that the way he designs the practice, and I think they're beautifully designed."

The coordinators don't call plays from a script. Harbaugh puts them in situations that also force them to call plays to trick the other side and keeps them on their toes.

"That's the benefit of not being a play-caller, right?" Harbaugh said. "The idea, basically, is that we want to train to win. We want to train as game-like as we possibly can. We think that if you practice like you play, then you'll play like you practice. We're not trying to all of a sudden be in a different environment when it matters the most. … So, we come up with every kind of situation we can think of."

Every team runs through situational work, but not all of them do it from the very start of training camp. There's not a whole lot of time to digest the playbook before a player is suddenly in a practice situation where it's  fourth down to win the game.

"The difference is we started in Day 1," said backup quarterback Matt Schaub, who has played for three other teams. "I think it's great. It keeps you out of the dulges of first-day install, second-day install, just running plays. It really puts you in the game, mentally, as a whole football team."

Harbaugh doesn't just breeze through the drills either. Fourth-year offensive guard Kelechi Osemele said the toughest part of practice is the repetition and the length.

Two-a-day practices are a thing of the past, but Harbaugh doesn't let the revised Collective Bargaining Agreement rules cut into the work. He holds full three-hour practices.

"He's a perfectionist," Osemele said of Harbaugh. "You can be repeating plays that you know you ran right, but there might be … He might think it could be run better. I would say the repeats are probably the toughest part. We do a lot of those."

Kendrick Lewis is now on his third team in as many years, bouncing from Houston to Kansas City and now Baltimore. He says the heat isn't as  hot in Baltimore, but the intensity of practice is ramped up compared to his previous stops.

"It's harder, it's physical, it's longer," he simply said. 

On Thursday, Harbaugh took it up another level. This time, he did it verbally.

He chided the referees for not doing their job despite getting paid and free lunch. The head coach yelled at defensive Brent Urban, saying he had "no idea what you're about to face this year." Multiple times, he screamed, "A Ravens defensive line getting run over at the goal line? Are you [kidding] me?" 

Speaking with the media afterwards, it almost seemed as if Harbaugh meticulously planned his verbal outburst as yet another sharpening tool.

"It was a very physical, very tough practice. The guys fought through it really well. It's always the one where the coach – at least in my case – this coach gets a little crazy, because it's a tough step to take from the hitting level of intensity to this level of intensity," Harbaugh said. 

"But I feel like you have to do it before you get into that first preseason game. You push them pretty hard through this. They responded very well. We have a bunch of tough guys, and really, what we're trying to build is a tough team, and this is how it's done."

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