Head Coach John Harbaugh received a recent standing ovation that he didn't expect.
Having dinner with his family last week at Earth Wood & Fire in Baltimore, people approached Harbaugh and talked about the excitement being generated by the Ravens' 12-2 season. Then, as he was leaving, customers stood and applauded. Harbaugh was moved by the moment.
"That doesn't happen all the time," Harbaugh said smiling.
There are peaks and valleys in the life of an NFL coach, and Harbaugh has adeptly dealt with both. Exactly one year ago, Dec. 21, 2018, the Ravens released a statement announcing that Harbaugh would continue as head coach in 2019, and that both sides were working on an extension to his contract.
There had been speculation last season about Harbaugh's future in Baltimore, especially when the Ravens were 4-5 and in danger of missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year. But the Ravens rallied when Lamar Jackson became the starting quarterback, winning six of their last seven regular-season games to make the playoffs.
The night after it was announced that Harbaugh would be back, the Ravens responded with a convincing 22-10 road victory over the surging Los Angeles Chargers that kept Baltimore's playoff hopes alive. The Ravens won the following week and clinched a playoff spot. Now a year later, Harbaugh is coaching the NFL's hottest team that is riding a 10-game winning streak.
The last 12 months have gone very well for Harbaugh, who in his 12th season in Baltimore continues to prove he is superb at what he does. He is a top candidate to win the NFL's Coach of the Year Award, with the Ravens winning their second straight AFC North title, qualifying for the playoffs for the eighth time in Harbaugh's tenure.
However, with the Ravens being showered with praise, Harbaugh's focus remains strictly on winning games, not accepting kudos. A victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday would clinch the No. 1 seed for the Ravens throughout the AFC playoffs. The Ravens want that No. 1 seed, because it's the preferred path to the one goal that matters most – winning the Super Bowl.
Harbaugh won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2012 with a quarterback, Joe Flacco, who was MVP of the postseason. Now Harbaugh is trying to win a Super Bowl with Jackson, a quarterback who is the favorite to be MVP of the league at age 22.
Jackson is the league's trendiest player and Baltimore has the league's highest-scoring offense after retooling its offense during the offseason, tailored around Jackson's immense skillset. Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman has deservedly received credit for designing the game plan each week, and for his play-calling on Sundays. But when asked what he appreciates most about the way Harbaugh does his job, Roman mentioned Harbaugh's foresight in recognizing that the offense needed to be rebuilt with Jackson as the centerpiece.
"John is a remarkable head coach, a remarkable leader," Roman said. "Just our offense, for example – John is the one who really orchestrated the vision for this offense and kind of set us on our way to do it and painted the perimeters and painted a picture of what he wanted it to look like and let us do our job. That speaks highly of a leader. The three years I've been here, it's all about football. It's all about getting better, and that serves us all. We don't waste time. He's just all about business, all about family, which is very important."
Seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas said he didn't know much about Harbaugh before signing with Baltimore as a free agent. But the Ravens have made multiple personnel changes on defense during the season, improving while incorporating new players. Thomas points to Harbaugh's leadership as a major reason why that process has worked.
"He challenges us at times, he has fun with it at times, and he stays ahead of what the team needs," Thomas said. "He's not scared to speak his mind. It's been a great fresh start for me here."
Running back Mark Ingram II was another new addition to Baltimore this year, and gave Harbaugh props for letting him be himself. Baltimore has had many big, and different, personalities through Harbaugh's tenure, and they've all gelled in Baltimore.
"He's a player's coach. He's always asking the players how we think, how we feel about situations, addressing us, asking us things. We give him feedback, and it's just transparency," Ingram said. "He takes care of us, and he's a player's coach. He makes you want to fight hard for him. When a coach allows you to be yourself and shows that he believes in you and cares about you, you want to fight for him that much harder."
Backup quarterback Robert Griffin III said Harbaugh makes it clear to all new players what will be expected of them.
"From the day I signed in 2018, he set the tone for me," Griffin said. "For a guy who didn't know what it meant to play like a Raven, for a guy who didn't know about the culture, he does a great job of explaining that. He doesn't assume that you know the protocol around here. He sets that tone in the meetings. He's never complacent. The players are a big part of the identity, but so is he. He's going to be your biggest fan and your biggest critic, because he believes you can play at a high level. He's a great coach, a great motivator. His longevity here, it's a testament to him to be able to not get stale, not have his message become redundant or non-believable."
Now the Ravens have more believers than they did 12 months ago, or even 12 weeks ago. Harbaugh is excited as fans are in Baltimore, but for the Ravens to get where they want to go, they need to keep winning.
Harbaugh isn't thinking about how much things have changed surrounding the Ravens over the last 12 months. He appreciates the applause he's getting, but the immediate focus is on beating the Browns on Sunday.
"We really appreciate our fans – but also to take care of our business, to keep our focus narrow," Harbaugh said. "The higher the stakes, the narrower the focus really needs to be. And we need to really be locked in right now, and that's what our players are focusing on."