That's the word I would use to describe the Ravens right now. Change brings that naturally, but new head coach John Harbaugh's leadership style also has a lot to do with this jolt that pervades our training facility in Owings Mills.
When we were conducting the search for the new head coach, we called over 30 people who knew John, or had the opportunity to observe him or work with him. Honestly, the worst messages we received in all that research were things like: "He has never been a head coach before" or "He has never run a pro offense or defense." Anyone we interviewed who offered those cautions, came back to say things like: "But, I think he's ready to be a head coach right now," and "You'll see when you interview him, this guy has something special."
Well, he does.
First, there's a likeability. Even when he's telling you something you may not want to hear, he does it in a self-deprecating way, often with humor. He'll start with: "I don't think that you're going to like this, and know you did it differently in the past, but this is the way I think we should do this – and it goes along with my emphasis to the team, not individual players or coaches." Coach Harbaugh will then listen why the "old" way works, and then might say something like: "Understood, but I'd like to try it this way. Let's see if that works." In the end, he gets us to agree. That's a much better way than simply saying: "Look, I'm the new guy. You guys lost last season. That's why I'm here. I have a new contract, and we're going to do it this way."
Our plan was to hire a coach who could help us win Super Bowls, but the guy had to be a good person and not a jerk. There have been no surprises since John arrived. Those of us who were privileged to be on the selection committee that interviewed Coach Harbaugh have been able to tell fellow staff members, players and some reporters who have since spent time with John: "What did I tell you? Impressed, weren't you?"
I know, I know, we haven't played a game yet. Heck, we haven't even had a practice. But, we didn't make a mistake. I'm convinced of that. He's the right guy for the Ravens.
And John didn't make a mistake hiring assistant coaches. He took his time and targeted those he had mentioned when he interviewed for the head job. The staff is a good mix that blends both NFL and top college experience. I won't review each of the assistants John hired – just a few to share some thoughts about how fortunate we feel to have some of these coaches working for the Ravens:
CAM CAMERON: Our new offensive coordinator. What a quality guy and accomplished coordinator. Thirteen months ago, Cam was the "hottest" head coaching candidate in the NFL after helping the Chargers to a 14-2 mark as their OC. For a variety of obvious reasons, it didn't work for him as the head coach at the Dolphins last season. Bill Parcells was given the keys to the Miami kingdom, and he opted to bring in one of his own (Tony Sparano) as their new boss. That put Cam into play.
One of the humorous parts of our head coaching search was that each candidate we interviewed mentioned they could bring Cam in as their OC. (We wondered if Cam knew he was engaged to so many people. In fact, at one of our search committee meetings, Ozzie Newsome chuckled: "Think Cam knows he's everybody's prom date.") And Coach Harbaugh did have to recruit Cam, because a number of other NFL teams were trying to land the respected offensive teacher.
REX RYAN: No doubt it was a delicate walk for both Rex and Coach Harbaugh to get Rex back with us. First, Rex was a legitimate candidate for the job John received. Second, Rex was a serious candidate for the head coaching spot at both the Dolphins and Falcons. Third, there were other teams, once Rex did not get a head coaching job, that wanted him as defensive coordinator. And, fourth, Rex wasn't really happy with us for not giving him our head spot. Give both Rex and John credit for working this out. John had to recruit him to stay. And, Rex had to show that he could get over not being selected as our head coach and that he could bring the same determined passion we've seen for years back to our defense. A lesser person – a more ego-driven coach – would have walked away from the Ravens. Rex stayed. Good for the Ravens. Good for Coach Harbaugh.
WADE HARMAN: John retained 6 coaches from Brian Billick's staff: Ryan, Mike Pettine (OLBs), Clarence Brooks (DL), Mark Carrier (DBs), Vic Fangio (assistant to the head coach) and Harman (TEs). Recently, I saw Todd Heap after he had spent considerable time with Coach Harbaugh and asked Todd what he thought. Here's what Heap said: "Great, he's really impressive. He gets you going. Plus, he kept a great coach - Wade." It ended up not getting a lot of attention in the media when John announced Wade would be retained. It's a bigger deal than that. Coach Harman gets the most out of his players – look at Quinn Sypniewski's production after the injuries last season to Heap and backup Daniel Wilcox.
CLARENCE BROOKS: Rex believes that Clarence is the best d-line coach in football. Coach Harbaugh agrees. More than once during our search for the new Ravens' head coach, Ozzie, or one of our personnel experts, said: "Is there a way to make sure we keep Coach Brooks even before we hire the new head coach?"
GREG MATTISON: I've heard about Greg for years and know that NFL teams have tried to get him as an assistant, but he always turned down those jobs to stay at the collegiate level. Mattison helped Florida win the BCS national championship as Florida's co-defensive coordinator in 2006, and he was also d-coord. for standout teams at Notre Dame and Michigan. I'm not sure how Coach Harbaugh got Greg to come help coach our linebackers, but a couple of coaching friends have said to me since: "How did he get Mattison to the pros?"
A lot of the times you go to Coach Harbaugh's office these days, his door is closed and he's in with a player. Already, most of the players have spent time with the new head coach. I've seen Derrick Mason, Mike Flynn, Jason Brown, Steve McNair, Troy Smith, Trevor Pryce, Ed Reed, Chris McAlister, Matt Stover, and many more come see John. The players all seem to like the message they're hearing and seem ready to work hard with the new coaches.
When John was interviewing for the job, he recognized that gaining credibility with the players was something he had to earn. "I wouldn't be coming in as a successful head coach from either the pros or major college. I'd be coming in as the guy who coached the secondary and special teams for the Eagles," he said at the time. My sense from talking with a number of these players is that John is earning that credibility quickly.
By the way, the last couple of weeks in February is usually a pretty quiet time for players. Frankly, we don't see many players in the facility this time of year. Clearly, the numbers are up right now. Good to see. They're excited to get going. They want to spend time with Coach Harbaugh and the assistants who coach them.
The NFL's Scouting Combine is being held in Indianapolis this week and next. This gathering is where invited draft eligible seniors and juniors go for scrutiny from the 32 NFL teams. Ozzie Newsome heads the Ravens' contingent, which includes all of our scouts, coaches, medical staff and a few executives. In all, we sent over 40 people to Indy to observe and meet the players.
Originally, the Combine was created to save teams money and prospective NFL players time. Rather than have a player take 32 different physicals for all teams and work out 32 times for the NFL franchises, all teams and players came to one spot – Indy – for 5 to 6 days. The Combine has gotten so big that a TV network – the NFL's – televises all the workouts, and over 500 reporters attend the event. The reporters do not get to go inside the RCA Dome to watch the workouts, but the NFL holds press conferences for newsmakers. Players, coaches and GMs do these sessions with reporters. In fact, Coach Harbaugh will meet with the media this Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
Also attending the Combine are player agents. It's like a convention for the "football" people of the NFL. For someone like Ozzie, who is recognizable to everyone there, moving from place to place is difficult. Newsome handles all the attention well, but it's not easy dealing with reporters, personnel from other NFL teams, agents and league office personnel when he's there to get a job done.
The days at the Combine for Ozzie and the Ravens' group are long. Workouts, done by positions, start early in the day. Interviews with individual players start at 5:30 p.m. every day and continue through 11 p.m. Each team is allowed to schedule up to 60 interviews during the Combine. Ozzie likes the information you can collect at the Combine, but says it's "only a part of the big picture we're getting on a player." Ozzie and his staff place more emphasis on how a player plays the game – "the video doesn't lie" – and for information our scouts retrieve through the years from various sources. Newsome added that the updated medical information collected at the Combine is also very important.
Players now train to participate for the Combine, with many players dropping out of school for a semester to make sure they are at peak performance for the NFL evaluators. Specialists training these potential draft choices are being paid big bucks by the players and agents to get ready for the Combine. Players even practice for the one intelligence exam that is allowed at the Combine – the Wunderlich Test. "Agents get copies of the various Wunderlichs and have players practice," Newsome said.
The Wunderlich is 50 questions long and it must be completed or stopped in 12 minutes. We all remember from high school the types of questions on this test: "If John and Ozzie both leave the train station at noon, and John is going 10 miles per hour and Ozzie is going 15, who will finish his lunch first?" Or something like that. It's rare that a player's Wunderlich test becomes public, which is good – people deserve that privacy. I understand an average score for a college graduate is 20. Jonathan Ogden's score became public when he was at the Combine in 1996. His 34 was the highest of all draftable players that year…and that was before players were trained to take the test.
FAVORITE COMBINE STORY
As mentioned, you can interview 60 players "officially" at the Combine. These interviews can last no longer than 15 minutes each. Every team has a room where the interviews take place. Ozzie has both Ravens scouts and coaches in the interview process. Often times, he assigns certain people to ask specific questions with the hope to get honest answers from these young men while sometimes putting them on the spot.
Former head coach Brian Billick told the story of an interview that happened late one night on the 3rd or 4th day of interviews a few years ago. "We were all tired, including the players. We had a young man who came in, and he had a bit of a rap sheet. He had been in trouble a couple of times during college and high school. The list included incidents where police were involved and others with coaches and teammates," Billick said.
"Ozzie gave me the go ahead to ask the first question. I said: 'Son, you've had some trouble in both high school and college. Let's get right to the heart of this: Are you a thug or just stupid?" Brian said the player smiled at the group and answered: "Are those my only choices?"
That player is not a Raven, but he has been a good NFL player, and he has stayed out of trouble.
I'm off to the Combine.
Talk with you next month.
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Kevin Byrne is the Ravens' Senior Vice President – Public and Community Relations. He has worked in the NFL since 1977, when he was the then-youngest public relations director in the league (for the then-St. Louis Cardinals), except for the two years he was the Director of Public Affairs for TWA (Trans World Airlines). He has been with the Ravens since they began, and before that was a vice president with the Cleveland Browns. He has won a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Ravens and an NCAA basketball championship with Al McGuire's Marquette team in '77. He was on the losing end of historic games known for the "Drive" and the "Fumble." He has worked closely and is friends with some of the best in the game: Ozzie Newsome, Brian Billick, Ray Lewis, Bill Cowher, Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Marty Schottenheimer and Shannon Sharpe to name a few.