Had the opportunity to see John Harbaugh's first-ever speech to the team on April 17 at the start of our first voluntary minicamp. I feel privileged that I got this opportunity.
In normal circumstances, a presentation like this can be daunting. Many players walk in with a "prove-it-to-me-attitude," especially in John's case, because he has never been a head coach before. To make it even tougher, Steve McNair had decided to retire and asked if he could announce it to his teammates that morning.
Coach Harbaugh introduced Steve and the warrior-like QB, well-respected and well-liked by his teammates, announced that he had decided to stop playing. McNair's speech was impressive, touching and brought tears to many of the players' eyes. Steve pointed out that he had been thinking about this since last October, and expressed disappointment that he would not get to "take the ride with a new coaching staff that I think is going to get us back to winning."
After paying a tribute to Steve, Coach Harbaugh then asked all the players in the room to come sit "shoulder-to-shoulder" in the front of the room. "Let's not have any players in the back, there are some seats up front," Harbaugh said. (Recall that Coach Harbaugh said at his opening press conference that the three most important things in football for him are: "first, the team, and second, the team and third is the team." I was seeing a very visible sign of that when he brought all the players close together in the front of the meeting room.)
Harbaugh's opening got everyone's attention. "You knew you were going to have a new head coach. No one in here thought it was going to be me. They told me that their original list of candidates for this job had 100 names. They cut that list down to 30 and eventually to six guys they were going to interview. I know where I was on that six, I was last. But, they hired me," Harbaugh said.
John continued: "Then, when I got this job, a lot of people told me how hard it would be to put together the coaching staff I wanted. But, you know what I found out? Coaches want to be here. They wanted to coach you, and it was easy to put together the staff. It just came together. It wasn't hard, and we have a good coaching staff. Some of you already know that. The rest of you will find out," Harbaugh said.
John then talked about how he had met one-on-one with almost every current Raven, and added: "Those who I haven't, we've had conversations on the phone." Harbaugh explained that what he had heard from all of the players – and the assistants were hearing the same things from them – was that "you love football, you want to work hard…that you want to be a disciplined, tough player – that you want to get the most out of practices and meetings and that you want an offseason program that makes you and the team better. You all have said winning is what we should be about. And, this has been great to hear," Harbaugh said.
"You guys also said that you have something to prove," John continued. "Well, that hit me. We all have something to prove. I'm the guy with the thin resume. You don't think I have something to prove? You think Cam Cameron (the new offensive coordinator and former head coach of the Dolphins) doesn't have something to prove? Turn around and look at Cam. Cam and I talked. He has something to prove and loves hearing from all of you guys that you have it too. How about Rex Ryan? Doesn't he have something to prove? Bart Scott, he has something. We all do. We all have wounds.
"And, how will we prove something? We'll do it together. We'll be about being together. We'll be about the team," Harbaugh said.
John then pointed out that when the great animal gets separated from the herd, "it gets slaughtered. But, if that animal stays with the herd, and they fight off the predators together, that great animal gets a chance to show greatness, and the herd survives – they win."
Harbaugh then explained that when you make yourself small on a team and your teammates bigger, "we'll explode to greater accomplishments – and we'll all become big together."
As he spoke, John was animated and, I thought, very effective. He called out individuals throughout the 50-minute presentation that also included a review of some basic rules.
One of the players Coach Harbaugh pointed out in the meeting was quarterback Troy Smith. "Troy, what do you want from football?" Smith didn't hesitate: "I want to be the quarterback that helps us win a championship."
John's response to Troy was poignant: "You know what, then we all are going to help you do that. I'll help you. Cam, are you with me on this? Guys, are we going to help Troy do this? You bet. And, you know what, we're going to help Kyle do the same thing. And we'll help Jared Gaither be a great left tackle. We'll do this for Chris (McAlister). He wants to be one of the greatest corners. We'll have Ray's (Lewis) back. Ray would do anything to make a teammate better. Wouldn't he? We all want the same thing, and we're going to do it. I don't doubt that."
Harbaugh concluded his memorable presentation by asking all members of the team to be accountable to each other and to be upfront. "If you have a problem with something a teammate does, a coach does, or me, don't hold it in or go to someone else and complain about it. And, if you hear a teammate complain about something, ask that teammate if he has spoken to the person involved. And, if he hasn't, then say: 'Let's go talk to him about it.' That will help build our team. That's how we'll have each other's back. That's how we'll raise the tide and storm the wall together."
I swear, we could have kicked off against the Bengals, the team we play in the regular season opener on Sept. 7, right then.
When you watch Joe Flacco, our No. 1 draft choice, practice, you notice a couple of things right away. He's big (just over 6-6). He's quick with his feet and release of the ball. He's accurate with his throws – and that's when he was getting his first plays with his new teammates. Here's what Coach Cameron told NFL.com's Vic Carucci after a day of minicamp:
"I remember watching Joe's tape from Delaware and then meeting him. And, I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me. This guy's 6-6? You watch him on tape, and he plays like a guy who's 6-3 or 6-4. Height can be a liability, but I don't see that being the case with him, because he's got quick feet, and he's got a quick arm. Sometimes a long arm leads to a long delivery.
"Joe's going to get quicker and stronger and improve, but he's naturally quick with the ball for a big guy, and I think there is some rareness to that."
That's the football impression. Here's what I saw otherwise: I watched Joe introduce his family to a throng of Ravens executives and then meet with about 50 reporters at his first press conference after the draft. I watched him with another set of about 30 reporters after his first practice. What stood out as I watched him go through all of this is his sense of calm. He was aware of everything going on around him, but he wasn't frazzled, puzzled or made nervous by the buzz. (I've seen other rookies get a little startled by events like this, including a first rounder over 20 years ago, who sweated profusely at his first two press events…and that rookie didn't last very long in the NFL and never made a major contribution.)
Quarterbacks have to overcome a lot of chaos when they play. I don't know a better way to describe it. If a quarterback can't handle that frenzy, he'll fail. Again, it's a first impression, and I'm not a football talent evaluator, but Joe certainly does seem to have the countenance of an athlete that can handle the NFL QB spot.
SOME OTHER IMPRESSIONS
I could write about a lot of what I've seen this offseason. At the risk of overlooking many of the players, I'll still throw some things out:
…Haloti Ngata is special. The big defensive tackle is not only a monster at his position, and likely our next Pro Bowl player, he's a big-time athlete. Fooling around with teammates, you see his quickness, his hand-eye coordination. He'll be a blast to watch this season.
…Rookie RB Ray Rice and 3rd-year RB Cory Ross are explosive short runners with powerful lower bodies. You can see each of these guys love to play.
…Have to love Ray Lewis, not only for the way he plays and the leadership he continues to deliver, but he's handling a delicate situation in a first class way. Every opportunity a reporter has had with Ray this offseason, one of the first questions has always been about Ray being in the last year of his contract. Honestly, it's not easy for Ray to answer these, and you know each reporter wants to be the one who gets the headline: "RAY IS UNHAPPY." But, Ray keeps his answers focused on the team and basically says: "We'll see what happens with the contract. That's business. I'm a Raven and hope to stay a Raven."
…Players are working hard in the weight room, but it looks like they're having some fun while doing it. The music is blaring. The players are challenging each other. You can usually hear some laughing before you enter the room.
…We'll have a lot of young, enthusiastic and very good athletes covering kicks this year. They are flying around in drills. They look scary fast and physical.
…Derrick Mason is the Energizer Bunny. He never seems to tire. And he, like fellow Detroiter Bart Scott, are living and dying through the Pistons' playoff run.
…There's something about Troy Smith. He's confident without being offensive. He has changed his body with a different diet (he's lost about 12 pounds). He acts like a quarterback. Teammates seem to respond to his leadership. He's a "gym rat." He likes being in the building and working out. I think he's going to turn out to be a pretty good 5th-round selection.
…Coach Harbaugh has a big white board in his office. There is some football stuff on it, but most of the surface is covered by artwork done by his 6-year-old daughter Alison, who is a frequent visitor here, along with John's wife Ingrid. The Harbaughs had dinner at Art Modell's home last week. "I could have listened to his and Pat's (Art's wife) stories all night. What a great time," Harbaugh said.
Talk with you next month. We're only 7 weeks away from the start of training camp (July 22 will be the first practices open to the public).
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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.