When John Harbaugh took over as coach of the Baltimore Ravens, he said he wanted to have, "a football team that cares about one another. That has each other's back. A good, hard-nosed, tough, clean football team."
After one year, Harbaugh seemed to do that and then some. A team that was notorious for selfish behavior during Brian Billick's tenure took on an "all for one, one for all" mentality under Harbaugh, culminating in the postseason rallying cry, "What's our name? Ravens."
They may not have all been enamored with his hard-assed approach to the game, but clearly the players, certainly team alpha dogs like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, respected and played for Harbaugh. The result was a team that went 5-11 in 2007, made a spirited run to the AFC Championship Game with mostly the same core of players.
After turning around the country club culture that had marred the latter years of Billick's tenure, Harbaugh's new focus is to get the Ravens to the next step: the Super Bowl. The league knows their name, now the question is, can they win one more game?
One of Harbaugh's smartest moves when he first took over as coach, was to bring in experienced assistants. Remember, at this time last year, Harbaugh had never even been a coordinator in the NFL. So, to help ease his transition, he brought in top-notch veteran assistants like Cam Cameron to run the offense, Jerry Rosburg as special teams coach and John Matsko as offensive line coach.
What do these guys have in common? Rosburg, Cameron and Matsko are all midwestern guys, just like Harbaugh, and all of them have over 25 years of coaching experience. However, perhaps the most crucial member of the staff is not a midwesterner, but from the sunny climes of Los Angeles.
Quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson was truly the unsung hero of the 2008 season. Jackson, whose coaching stops included a stint as receivers coach in Cincinnati and offensive coordinator in Atlanta, inherited a potential mess when he came to Baltimore. Kyle Boller was a lame-duck bust, no one believed Troy Smith was the answer and Joe Flacco was a first-round pick from a non-BCS college. Plus, Jackson had to deal with the fact that Baltimore had spent over a decade as a quarterback graveyard.
But under Jackson's tutelage, Flacco was able to progress far faster than anyone in the organization imagined. Certainly, serendipity played a role. Preseason injuries to Boller and Smith opened the door for Flacco to start. And the kid obviously had the tools, mentally and physically, to be a successful QB.
But one does not go from a relatively unknown commodity out of University of Delaware to being the only rookie quarterback to win two playoff games in one year without good coaching.
There was concern this offseason that former defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan, would take Jackson with him to New York. Luckily for the Ravens, he did not. The franchise can only hope that Flacco and Jackson develop the kind of relationship that Peyton Manning and Tom Moore did in Indianapolis.
The man on the hotseat for the Ravens coaching staff is clearly defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Another of the staff's midwestern contingent (Madison, WI), Mattison has the football equivalent of being the cover girl for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue. A job where you are always measured against the people that came before you.
After all, the Baltimore Ravens are still synonymous with defense, and anything less than the level of success the franchise has had under Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, and Ryan will not do.
By all accounts, Mattison plans to continue the "Organized Chaos" approach established by Ryan but with his own wrinkles. Mattison has the pedigree: he was the architect of the University of Florida defense that destroyed Ohio State in the 2007 BCS Championship Game.
The one thing Mattison will have that his predecessors had is middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who returned after flirting with leaving the only club he's ever played for. Like a great theater actor, when people see Lewis play, they see the big gestures: the huge hits, the dancing, the swagger, but miss the subtleties in his game.
Most don't see how Lewis prepares as slavishly as any player in the league. Or how that allows him to diagnose plays before they happen. How he can rally his teammates to raise their games to another level. Or how his energy and passion for the game translate to the rest of the defense. The man truly is like having a second defensive coordinator on the field.
Besides Lewis, Mattison will still have the core of the league's No. 2 ranked defense. If Ray Lewis is like having a second defensive coordinator, safety Ed Reed is like having a second Lewis. Pass rusher Terrell Suggs's contract situation is dicey, as always, but on the field, the man known as T-Sizzle terrorizes quarterbacks.
The defensive line figures to remain strong with Haloti Ngata poised to make his first Pro Bowl and the team will get Kelly Gregg back after missing all of 2008 with a knee injury. The depth at cornerback figures to be better than last year with the additions of Domonique Foxworth and third-round pick Lardarius Webb.
All told, Mattison, much like the rest of the coaching staff, will have the tools for success. The question is, can the use those tools to carve out a championship season?