John Harbaugh Q&A: 'There's No Reason to Apologize in Football'

Jason ColeNFL AnalystJuly 7, 2016

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh laughs during an NFL football news conference at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills, Md., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. The team held the news conference to review the 2015 season and discuss the upcoming season. (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)
Matt Hazlett/Associated Press

The Baltimore Ravens are coming off one of the most injury-riddled seasons an NFL team has suffered in recent memory. They lost quarterback Joe Flacco, defensive end Terrell Suggs, wide receiver Steve Smith, tight end Dennis Pitta, wide receiver Breshad Perriman and a handful of other players to season-ending injuries in 2015.

As the Ravens prepare for 2016, many of those players are still working themselves into shape. Perriman, the team's first-round pick in 2015, is nursing his second knee injury and may not be ready for the start of training camp. Flacco is still recovering from knee surgery.

Through all of that, head coach John Harbaugh is trying to get his team to persevere, and he's tapping into his family roots to do it. Harbaugh spoke with Bleacher Report recently on the upcoming season:

Bleacher Report: Coaching has often been described as the art of being able to convince people to do the things that they don't necessarily want to do.

John Harbaugh: Was that Tom Landry?

B/R: I don't know, but I've heard that a couple of times. How difficult is that in this day and age where the rules changes don't give you as much power or time with guys?

JH: Yeah, I think it's definitely different than it used to be. I remember going to training camp in Platteville [Wisconsin] when [my brother] Jim was playing for the Bears. They would be there for three or four weeks longer than we do now. They had two-a-day practices with pads every day right up until preseason games.

They were out—Jim McMahon, [Steve] McMichael and those guys were out past midnight pretty much every night drinking beer. I think our practice now is more tight, more organized, more time-efficient, more sports science-oriented than in those days. More efficient probably than it had to be back then because there were no rules or anything like that. So I think it's a lot more efficient.

The other thing is it's not really that hard to get people to want to go hard because of the kind of people you have. If you have guys that want to work hard, who love football, that's really what they think about instead of other things. They want to walk in the building, they want to watch tape, want to practice, they like doing that stuff. You get people like that. Then, over time, you get a culture that thinks that way. So then the players who want to be here, stay here and come here are attracted to that. The guys who aren't, aren't, so they don't come here. That's where culture is and it just kind of builds on itself.

B/R: Do you then take a guy who may not be as great a player but loves football and will buy into that culture?

JH: I think that could be part of it as far as fraternal atmosphere, right kind of values, character, all those things. How many players are involved in the draft and free agency, about 300? So if we're going to get, on average, eight of those guys, say, you've got to be able to find eight guys that are really hard-working guys, who are team-oriented-type people, who are also great football players to create football players.

I think we could find eight in there that we could get one way or another in the draft. So I don't know how much you sacrifice. The question is: Do you want to take a chance on a super talented guy who you know has issues and could crap out because he doesn't love it? He's going to have his mind on other things. How much difference is that going to make? Sometimes the guy that wants to run with the ball plays faster than the guy that doesn't run the ball. So maybe a 4.29 guy doesn't play as fast as a 4.49 guy. That's what you try to thresh out.

B/R: But you used to be able to thresh that out in long days in places like Platteville where everybody's pluses and minuses got exposed, and now you've got to do it through this process. That seems like it's very difficult to do.

JH: That's a great point, and probably the evaluation part of it, yeah, I would say that. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about comparing it to that because it is just what it is now. It seems like a true point to me.

  

B/R: With quarterback Joe Flacco—he even acknowledged it a little bit recently—do you wonder how he is going to react when bodies are flying around him again? How do you get him past any potential yips he might have?

JH: I think we just have to put him into situations. If you look at guys that have been through that, Tom Brady comes to mind and other quarterbacks, those guys play as daring and courageous as ever. Joe's personality, once the ball gets snapped, I don't really believe for one second that he's going to have that on his mind. I just think he's going to be into the moment and play the game. I don't think he'll be thinking about potential injury.

Maybe he will, I don't know. I've never been a world-class athlete or quarterback, so I've never been in that situation. He'd be the guy to answer that. Knowing Joe, I don't think it's going to be an issue.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

B/R: When Flacco has been at his best, he has usually had a dependable tight end, such as Dennis Pitta, around and has worked really well with that tight end. Pitta is trying to come back and you have Ben Watson, who is a very smart tight end. How do you get Flacco on the same page with those guys while also managing his return from that knee injury?

JH: Yeah, that's just going to take reps. It's going to take time out to ask him, and us doing a good job of making that time on task really efficient, because it's not going to be like the old days. It's going to be limited time. So we got to get him going. [Owen] Daniels is a good example. He got up to speed and going very quickly. He's already had some chemistry with Dennis. Dennis, to me, looks good. I expect those guys to get up to speed really quickly.

Ben is really smart, so I feel good about it, but that's the unknown. He's had chemistry with the receivers too. He's had chemistry with [Derrick] Mason and Anquan [Boldin], too, so hopefully he can find some deep balls with [Mike] Wallace and Breshad Perriman, when he gets back.

B/R: Were you guys planning to play a fair amount of three and four wide receivers this season?

JH: We all have tight ends, so you'll probably see them on the field too. It will be interesting.

B/R: OK, but having Wallace, Perriman and Steve Smith leads me to believe that three-receiver sets is a direction.

JH: We're going to be in that, but we're also going to be in two tight ends. We are going to be in two backs. We'll be in three tight ends. Maxx [Williams] can go out as a wide receiver too. So I think it would be fair [to say] that we would be using multiple looks because of the way our rush is set up.

B/R: The most multiple you've been since you've been here?

JH: Yes, we've got our talent more spread out more than ever before.

B/R: So what we've seen a lot from this team in the past—not necessarily I formation, but certainly power running—you're not going to be in that as much as before?

JH: No, we don't have Vonta Leach. When Leach was here, we went more that way. [Fullback] Kyle [Juszczyk] can do that, but he's different than Vonta.

B/R: Is your brother the greatest agitator of all time?

JH: I don't know why anybody would be agitated with him. Serious.

B/R: People who compete with him.

JH: No, people who think like you always assume that everything everybody is doing is for some ulterior motive. It's like we got a bunch of Deep Throats running around who want to find the conspiracy theory. Come on, get over it, it's football. It's like we got all kinds of things going on in the world that we are worried about, and we've got this nefarious evil satellite camp going on because this is going to be so bad for who? No, no.

The people that were quoted about it actually say, "Well, we just don't know what could happen here." It's like, OK, let me think about this for a minute. What could happen here? I don't know, these kids could go out here and in three hours be exposed to big-time college football coaches in their own town, which they could never afford. If I wanted to get an autograph of a Jim Harbaugh or Urban Meyer, then I've got to go to Columbus or Ann Arbor to do it? How many people can afford to do that? But the NCAA says if they come to your town, you can't get a picture with that coach because that's really a terrible evil.

What are we talking about here? What he's doing is great. I know I'm on my soapbox, but what he's doing is a lot of hard work. It's really hard to go out every day and bust your butt and coach guys in the hot sun who 99.99 percent will never play at the level that you're coaching at. You coach those guys like they are your own sons, and people want to mock him for that.

John (left) with brother Jim (right)
John (left) with brother Jim (right)Carlos Osorio/Associated Press/Associated Press

B/R: Your brother fascinates me, he just does. I love him.

JH: He's really genuine. … He doesn't apologize. It comes from our dad. There's no reason to apologize in football. There's no reason to apologize for hard work. There's no reason to apologize for coaching young people for values. There's no reason to apologize for any of that. There's nothing to apologize for. There's no reason to apologize for an enthusiastic approach to life or your job. So you're not going to be put on the defensive for something that we love doing that we think is very valuable and good.

B/R: When did your dad first say that to you? Do you remember?

JH: Probably every day of our life in some form or fashion. I would say just by the way he carried himself and lived his life. He was always fired up for football—my mom is the same way—for football, for baseball practice, whatever we were doing. It was always fun.

I've told this story before, but all we had was a dealer car. The dealer car got called back in for some reason, so my dad had to take us to work one day. It was summertime and my mom had had enough of us, and so my dad was going to take us to work to the office. But again, we don't have the car. So he goes, "I've got the greatest deal for you boys in the world, we're walking." "Dad, where's the car?" "Doesn't matter where the car is, we don't need a car."

We were walking to work. It was about two miles from where we lived. He goes, "By the way, get your basketballs." We walked all the way dribbling 50 with the right, 50 with the left and 50 crossover between hands, between your legs, all the way. He threw us onto the court and said, "Come by the office for lunch." That was our life, that's how he lived.

B/R: Make every moment something to be enthusiastic about.

JH: Yeah, he's that way to this day. He's 76 years old, just had a quadruple bypass. The most enthusiastic guy I've ever seen. Comes up and talks to the team here two weeks ago. He does the Muhammad Ali story. He's going on about Ali and he's [jabbing at the air], "Boom, boom, what's my name? Boom, what's my name?" Guys are laughing, and all of a sudden I could see him getting lightheaded, his voice starts going. This is six weeks after a bypass, and I'm thinking I have to save him, but that's his energy.

B/R: So on Eugene Monroe, when he says the organization didn't support his stand on legalizing marijuana use and suggested that it may have led to him being cut, how do you react to that?

JH: We've never had a problem with anybody saying anything. So Eugene says that he distances himself because they haven't supported my agenda. It's like, no, you think I'm going to stand up and support marijuana use? I don't believe in it. I'm not a marijuana guy. It's not for me. So I'm not on your bandwagon. But I didn't ever criticize it. I never said you couldn't say it. I was a little adamant probably in saying I promise you he doesn't speak for the organization.

[But] it's just like with Matt Birk and Brendon Ayanbadejo [when they disagreed about supporting gay marriage]. I wasn't particularly for gay marriage either, but I supported Brendon and his ability to say what he felt.

B/R: So it's like Voltaire and his belief in freedom of expression?

JH: I forgot Voltaire, but I really didn't get into it today. What if I had gotten Voltaire in there?

B/R: That would have been awesome. Your brother measures things that way.

JH: He's way ahead of me with that stuff.

  

B/R: Toby Gerhart once told me that when Jim was at Stanford, he started reciting something…

JH: Henry V, probably.

B/R: I'm not sure, but Jim was just standing there in front of the group, reciting it from memory.

JH: I think he did that with Henry V, the battle cry. "Who stands with me this day will stand forever"—something like that. He told me that was the day that he felt like he really got them.

B/R: He had another great one-liner. There's this tradition at Stanford where you're supposed to kiss your girlfriend at midnight in the quad in the center of campus under a full moon. There are a few hundred kids that go out there every month, and it's just a good excuse to go make out. Your brother tells the entire football team that they're banned from doing it. The players are all looking at him and wondering why. So they ask him and he just says right back, "No debauchery."

JH: (laughing) That's a word my dad used to use, debauchery.

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