Now, the Ravens’ acknowledged second choice has steered and cajoled a retooled football team into the AFC championship game today in the third installment of their annual grudge match against the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
Between tabbing Harbaugh as their head coach and how he instilled a harder edge in a veteran squad, general manager Ozzie Newsome maneuvering in the first round to draft Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco and signing key free agents in offensive tackle Willie Anderson, fullback Lorenzo Neal and strong safety Jim Leonhard, the Ravens’ journey to within one victory of reaching the Super Bowl has represented a combination of hard work, good fortune and been a testament to improved locker room chemistry.
It all began with Harbaugh changing attitudes around the Ravens’ training complex, fostering camaraderie by mixing up the locker room and creating more of a blue-collar atmosphere in the weight room and practice field.
"I think he’s the ultimate players’ coach," star middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "John is one of us. During the week, on game day, all of that, he relates to his players very well. Everything that we do as an organization and as a team, it’s just not done through the coaches.
"It’s done through a lot of conversations with the players and really trying to figure each other out. Now, the process is that we trust each so much that, ‘Let’s just deal with the way it is.’ John is a great, great, great guy."
For Harbaugh, his progression from an obscure Philadelphia Eagles assistant coach into one of the 32 members of an elite fraternity that lead NFL teams didn’t really sink in until early August.
That was when he stood at the 50-yard line field at Gillette Stadium, stared across the field and saw imperious New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick looking back at him.
"It’s been a great experience," Harbaugh said. "I had never been through a game as a head coach. It’s a new role and a new set of responsibilities, and I didn’t really know what to expect. Having come out of that game, it made sense. That was probably the one moment, I would say.
"We were always preparing. Our team was preparing to be a real good football team in December and to try to become a great football team in January. And now we’re sitting here with an opportunity to prove that. So, it feels like we’re right where we need to be."
Nearly six months later, Harbaugh’s sixth-seeded team is on the cusp of advancing to the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., if the Ravens can topple the Steelers after losing two games to Pittsburgh by a total of seven points during the season.
Yet, Harbaugh won’t waste time on introspection or dwelling on decisions that have worked or gone awry. There will be plenty of time for pondering during the offseason.
"Maybe when it’s all said and done, you look back and say, ‘Okay, this is where we’ve grown, this is where we need to get better,’" Harbaugh said. "All of us will do that. You try to improve from one year to the next, but I just haven’t really given that too much thought. We’ve got a game on Sunday. Who’s got time to think about that stuff?"
The Ravens have endured having 19 players placed on injured reserve, including cornerback Chris McAlister, nose guard Kelly Gregg and strong safety Dawan Landry, to rank second in the NFL. Baltimore lost 64 games by starters due to injuries, 14 more than any other playoff team and the fourth-highest figure in the NFL.
"It has been fun to be a part of it," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "It’s a marathon, and you want to finish it right. It’s a cliché, but we come in every day and we do our jobs and take care of our responsibilities. We don’t focus on the problems. Somehow in our own style, we find a way to win at the end."
Resiliency has defined the Ravens’ march deep into the playoffs, winning 11 of their past 13 games.
"It’s kind of crazy just thinking about the path that this team has taken throughout this season," said Leonhard, who has ably replaced Landry after he was ruled out for the season after suffering a spinal cord concussion against the Cleveland Browns."To be one win away from the Super Bowl is amazing. Hopefully, it won’t sink in until after the game."
This will mark the Ravens’ 18th consecutive week in a row of playing a game since their bye was lost when Hurricane Ike postponed their second game of the year against the Houston Texans until early November.
"I was talking to my trainer and he’s like, ‘How are you playing?’ and I said, ‘I’m hanging on by a very thin rope, my friend,’" defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "I think we all are. We’re all a little tired and what not. What Harbs has done is that he’s found a way to preserve us during the weeks so we can put it on the line on Sunday."
A hallmark of the team has been not complaining about its circumstances.
Wide receiver Derrick Mason dislocated his left shoulder against the Texans on Nov. 9, and has played in extreme pain ever since.
"Have we been hurt, injured? Yeah," Mason said. "But out of gas? This team is never out of gas. We’ve got a lot of gas left in us. Out of gas? No, we’re not."
Led by a traditionally stingy defense that ranks second in the NFL behind the top-ranked Steelers, the Ravens finally have a quarterback they can count on after years of horrendous play under center.
That watershed change began when the Ravens decided to draft Flacco out of the Division I-AA ranks rather than trade up for Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan.
Although Ryan was named the NFL Rookie of the Year as the Atlanta Falcons’ starter and posted superior statistics, it’s Flacco who is still in the playoffs and it’s Ryan who lost to the Arizona Cardinals in the first round as he threw an interception, had a fumble returned for a touchdown and was sacked for a safety.
Meanwhile, Flacco has yet to throw an interception or be sacked over the past two weeks in becoming the first rookie to win two playoff games in NFL history.
From playing against the likes of Hofstra and Towson last year to excelling against top-notch NFL defenses now, Flacco has shown uncommon maturity and a stoic attitude. He’s not inclined, though, to reflection.
"No, not really," he said. "I just put my head down and I’ll look up when the season is over. Even then, I’m not sure I’ll realize what has just happened. It’s been a lot of fun this season. We still have two more left in our minds and we’re not going to be satisfied unless we get there."
Flacco’s 89.4 quarterback rating in a 13-10 AFC divisional playoff win over the Tennessee Titans last week is the best for a rookie in league playoff history.
Flacco threw one touchdown with seven interceptions in his first five NFL starts as he registered a paltry 60.6 quarterback rating and Baltimore got off to a 2-3 start, tossing 13 touchdown passes and five interceptions over the final 11 regular-season games with a 90.2 rating and a 9-2 record.
"He has come so far, but he was pretty good coming in," Harbaugh said. "He’s a guy we believe in. We’re proud of guys who play like Ravens and we think Joe plays like a Raven. That’s why he’s here. Our guys believe in him, and we’ll be proud to stand next to him on Sunday night."
As for Garrett, whom Bisciotti offered the job to first before going with Harbaugh, he opted to stay with the Cowboys for a $3 million annual salary. However, his star has fallen. He has interviewed for several head coaching jobs, but is unlikely to land any of them.
Garrett clashed with combustible wide receiver Terrell Owens and is no longer as highly regarded in Dallas after quarterback Tony Romo’s game slipped late in the season after an injury.
Maintaining the approach taught to him by his father, former college football coach Jack Harbaugh, and Eagles coach Andy Reid, Harbaugh’s theme of consistency has paid major dividends in Baltimore.
"He’s been the same, his message hasn’t changed," Mason said. "His demeanor hasn’t changed, attitude, whatever it may be. Whether we came off a loss or a win, he’s been the same coach and I think that’s good for the players. They see that regardless of what the situation is that we have a coach that’s steady.
"He’s not going to get too high. He’s not going to get too low. His message continues to be the same: Work hard, let this day be the best day you’ve ever had as a team. Everyone has bought into it and every time we go out there to practice we try to make that the best day that we’ve had as a team. He hasn’t changed."
In his 16th NFL season, Neal isn’t sure how many more of these opportunities will beckon.
So, he wants to be sure the Ravens take advantage of this classic matchup between two AFC North bullies and finish the task at hand.