OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens didn't look much like a Super Bowl team three months ago. If not for coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens wouldn't have been much of a team at all.
After getting routed by 30 points in Houston, the most lopsided loss of the Harbaugh era, the Ravens returned from their bye week only to be greeted with the last announcement they wanted to hear. Harbaugh informed the team it would be practicing in full pads.
As grumbles filled the team meeting room, safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard spoke out against Harbaugh's decision. Most coaches, maybe even Harbaugh five years ago, would have told the players to sit down, be quiet and get prepared for a physical practice. Instead, Harbaugh wanted to have a discussion. The players talked about how he treated them, and Harbaugh listened.
What could have escalated into an ugly argument essentially became a town hall meeting. And, by the way, the Ravens didn't practice in full pads that day.
"Every coach talks about how players have ownership and it's your team. But when push comes to shove, is that really true? With Harbs, it is," center Matt Birk said. "Everybody walked out there feeling really good about our head coach."
That was the turning point of the Ravens' season, and it's the major reason they are playing the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. Not Ray Rice's fourth-and-29 conversion. Not the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Not Ray Lewis' retirement announcement.
All of those moments affected the season, but none resonated more with the players on a personal level. Ravens players have always played hard for Harbaugh. This season, however, they truly bonded with him.
“One thing about our guys, we like our guys talking things out and confronting issues," Harbaugh said. "We’ve been doing that throughout the course of the season, and it’s pushed us so close as a football team. I think you’re seeing the results of that right now."
It was so meaningful that Reed brought it up after the Ravens won the AFC Championship Game.
"He humbled himself to really listen to the players," Reed said. "It was just something we had to go through as men."
When Harbaugh was named the third coach in Ravens history, he didn't have to rebuild the roster. Baltimore was two years removed from being the AFC's second seed and had Pro Bowl players sprinkled throughout the lineup, including surefire Hall of Famers Reed and Lewis.
The challenge for Harbaugh was rebuilding the team's image. Under coach Brian Billick, the old Ravens boasted about their swagger. Under Harbaugh, the new Ravens promote discipline. The old Ravens embraced being the bad boys. The new Ravens rally around their faith and recite Bible passages in postgame news conferences.
“For everything we’ve been through since Coach Harbaugh got here,” Reed said, “he had a vision of working us a certain way and taking us through something to build and to create this moment."
The foundation of Harbaugh's coaching philosophy can be summed up in what he said at his introductory news conference five years ago: "There are three important things in putting together a football team: No. 1 is the team, the second-most important thing is the team, and the third-most important thing is the team."
Harbaugh, who had never been a head coach at any level, was ready to play hardball in his first season with a locker room filled with powerful personalities. Each player was allowed just one locker; in the past, the star players had two or three. Benches were removed from practices because no one was allowed to sit anymore. Shirts had to be tucked in, and chinstraps had to be buckled even during walk-throughs.
Although players weren't thrilled with the stricter rules, no one could argue with the results. The franchise had been to the playoffs four times in its first 12 years of existence, and Harbaugh has guided the Ravens to the postseason in each of the past five seasons.
Harbaugh became the first head coach in NFL history to win a playoff game in his first five seasons and reach three conference championship games in that span. Since 2008, Harbaugh's first season as coach, only the Patriots have won more games than the Ravens. Not bad for the guy who was the Ravens' second choice, after Jason Garrett, and who was considered an outside-the-box candidate because he had never been an offensive or defensive coordinator.
"Coach brought a winning mentality here," running back Rice said. "He built a physical team, and him being a tough coach makes us a tough team. He's our head coach, and if you believe in his vision and chase what he sees, it eventually becomes the whole team's vision."
Harbaugh now has an "open mike" where players can say anything they want. He seeks out player feedback whether they agree or disagree with him. If Harbaugh disagrees with the player, he'll explain why.
It's not about who's right or wrong. For Harbaugh, it's about what's right or wrong for the team. That was never more apparent than during that team meeting in October.
“He’s a special kind of coach,” Birk said. “When you want to play for a guy, I think you play a little harder. You do some of the extra things that it takes to be successful.”