OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Don’t expect Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh to hand out plastic army figures or place a “Believe” sign in the locker room.
But Harbaugh, a self-proclaimed fan of the TV series “Ted Lasso,” did notice how his wide receivers were catching soccer balls in a training camp drill last week.
“It has a little bit to do with hand placement in terms of catching and eyes and finishing catches,” Harbaugh said. "It’s just a little different than a football.”
Something I haven't seen before at Ravens training camp - wide receivers catching soccer balls pic.twitter.com/UJ5bzcxNYl— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) July 29, 2021
The outside-the-box idea comes from Harbaugh’s outside-the-box hire. Pass game specialist Keith Williams is in his first season with the Ravens after spending the past few years working as a personal wide receivers coach for Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and first-year Ravens wideout Sammy Watkins.
Williams thought of tossing soccer balls to his wide receivers about six months ago. He broke out the drill in the spring and did so again in the first week of training camp.
With soccer balls being bigger than footballs, receivers have to spread their hands and fingers wider to catch them.
"I actually felt weird about doing it when I first thought of that concept,” Williams said.
Baltimore is banking on the change of coaches and personnel leading to a change in fortune. Last season, the Ravens’ wide receivers ranked last in the NFL in receptions (257) and fifth-worst in drop percentage (4.9%).
Much of the offseason focus has been on how Baltimore signed Watkins in free agency and drafted Rashod Bateman in the first round. Both will be among Lamar Jackson’s top three targets this year.
Those additions at wide receiver have overshadowed the newcomers to the coaching staff. After wide receivers coach David Culley was hired as the Houston Texans head coach, Baltimore replaced him with Williams and Tee Martin, the former Tennessee quarterback who has coached wide receivers in college for the past decade.
“Both Tee and Keith are extremely detailed [and] extremely rooted in the fundamentals of the game, and I think that reflects in how they coach and the drills they do,” Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "It’s going to have a big impact on us. [Williams] has some unique and advanced thoughts and ideas that our players are embracing very strongly.”
Watkins, who has worked with Williams the past couple of offseasons, understands how much Williams can help with footwork, hand-eye coordination and motivation.
"During the offseason, me coming here and him coming here was something good, because I’ve got him every single day to be in my ear -- or when I get tired or when I mess up on this route -- ‘Ay, focus, focus,’” Watkins said. "So, that’s the type of thing I think any athlete needs. Yes, we’re older and we’re grown men, but you’ve got to have somebody pushing you better than you’re pushing yourself, and I think that’s why my season and my year is going to go well.”
So, what was Watkins’ reaction when Williams started tossing soccer balls at him?
"People are probably going to look at him crazy, but I get his whole method,” Watkins said. “He has his whole science to it.”
As Ted Lasso once said, “Be curious. Not judgmental."