The Harbaughs – A lesson in PS Innovation – An Energy Evolution

Posted: January 1, 2019 in All Things Power Spread

The Harbaughs have been around a long while. They have been successful as both players and coaches. Starting with the Dad – a longtime respected assistant thru the 60s & 70s turned legendary Head Coach in the 90s. Jim played for years in the NFL before finding success as a Head Coach at Stanford, the 49ers and now Michigan. John is a long time successful Head Coach of the Baltimore Ravens.

But this isn’t a story of success. This is a story of Football innovation at the highest level. It’s about where football’s been and where it’s heading as we approach a new decade.

The Harbaugh Family

The Harbaugh family is from Ohio. In all my studies, Ohio, with a thru line to Texas, continually appears as the root of football innovation. Football started in the Northeast, develops in the South, innovates in the Midwest before becoming refined on the West Coast. Research it for yourself and you will see this theme over and over.

Jack Harbaugh

Jack Harbaugh was a successful player at Bowling Green. He was a star QB as well as a DB. He was drafted by the newfound AFL. A lot of innovation occurred early in that league’s history. He had Michigan coaching connections in Ohio and Iowa. Some connections hearkened back to a very innovative time in Michigan offensive football history. Harbaugh eventually ended up at the school coaching DBs under Bo Schembechler in the 70s. He then left for his first Defensive Coordinator job at Stanford during a the time of John Elway and the burgeoning Bill Walsh West Coast Offense.

Harbaugh finally became a Head Coach at Western Michigan for 5 years. Off to Pitt as an offensive assistant to Mike Gottfried’s Run and Shoot Offense – another type of passing spread. Then Harbaugh made his hallmark as Head Coach of Western Kentucky during the 90s. Besides his experience and great leadership qualities, Harbaugh simply knew a lot about football. He always liked the power run game, but their were PS ideas sprinkled all around the edges of tenure. A balance is always needed. I believe he knew this and imparted that philosophy to his sons.

The Harbaugh Sons – Jim

Jim Harbaugh is the famous brother for his Quarterbacking exploits at Michigan and with the Bears under Mike Dikta. After a long NFL career he immediately jumped into coaching as QB coach of the Oakland Raiders under Bill Callahan, who was formerly the OC under John Gruden. Jim got his first Head Coaching position at San Diego University. Following quick success there he found even bigger success at Stanford.

Finally he landed an NFL head job with the 49ers where he solidified the PS philosophy as a successful option in the NFL. He was able to mesh Pro PS Concepts, including a dual-threat QB, into a single cohesive whole. This had not been done before and led, not only Super Bowl appearance against his brother in 2013, but a complete change in the NFL from West Coast passing dominated league to a ProPS league.

Of late, Jim has taken his expertise back to college with his alma mater, Michigan. While he has had success during his time there, he hasn’t evolved his PS concepts much from the time he was with the 49ers. His attempts to run a ProPS Offense at the college level has held his team back in the midst of Harbaugh’s top leadership and recruiting.

The Harbaugh Sons – John

John is a year older than Jim. He wasn’t a star player like his Dad or an NFL player like his brother Jim, but he was a good player. He played DB at Miami, Ohio. Interestingly, Jim played QB and the Dad played both, QB and DB, at a time when players went both ways. All three were born and played along that contentious northern border between Ohio and Michigan.

John got into coaching right after graduation under his Dad at Western Michigan and Pitt. Unlike his brother, John had a defensive bent stemming from the fact that he played on that side of the ball. His Dad wanted his experience as a coach to be more varied – as his was, both from a player and coaching standpoint. John was a RB, LB and TE coach during the time with his Dad. From there his story takes a very interesting turn.

First, John became a Special Teams coach. I’m sure the varied background provided by his Dad helped in this endeavor. John became known quickly in football circles as a top SpTeams coach. He was hired by Cincinnati, Indiana and finally at the pro level with the Eagles as both a SpTeams guru and DB coach.

What’s more fascinating is who John worked with on the defensive side of the ball. First he got to know another pair of brothers while at Cincy – Rex and Rob of the famous innovator Buddy Ryan. Then with the Eagles he worked under the great Jim Johnson. Everything you see in NFL and most College Defenses today has some major element of Buddy and JJ in the concepts and schemes.

From there, John got the head coaching job with the Ravens, who already had Rex Ryan innovating the “Psycho” defense for 5 years. The Defensive innovation continued along with John’s expertise in SpTeams. The offense came along too – first with a Passing Spread and no-huddle which suited spread QB Joe Flacco and now a pure Power Spread for newcomer Lamar Jackson.


Jack Harbaugh’s – The Balance of Power and Spread

If you read this Article, you would never believe what I’m about to say. Jack Harbaugh had PS Innovation in his blood and lent that philosophy to his sons.

He did, of course, learn his trade from a lot of hardcore power run attacks on Offense and conventional strategies of the time on Defense. But I believe he knew the importance of balance – in everything. He had to know about all those innovative offenses in Michigan’s past. Before the Bo Schembechler / Woody Hayes era. For sure Bill Walsh’s modern pass game effected his thinking.

The West Coast Offense

When he was hired as DC at Stanford, Walsh’s former assistant Rod Dowhower just left as Head Coach. Before Walsh, Dowhower was a Don Coryell Protege. Coryell was a protege of the late great Sid Gillman – Father of the Modern Passing Game. Coryell, thru Gillman, effected so many great minds – including Walsh. Another was Lindy Infante, who will show up later with Jack’s son, Jim.

At Stanford, this burgeoning West Coast passing game was continued with John Elway as Quarterback and eventually Jim Fassel as his OC. Now, I know that Jack Harbaugh was the DC – not on the offensive side of the ball – but think about it. Jack was a balanced coach. He was a star QB as well. He knew both sides of the ball. Don’t you think he could see what was going on in the cutting edge schemes of Gillman/Coryell/Walsh?

The Run and Shoot – Beginning of the modern Spread Offense

Here’s one more thing. Elway played high school football under one of the Triumvirate of Run and Shoot coaches from Tiger Ellison – Jack Neumeier. Along with Red Faught and Mouse Davis, these 3 popularized the spread attack just as the PS Triumvirate Urban Meyer, Gus Malzahn and Art Briles popularized Power Spread.

There is not doubt in my mind that Jack was seeing all of this and it filtered down to his sons in some form. Whether it is something talked about now or not.

Early Form of Power Spread

Want further proof? After Stanford and his Head Coaching stint at Western Michigan, Jack was hired as an assistant at Pitt to help with the Run and Shoot Offense. I’m not kidding. Jack took the place of assistant coach John Jenkins. Look it up. John is famous for his innovations of Mouse Davis’ Run and Shoot.

Pitt’s Head Coach at the time, Mike Gottfried, was implementing a Run-n-Shoot offense that used more variety than just the pass. Similar to Red Faught’s version and the original Run-n-Shoot designed by Tiger Ellison. I’m sure he wanted Jack’s expertise in the Power Option game to combine with the Spread Passing schemes of this new offense. Early visions of Power Spread. Doomed to fail initially – but set the ideas in motion for the future.

Western Kentucky with Jim

THIS is what Jack Harbaugh took with him to Western Kentucky. Now he may have run the ball 90% of the time with his I-Bone as the article above says, but believe me, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Stubborn Fear is always the enemy of progress. Jack instinctively knew the need for balance, but at WKentucky if he could get away without passing the ball, he would.

While fear and denial may have stopped the Dad from expanding, it didn’t stop his son, Jim. A QB thru and thru, he wanted his Dad to pass more – balance out the Power with Spread. Again, though his Dad may have balked at this notion, these ideas came from his Dad’s wide varied background and knowledge of the game.

Power Spread for the Harbaughs was always in the genes.

Jim Harbaugh – ProPS Cohesion

With his innate sense of Power Spread Balance inherited from his Dad, Jim was the first Pro Coach to truly find cohesion between the College “Spread” and the Pro West Coast Attack that had dominated the NFL Lanscape for some 40 years.

Playing Days

As I pointed out above, Harbaugh was the best player of the trio. His Dad was drafted to the AFL, but didn’t last. His brother wasn’t drafted at all. Jim had a solid career. First at Michigan under Bo, then with the Bears under Dikta. It wasn’t until he came across a coach named Lindy that Jim’s own innovative wheels began to turn – independent from his Dad’s vast experience and influence.

Lindy Infante was an underrated branch under the Gillman/Coryell West Coast Offense Tree. Walsh is the most famous, but Lindy and Mike Martz (of Rams “The Greatest Show on Turf” fame) arguably make up the Triumvirate of the modern West Coast Passing Spread.

Lindy, like Martz, tended to have more variety Vertically in the West Coast passing attack than did Walsh. Lindy also liked to keep the balance of run power as well. All this was well suited to Jim’s thinking. The Harbaugh bros will always like the power part of the game instilled by their Dad, but Jim for sure sees the advantage of the balance of pass and run – with the spread actually opening up the power – and vice versa.

Harbaugh also played for the Ravens – the team where his brother would make his claim to fame and eventually beat Jim in the Super Bowl – and the Chargers – where the whole West Coast attack started with Sid Gillman. With the Ravens he played under Brian Billick another innovative West Coast style of coach. The Chargers were coached by Marty Schottenheimer who always had a Gillman protege Joe Gibbs heavy power West Coast attack. Again right up Jim’s ally. But the Infante and Walsh Concepts remained the big ones for Harbaugh as his playing career wound down.

Early Coaching Days

After helping his Dad a Western Kentucky during his time as a player, Jim jumped right into coaching as a player. Raiders Coach Bill Callahan ran an inventive West Coast Passing Spread. Jim wanted more Power, but definitely utilized his West Coast ideas with San Diego University and then at Stanford – Bill Walsh’s old stomping grounds.

While at Stanford, Jim experimented more with this idea of combining run with pass, power with spread. By now, the “Spread” attack wasn’t so new at the College level. The difference with Harbaugh’s philosophy was in his idea of Power. His power was BIG. As in POWER Spread. This concept led to sets that included 2 RBs / 2 TEs or 3 TEs. Then spread sets for the West Coast pass attack.

It only made sense that Harbaugh would wind up in the NFL. Not only from a background/experience/leadership sense, but a schematic sense as well. The NFL was already starting to experiment with Dual-Threat QBs and looking to find power from spread concepts.

Unlike most of the NFL’s fractured Multiple Offenses, which had many concepts going on all at once that many times led to complicated confusion, Harbaugh found a way to integrate these apparent drifters. Power and Spread as an integrated Dynamic Opposition. ProPS.

San Francisco 49ers ProPS 2011-2014

With a dual-threat QB Colin Kaepernick Harbaugh was able to synchronize the college PS with the Pro west coast offense into a cohesive ProPS years ahead of its time. It took his team all the way to a Super Bowl. The same team Bill Walsh coached to multi SB wins. And of course, who did Jim play in the SB, but his own brother John of the Baltimore Ravens.

Problems occurred both on and off the field for Harbaugh in the complicated world of Professional Football that led to his dismissal, but his ProPS system left a lasting impression. Many teams were trying to incorporate the spread in very discombobulated ways. What I called the Multiple Pro Fractured system. This went on for a couple of years.

It wasn’t until 2015 that coaches like Andy Reid were finding ways to cohesively use PS concepts in their own offensive schemes. Before you knew it most NFL teams were running some version of ProPS. Now every team runs some type of cohesive PS concept within their offensive systems. Many are innovating at a furious rate as we head into the 2020s.

PS Defense

Up to this point all we have talked about with Jim is his PS Offensive innovations. Here’s the thing – he also was active with his Defense as well. While he didn’t have quite the acumen of his Dad or Brother, as they both played on that side of the ball, Jim was always working to find the most effective innovative schemes on Defense as well.

His DC for the 49ers was Vic Fangio. Fangio learned his trade under Jim Mora and Dom Capers of the famed Dick LeBeau Zone Blitz. This Zone Blitz schemed changed all of Defensive Football History and has a lot to do with the Ravens current PS 2020 Defense of Jim’s bro, John.

The Harbaughs and Fangio go back. Vic actually worked under John with Rex Ryan to help form the famed Psycho Ravens Defense. He then enjoyed great success with Jim during his last year at Stanford. He was a big part of the 49ers success under Harbaugh and continued to run his PS Defense expertly with the Bears and now has his first Head Coaching job with the Broncos.

Michigan Defense

Jim has done a nice job with the Michigan program in terms of Culture with his leadership and recruiting. Unfortunately his scheme innovation has slowed down drastically.

Initially, on defense, he went back to a more conservative approach with a 4-3 Quarters style of Defense. Similar to what he initially ran at Stanford.

With the explosive evolution of PS Offenses at the college level, many coaches thought that the Quarters type of Cover 4 was a safer, yet still aggressive enough scheme vs the highly aggressive variety they encountered now weekly. It was neither. To counter the lack of variety inherent in this scheme, coaches had to promote over-aggression in an attempt to shake up the PS offenses. That led to a lot of play-action that led to big scores, which eventually led to a total breakdown in scheme, losing all its aggression completely.

Stagnant ProPS Scheme

Thankfully, Harbaugh now uses a more aggressive man/zone pressure mix under the brilliant DC Don Brown. While his Defense has improved, his Offense has been a stagnant liability.

Like his Dad many years before, Harbaugh may suffer from a stubborn fear that prevents progression to the newer evolved forms of PS Offense we are seeing now everywhere. He continues to run a ProPS scheme very similar to his innovation at SanFran at the beginning of the decade. This may work to some extent in the NFL -where the talent/experience level much higher – but not in college.

Still, due to his abilities as a Head Coach, Michigan is a top team, though there are grumblings among the fans. Will Jim Harbaugh ever innovate again? Who knows. But sometimes when you least expect it, people surprise you. This is very much the case for his brother.

John Harbaugh – The NFL’s First PS2020 Coach

Who would’ve thought, but John Harbaugh has a become a full blast Power Spread Head Coach that’s leading the way in NFL innovation. Yes, Andy Reid and Sean McVay are doing amazing PS innovation on Offense. But Harbaugh is doing it on Offense, Defense and Special Teams. All 3 phases of the game.

Rex Ryan – Psycho Defense

We all know about the Ravens Defense. They have run cutting edge schemes for over a decade going back to when Harbaugh became Head Coach and kept Rex Ryan’s innovative defense in place his first year on the job. Rex’s dad was one of the great innovators of all time. Rex along with his brother Rob innovated Buddy’s aggressive schemes.

The big innovation with the Ravens under Rex and Vic Fangio was what came to be known as the Psycho Defense. 6 or more players (sometimes as many as 9 in the box + all 11 at LOS) up on the line of scrimmage ready to attack or drop into coverage. Now many teams use this tactic, but the Ravens were the first.

This was something originally experimented with by Joe Lee Dunn in college. Buddy also could have 9 players in the box at times, but not everyone was standing, ready to attack or drop into coverage. Buddy was at the forefront of aggression, but not variety.

Succeeding coaches tweaked the Ravens system, but I felt it was starting to become slightly less aggressive under Dean Pees. Especially when Leslie Frazier showed up as a DB coach in 2016. More zone coverage mixes, but less pressure and man coverage than before.

This year with promotion of Don Martindale to DC this all changed. Martindale coached under both Ryan brothers in the past. His most recent influence was obviously Rex since he’s been at Baltimore. But he spent 2004-08 working as LBs coach for the Raiders under Rob Ryan.

Rob Ryan – PS2020

Rob Ryan is a PS2020 coach in my opinion. What I mean by that is his Defenses have touches of the future in them. While Rex will mix pressure a lot, he tends to favor simple zone mixes and man coverage. I’ve seen Rob really mix his coverages and pressures. To the extreme. And while many have felt he is too complicated, I’ve seen occasions of simple brilliance from him. He’s just a hard sell to a Head Coach because he’s ahead of his time. Like his Dad.

I think a lot of Rob’s variety is due to the influence of Joe Lee Dunn on his philosophy. Dunn, along with Buddy form the root of all PS Defensive Aggressive Variety. This really started from Joe Collier (Orange Crush in Denver) long ago. Combined with the Zone Blitz of Dick LeBeau and full pressure mix of Jim Johnson – you have everything in progressive Defensive Football today.

Don Martindale – Full Psycho

Well, I didn’t know what to expect from Martindale as he’s rarely run a defense on his own throughout his career. He’s another Northern Ohio boy by that Michigan border. He played and coached at Defiance College, then coached for Jack at Western Kentucky in the early 00s before coming to the Ravens in 2012. He also has influences from Bob Davie and Mike Nolan.

For sure, though, what we are seeing this year is all Rob Ryan. And Martindale is implementing the concepts brilliantly. The Psycho Defense of Rex was originally meant only for passing downs. Now the Ravens will run it on any down versus any set though usually it is still used versus passing sets and downs.

More importantly, even without the exact Psycho set – everyone standing up in 2 pt stance and on the LOS – the concept is ALWAYS PSYCHO – almost every play. What I mean by that is whether Baltimore is in a 3-4, 4-3hybrid, 3-3 or 2-4 you can expect a surprise. There is a ton of pre-snap movement and post-snap changes. One look, then another. All leading to a surprising scheme after the snap.

Last but not least, the Ravens will go Cover Zero many times in a game. This is highly unusual in the Pros. It was only a short time ago that most pro teams felt it necessary to always keep at least one deep safety. Many still do so. In fact, Mike Tomlin is innovating some brilliant schemes in Pittsburgh, but when it’s at the end of close games in pressure times, he always drops a safety really deep – sometimes two! He’s not the only one.

With the Ravens anything goes! Against the Browns, with their playoff lives on the line, they blitzed 1 safety twice and 2 safeties twice in their last four defensive plays to win the game! All 4 plays were Cover Zero – no deep safety help. Turnover on Downs!

Some will say that this type of scheme can only be run by seasoned vets at the pro level. This may be true for now. Baltimore is seasoned for sure. College teams may struggle with this type of Scheme. Top Clemson DC Brent Venables has the same kind of Aggressive Variety, but from a much simpler scheme. But remember – this is only the beginning. PS2020. A lot of evolution yet to come.

For now this is the top cutting edge DScheme in the NFL and the #s proved it. The Ravens had the #1 Defense. Now the question is how many NFL teams will we see running versions of Cover Zero Psycho Defense next year?

PS Special Teams

Harbaugh learned his trade in Special Teams as I wrote above. Just as Jim had an innate balance sense of power and spread on offense, John has another type of balance sense. He had a varied coaching background – unlike his brother. I do think this helps with a Special Teams coach. And I think SpTeams coaches can make good Head Coaches because of this variety. Ala Urban Meyer.

The Ravens Special Teams are usually very good. And if something is amiss it’s usually corrected by the following season. This year I feel they made a leap forward – as has many NFL Teams – in kick blocking schemes. All kinds of techniques and schemes created to disturb the Kicker – thus all the missed kicks this year.

To be honest, a lot of these schemes and techniques have been in the works for a while now in the NFL. By a lot of teams. I think all the progression on the PS front in Offense, then Defense, has led to this jump in Special Teams. Returns, Coverage, even Onside Kicks – there has been a ton of innovation in this phase of the game and the Ravens again are at the forefront.

PS Offense – Passing Spread to ProPS

And finally, here we are – the last phase of Harbaugh’s innovative PS Team. This has been the biggest surprise of all!

Don’t get me wrong. Harbaugh has progressed his Offense over time. Early on he used a No-Huddle Passing Spread for Joe Flacco who ran a passing spread offense at Deleware University. Later he looked for more Power Balance like his brother with the 49ers, but unlike his brother he did not have a dual-threat QB.

Eventually he worked with a Gary Kubiak who’s a Power West Coast coach from the Mike Shanahan / Joe Gibbs line of thought. Marc Trestman took over for Kubiak, but he was too pass oriented. Finally Marty Mornhinweg was his guy.

Mornhinweg – Back to PS101!

Mornhinweg was a top QB in big Gillman West Coast pro pass offenses in High School and College. He played for the Arena Football League for a year, then learned his trade under Bill Walsh gurus Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid. Mornhinweg’s variety of experience helped him mesh well with Reid’s BYU background – a more creative version of West Coast Offense. This aggressive variety led to his hiring by Rex Ryan of the Jets. There they had some early experiments of ProPS, but nothing cohesive like what was going on with John’s brother in SanFran.

I knew that Harbaugh was trying to find a more progressive ProPS Scheme that best fit his team. So when he drafted Lamar Jackson, I figured he would fit Lamar into this type of scheme – using his legs on rollouts and such with some scrambling and planned runs. I never imagined he would go to a full Read Option PS101 system with Flacco on the bench!

Harbaugh – PS2020

Yes, Flacco was hurt, but I do believe this is no longer about him. This is about Harbaugh and Mornhinweg running a full blast PS Offense with a dual-threat QB. Finding creative schemes and sets to open up huge power, which in turn opens up huge spread, then power, etc… A perfect Accordion Effect! In, Out. Deep, Short. On and On. Aggressive Variety with the beginnings of Flexibility. PS2020.

Some may also say that anyone would run a Read Option PS101 offense with a talent like Lamar Jackson, but this is not true. And its been proven. There HAVE been talents like Jackson in the past and they weren’t used this way. Maybe somewhat. RGIII ran some. Then he was hurt and everyone said SEE! Well, no scheme or concept can be run half-ass. Do it or don’t. Harbaugh is the first to do it. Full blast. And Baltimore barely loss a game the second half of the season!

Will this continue into next year? Will Jackson get hurt from all the running? Who knows, but it looks like Harbaugh is committed to PS in all 3 phases of the game. RGIII, mentioned above, is actually his 3rd String QB. And though Flacco has given the Ravens a lot. He has been with Harbaugh his whole tenure with Baltimore. Has been a great QB and a winner. But Harbaugh sees the future and is going with it.


In the end, it’s really an amazing PS story. Above and beyond anything on the field. A Dad and his two sons who love what they do. Always knew what they wanted to do. Live with a passion day in and day out.

I don’t think any one of them set out to innovate anything. They just love football. The idea of Win/Lose creates a huge importance – a huge urgency. Sometimes that’s all you need to innovate and evolve. It’s a natural part of life. Passion is Energy and that’s all that’s every existed. E=energy of the universe. PS=energy of this world and the games we play.


  1. […] The Harbaughs – A lesson in PS Innovation – An Energy Evolution […]

  2. […] into PS2020 Schemes. The reason for this is that Harbaugh tends to be conservative. My article on The Harbaugh Family and their Football innovations not withstanding, the brothers and their Dad all have a conservative […]

  3. […] Harbaugh’s have always had a hand in football innovation, so this shouldn’t surprise me, but I must […]

  4. […] Don Martindale, via Rex and Rob Ryan, has blasted the Ravens Defense into the 2020s of PS Aggressive Variety with a hint of Flexibility. […]

  5. […] to pure Power Spread Football that exists in the NFL at this present time. It actually started last year as John Harbaugh started to experiment with more Power Spread using QB Lamar […]

  6. […] always, his Offensive Schemes set the trend. When he picked up on Jim Harbaugh’s Pro PS several years back, he expanded it into a dynamic Pro PS system. Doug Pederson rode these ideas to […]

  7. […] don’t already know. He has taken a mesh of Pro and Power Spread Offense – started by Jim Harbaugh – and expanded it further every year. His influence has been felt all over the league. Every […]

  8. […] Ravens are ahead of the NFL scheme curve and are leading the way to PS Pro 2020 innovations around the bend, but Harbaugh does tend to get conservative on Offense at Playoff Time. […]

  9. […] have written a lot about the advanced Pro PS 2020 Schemes of Baltimore – both on Offense and Defense. With Harbaugh letting Jackson and the Offense play their […]

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