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NFL coaches, known for sleeping in their offices, are embracing the work-from-home life

Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh watches during a training camp practice in 2017. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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The difference in how his work life has changed strikes Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh most in the moments he stands on his lawn in the middle of the day with a lacrosse stick in his hands. Three times a week, his daughter, Alison, a Notre Dame commit, does drills led by a coach who comes to the house and keeps social distance. Harbaugh leaves his home office, walks outside and serves as an assistant, catching feeds or chasing Alison around.

“If I was at work, I would never, ever be able to be a part of that,” Harbaugh said in a phone conversation. “I would never even see that. That’s just been something that wouldn’t even be possible.”

NFL coaches and front-office executives famously work grueling hours, spending so much time inside facilities that some teams keep beds and sleeping rooms in their offices. The New England Patriots employ float tanks, which purport to create the benefits of a four-hour nap in 40 minutes. But the requirement to work remotely this spring during the novel coronavirus pandemic has kept coaches home as they have prepared for the draft and the upcoming season.

For some, it has led to new insight. ESPN’s draft broadcast featured coaches and general managers making selections while surrounded by family, an unexpected effect they uniformly raved about. Detroit Lions General Manager Bob Quinn called the experience “a lesson” in balancing work and life in the offseason, and he vowed to find ways for his staff to work remotely in the future.

“We’re going to look at it and see what we can do for our employees to make their lives a little better,” Quinn said.

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Many NFL decision-makers said working remotely made them realize technology they wouldn’t otherwise use allows them to be just as effective and more efficient. Arizona Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said he’ll do future draft prospect interviews using Zoom. In the time spent traveling to meet with one player, he said, he could be meeting a half-dozen others online or watching more film.

“It’s helped a number of us, in some ways, understand that there are things that can be delegated that we don’t on a daily basis, that we’re more creature of habit,” Keim said. “Really that family time and being around your kids is just as important, so you don’t look back one day and say, ‘Oh, man, I wish I could have had that time back or saw my kids more.’ To do a good enough job and to keep a healthy frame of mind, you have to incorporate those things into your life.”

Harbaugh is not one of the coaches who has experienced a work-life epiphany. “I see it a little differently than the stereotype,” he said.

The son of a college coach, Harbaugh said he commits himself 100 percent of the time to family, faith and work. Despite long hours, he views work and family less as a pie to be divided than as a continuum, “all together in kind of a mix,” he said.

Harbaugh has brought Alison to the office and to the sideline on game days and has encouraged his assistant coaches to do the same with their children. He misses some family functions, but he tells his players and coaches that if they need to attend to a family matter, they should. He has enjoyed working from home, but it did not rearrange his philosophy.

“I’m probably not going to give the story you want,” Harbaugh said. “ ‘Now I realize I don’t have to work as hard.’ Or, ‘I spent so much time with my family, I realize I like them so much.’ I already knew that. But I promise, if you want to win in the National Football League, or you want to win at any job, you better be working at it.

“I do think there’s some fake work that goes on, some guarding of desks and people trying to impress other people, acting like they’re working hard when they aren’t. I tell our guys here all the time: ‘We’re not punching the clock here. You’re going to be evaluated on how well your guys play. That’s it. How well you’re doing the job, not how long you’re doing the job.’ But sometimes to do it well does take some time. There’s a lot that goes into it.”

Still, Harbaugh has found enough benefits to working from home that he may do so more often in future offseasons. During the spring, he said, coaching work boils down to research projects. He watches game tape and draws up new plays.

When Harbaugh works at the Ravens’ facility, his day is consumed by what he calls “got a” appointments — a staffer popping into his office or walking by in the hall and asking, “Got a minute?” He’s happy to conduct those conversations, which he believes are important to morale and cohesion, but they also distract him.

“All of a sudden you get pulled away, and then you got to restart and get back at something,” Harbaugh said. “When you’re at home, you really don’t have those distractions. You can really dig in and just go. You have your family, and you can do it on your terms. … ‘Okay, I’m going to do this until 3, and then we’re going to go to a game or work on lacrosse in the front yard.’ You don’t have people popping by and pulling you away from what you’re doing, which has kind of been interesting.”

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The Ravens, like many NFL teams, have become Zoom experts. As the offseason program has allowed for virtual player meetings, the Ravens have instituted new methods to keep players engaged, using quizzes and games as competition.

One day, Harbaugh saw Alison studying on her computer and asked, “What’s that?” It was a game called Kahoot!, she explained. Her teachers could create a test for the entire class, and the students could compete to see who picked the answers first or got the most right. The Ravens now play Kahoot! in virtual team meetings.

“It was new to me,” Harbaugh said. “The guys all knew what it was.”

Harbaugh has tried to replicate the staff bonding that happens in person. Twice a week over Zoom, Ravens strength coaches lead Harbaugh and his assistants through punishing workouts. Alison and Harbaugh’s wife, Ingrid, have occasionally joined him.

“That’s the best you can do,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not quite as personal. I think it’s going to make, when we do get together and we’re practicing and we’re back to normal, I think we’re all going to appreciate it more, appreciate each other more and what we do and all that. I’m kind of excited about that. I think it’s going to bring us closer together.”

There is no replacement for connection, and in Harbaugh’s line of work, nothing can replicate football players on the field practicing football. Yet NFL coaches, like so many Americans fortunate enough to still be working, have found a silver lining in trying times. Working from home has its drawbacks, but it also carries invaluable benefits, such as walking outside with your daughter and practicing lacrosse in the middle of the day.

“It’s really, really cool,” Harbaugh said.