Phil Sheridan | Harbaugh steps out of the comfort zone

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John Harbaugh has moved from directing the special teams as he did last August to taking over the defensive secondary.

People are always moving on in the NFL. Players, coaches - sooner or later, everyone moves. It's just unusual for someone to move a few feet over on the practice field.

John Harbaugh's decision to change career paths, stepping away from coaching the Eagles' special teams after nine successful seasons and taking over the defensive secondary, seemed a little puzzling from the outside. Why stop doing something you're among the best in the world at doing?

The answer is a little bit about ambition, a little about professional curiosity. It's a lot about the competitive drive to step outside the familiar and comfortable and challenge yourself anew.

Wait. Scratch that. Harbaugh doesn't like the word "challenge" in this conversation because it implies that putting together excellent coverage and return and field-goal units had stopped being a challenge.

"It's always a challenge and you're inspired by that challenge," Harbaugh said after working with a handful of rookie defensive backs Friday. "You do get to coach the whole team. The challenge here is getting out of your comfort zone, to learn a whole defensive system from the ground up."

Harbaugh said he was "content but not satisfied" in his longtime role, a feeling that sharpened after his ninth NFL season ended.

He interviewed for two college head coaching jobs, one at Cincinnati and the other at Boston College. Also, he was offered a job as defensive coordinator at Stanford, a position he considered mostly because his boss would have been his brother, Jim, a former NFL quarterback.

Those opportunities set some wheels in motion. Andy Reid, who retained Harbaugh from Ray Rhodes' staff back in 1999, supported Harbaugh as he interviewed at Cincinnati and BC - "especially Boston College," Harbaugh said, "because Andy liked [that situation] best."

Harbaugh would like to be a head coach someday. It was becoming increasingly clear that he'd hit an impasse. Most head coaches are hired from the ranks of offensive and defensive coordinators, Reid himself being a rare exception. But even Reid, who was quarterbacks coach in Green Bay before getting the head coaching job here, came from one side of the ball.

Special teams? That's both sides of the ball, or neither.

While his brother gave him all the time he needed to decide, Harbaugh considered an interesting offer from Reid. He could slide over to Jim Johnson's defensive staff in the vacancy created when Steve Spagnuolo was hired as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants.

"I'm grateful to Andy for the chance," Harbaugh said. "At the same time, I think everything he does is with the best interests of his staff in mind. It would have been easy for him to hire someone who has coached the secondary for 15 years, but he likes to move from within his staff."

Jim Harbaugh understood when his brother called to offer his regrets.

"It's the NFL," John Harbaugh said. "It's a chance to work for the Philadelphia Eagles organization. And it's a chance to learn from Jim Johnson."

Two of Johnson's former defensive assistants, Ron Rivera and Leslie Frazier, were coaching in the Super Bowl this year. Spagnuolo, who likely would have replaced Johnson if he'd left for a head coaching job at some point, is now a coordinator.

So the career path is a little more direct, but Harbaugh has too much to do to focus on any of that.

"You can't control any of that, anyway," Harbaugh said. "Will you get a shot, will you not get a shot? Maybe you water the field a little bit and give yourself a chance. That's a small part of it. The bigger part of it is to get out of the comfort zone and coach a whole new system."

With a revamped defensive staff, Johnson spent the off-season breaking his whole defense down and rethinking some things.

"It was great for us and I think he enjoyed it," Harbaugh said. "He went back and went through the whole package with a fine-tooth comb - the details, the history of it, why you make this adjustment or that adjustment. It was a great learning experience."

Harbaugh said he felt a pang earlier this month when his successor, Rory Seagrest, ran the first non-Harbaugh Eagles special teams practice in 10 years. Harbaugh, who excelled at creating a sense of pride among his special teamers, knows he has to let go and give Seagrest his space. He's available as a resource, but has plenty to do learning Johnson's system well enough to teach it.

Harbaugh, who described himself as a "slow, stiff" defensive back in college, will work with Brian Dawkins, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard. But he'll also get to help develop rookies C.J. Gaddis and Rashad Barksdale.

"It has been fun and exciting so far," Harbaugh said. "The meeting room is a lot smaller, but the staff office is a lot bigger."


Phil Sheridan |

INSIDE: Three in mix for Birds' strongside linebacker. E8.
Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.