Bet against Zach Orr again. Dan McCarney dares you.
Orr’s North Texas college coach has seen people overlook him at every level. McCarney wasn’t part of the staff that recruited Orr, but he knows the former linebacker was a two-star prospect with no Division I offers, most likely because of an injury suffered his senior year of high school.
McCarney watched Orr as he helped lead the Mean Green to a win in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the school’s first bowl victory in over a decade.
“You can’t put a value on great leadership, but you can sure put a face on it,” McCarney said. “And the face of leadership was Zach Orr the whole time that I was around him.”
McCarney then watched as every single NFL team passed Orr up in the 2014 NFL Draft despite him making 123 tackles as a senior, the fifth-most in school history, and 365 tackles over his entire career, the third-most in school history. NFL writer Gil Brandt listed Orr as one of his “no-name prospects on the rise,” and North Texas defensive coordinator John Skladany dropped recommendations in the ears of NFL scouts he knew, but no one bit on the undersized 6-foot-1, 240-pound Orr.
Three years later, Orr was a second-team All-Pro as a starting linebacker on the Ravens.
After Orr was forced to retire because of a congenital neck/spine condition, he moved into coaching. Now, he’s taking over as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, following in the footsteps of Mike Macdonald, whose stint leading one of the best defenses in the league led to a head coaching job with the Seattle Seahawks.
Coach John Harbaugh said he wants to see “evolution and growth” from the defense, which finished this year first in the league in sacks (60), takeaways (31) and points allowed per game (16.5). He wants that from a unit that could lose key contributors such as defensive lineman Justin Madubuike, inside linebacker Patrick Queen and safety Geno Stone to free agency. It seems like a big ask for a first-time coordinator.
But McCarney has known Harbaugh since he was a child. He knows Harbaugh wouldn’t make this promotion to be nice or out of convenience. Harbaugh is gunning for a Super Bowl, and he thinks Orr will help them get there. McCarney, who’s spent more than four decades around football as a player and coach, applauds Harbaugh’s choice.
“John Harbaugh hasn’t made many mistakes in the NFL since he’s been a football coach,” McCarney said. “… He’s not making many mistakes on players or coaches and the people he surrounds himself with. … He knows Zach can help keep the Ravens on the forefront of success.”
A career built in Baltimore
After Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome decided to give Orr a chance as an undrafted free agent, he returned their investment and then some.
Orr signed a three-year contract with an average annual value of $511,000 as a 22-year-old.
In 2016, at the end of his deal, Orr started alongside C.J. Mosley, a Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up for the 2014 season, and led the team with 133 combined tackles. (Mosley was inactive for two games.) Both were named second-team All-Pro.
Orr was likely in line for a hefty second contract, but he and the Ravens never got the chance to negotiate. In the second-to-last game of the season, Orr suffered an injury that would reveal he had a congenital neck/spine condition that made his career even more dangerous than it already is. In a Players Tribune article, Orr said the doctors told him his C-1 vertebrae, the one at the top of his neck, would explode if he took a bad hit.
“And I realize that that’s not how I want to leave this earth,” Orr wrote in the article. “I don’t want my life to end on a football field. ... I guess I’m done.”
Orr immediately retired from football. After thinking about it, he decided to get another opinion. Two different doctors said they thought he could play, so five months later, he called up Newsome. While Newsome wanted Orr back, he told him he had to pass the physical. The Ravens doctors wouldn’t give him approval — and Orr soon found the rest of the NFL’s medical staffs felt the same.
But the Ravens decided they weren’t done investing in Orr, even if they weren’t comfortable with him putting pads on. Before Orr had the chance to reel over the end of his career, he received a call from owner Steve Bisciotti.
“[Bisciotti] said, ‘Hey, I see you’ve got a nice little parting gift,’” Orr recalled during his introductory press conference Tuesday, referring to the signing bonus he had earned. “So, I was like, ‘Yes.’ I was like, ‘Dang, I didn’t know he was checking that. I didn’t know he was looking at that.’”
Then Bisciotti switched gears. Bisciotti told Orr how highly the organization thinks of him and offered him a position on the coaching staff. When Orr expressed interest, Bisciotti told him Newsome would be in touch. The very next day, Orr said he blew up Newsome’s phone, telling him he’s coming back.
And so began Orr’s seven-year coaching career. But, as Orr would soon learn, things are very different on the sidelines. Whether he knew it or not, he had been gathering the experiences needed to make him into one of the NFL’s youngest defensive coordinators at age 31.
True field general
Orr never thought about coaching while he was playing.
He was focused on building a “10- to 15-year” career in the NFL, and his coaches were focused on getting him there. But even as they developed Orr as a player, McCarney and Skladany saw his ability for coaching from the start.
Both came in during the linebacker’s sophomore year at North Texas. In those situations, you usually have to teach the players the mentality it takes to win, McCarney said. One of the first steps is identifying the potential leaders on the roster who can deliver the coaching staff’s message. Orr was rehabbing an injury when they first arrived, but once he hit the field, it was clear he was their guy.
It’s more than leading by example, McCarney said. Orr led through inspirational words and holding his teammates accountable. He was the type of guy who both demanded and inspired loyalty, McCarney said, and he gave loyalty in return. When he spoke, people listened, said co-captain Derek Thompson.
“His message was always, if you follow me, I’m going to show you the right way,” Thompson said. “Just the way he practiced, the way he did everything, it translated to him being successful. ... Nothing fazes him. It was easy to see that from him as a young athlete.”
Beyond being a character guy, Orr was incredibly skilled and smart on the field. He attacked every play as it came, former roommate and teammate Brelan Chancellor said. For the four to six seconds every play lasts, he gave it his all, helping him overcome his lack of size and speed.
“He was a big, play-making son of a gun,” McCarney said.
He picked up the scheme quickly and was soon helping others understand where they had to be. He embodied the title “coach on the field,” McCarney said.
He got so good at reading the opposing offense that he could beat his own defensive coordinator to the punch. Skladany recalled a game against Tulsa where he had prepared the team for specific formation the Golden Hurricane used, a split-back, three-wide receiver set. The first time Tulsa used it, he couldn’t get the team in place in time, and Tulsa picked up eight or nine yards. The next time they moved into formation, Orr leaped into action, arranging the defense before Skladany could get a word out. Tulsa was knocked back for negative yards and never used the play again.
In statements provided by the Ravens, Harbaugh said Orr’s experience as a linebacker would help him to lead an entire defense as the coordinator. Skladany echoed a similar sentiment.
“As a linebacker, he was involved not only in the run with the front seven, fitting run plays, whether it be inside runs or outside runs,” Skladany said. “And then he had to get involved as a linebacker in the pass game. And he was really critical, obviously in the underneath coverage.”
Knowing football is all well and good if you’re a player, Orr said, but it’s only the start for coaches.
“That really doesn’t help you from the standpoint of teaching, coaching and getting information to the players, because as a coach, it’s really not what you know; it’s what your players know and what you can get them to know,” Orr said.
In his end-of-season press conference, where Harbaugh addressed Orr’s promotion from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator for the first time, he admitted that Orr would have a learning curve since he’s never called plays before.
Harbaugh was well aware of the blank space on Orr’s resume. But he sees potential in Orr the coach like he did in Orr the player.
During those initial conversations seven years ago, Newsome warned Orr of the differences between coaching and suiting up and playing.
“Ozzie was like, ‘All right now. You know these hours are different, so get ready,’” Orr said.
Seeing the “other side of things,” Orr realized just how much extra effort goes into helping a team win. He saw how people behind the scenes set it up so he and his teammates could “go out there and just go play football.”
Orr said it probably took three or four years before he was “fully entrusted” with all the “coaching things.” That’s when he really started to get excited about game-planning, picking apart opponents and studying his players. Suddenly, his lofty football goals became lofty coaching goals.
“I never thought I would say this, ‘I have no aspirations of playing at all.’ I love this,” Orr said of his coaching career.
While Macdonald had the final say on the Ravens’ defensive game plan, the staff approached scheming collaboratively. Orr showed that he doesn’t just have knowledge of the game, but the ability to impart that knowledge to the players.
“He was just a big catalyst of that [the season’s success] with the passion he brought to each meeting, the insight and intelligence that he brought with every slide,” outside linebacker Odafe Oweh said. “He always had a good tell for us. He always had good insight on the personnel that we had. His understanding of the game was just always impressive, and we looked up to him as someone who was dominant on the field and could teach you the Xs and Os and lead a group of men.”
Now, Orr will be the one making the final call. He said he’ll build on what Macdonald has already installed — he emphasized the importance of disguising his defense pre-snap — while also leaving his own mark. He described his brand of defense as “violent,” “unified” and “organized chaos.”
Orr plans to call plays from the field so he can “look players in their eyes and see what’s going on and get a feel for how guys are feeling out there.” That feel is another critical part of why Harbaugh thinks Orr will be successful. While being a great player doesn’t necessarily make one a great coach, in Orr’s case, his on-field experience has elevated his coaching.
“He challenges guys on a level that only a former player could,” said nose tackle Michael Pierce, one of the few left on the roster who played alongside Orr as a Raven. “He also can see the game and coach the game from a coach’s point of view, as well as a player’s. Zach knows what it means to be a Raven and carry the shield. He also knows what it takes daily to uphold that tradition.”
Orr still has to prove himself in real time — “there’s no doubt about it,” Harbaugh said — but there’s also little doubt in Harbaugh’s mind that he will catch on quick.
In fact, Harbaugh bets Orr will not only overcome his inexperience and the losses of players on the defense, but he will someday be a NFL head coach. McCarney would put money on it.
“Mark it down,” McCarney said.