Zach Orr was trying to focus on the positives, but it wasn’t easy. He was just 24 years old. He was an ascending player on a proud Baltimore Ravens defense. Just weeks earlier, his first full season as a starter ended with him getting some All-Pro votes. The inside linebacker, who came into the league as an undrafted free agent from North Texas, was closing in on a significant payday.
Yet, just like that, his career was over. A congenital neck/spine condition, discovered in his year-ending physical, forced him to announce his retirement in January 2017 following just three professional seasons.
“When I found out the news and found out how serious it is, it was something that I just looked at as a blessing,” Orr said then at a news conference at the Under Armour Performance Center. “I look at it as when a door closes, another one opens. I am ready for that next door to open, and I am ready to jump at that opportunity, whatever that is.”
Seven years later, Orr sat in the same team auditorium, in virtually the same place in front of the room, and reflected on the improbability of it all. It was coaching that helped him get over the premature and heartbreaking end to his playing career. It was coaching that provided purpose and an outlet for his passion.
Now, at the age of 31, after just three seasons as a position coach, Orr is the second-youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL. He’s primed to lead a defense that was arguably the best in the league this past season.
“This means a little more to me. It’s not just me just coaching in the National Football League just for any other organization. No, I’m coaching for the organization that had my back,” Orr said at a news conference Tuesday. “When I went through what I went through, they didn’t allow me to really put my head down. … And them doing that for me just shows that they had my back in a tough situation, so they’re going to get everything I’ve got. Like I said, it means something. I bleed purple and black.”
Tuesday’s news conference capped a dizzying eight days for Orr, a stretch that started with the Ravens’ loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship. The day after the game, Orr had his first conversation with Ravens coach John Harbaugh about the team’s potential defensive coordinator opening. It was well documented that Baltimore’s current defensive coordinator, Mike Macdonald, had head-coaching interviews with the Washington Commanders and Seattle Seahawks, and it seemed inevitable that he’d get one of those jobs.
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At the time, there was a belief at the Ravens facility that Orr would be going with Macdonald, wherever he ended up, to be his defensive coordinator. The Green Bay Packers also expressed interest in Orr that Monday for their defensive coordinator opening.
Harbaugh’s “interview” with Orr extended into Tuesday with the two having “really detailed conversations,” according to Orr. It was understood that Harbaugh would have to make a quick decision. His primary three internal candidates to succeed Macdonald — Orr, assistant head coach and defensive line coach Anthony Weaver and defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson — were all being wooed for jobs elsewhere. Everyone wanted a piece of the Ravens’ defense, which became the first in NFL history to lead the league in fewest points allowed, turnovers created and sacks.
Orr woke up that Wednesday and interviewed with the Packers. That was a potential option for him, as was Seattle, which decided on Macdonald as its head coach Wednesday morning. Macdonald and Orr are close. Orr’s return to the organization in 2022, after he spent one year with the Jacksonville Jaguars, coincided with Macdonald’s return as the defensive coordinator following one year at the University of Michigan.
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Later that day, Harbaugh summoned Orr into his office.
“In my mind, I’m like, ‘Man, what do you want to talk about?’ I’ve been talking to this dude Monday, Tuesday. Like, ‘What’s up? I thought I answered every question you had,’” Orr said. “So we’re still talking Wednesday, and then he said, ‘Are you ready to call it.’ I was like, ‘Yes, I’m ready.’
“I was grinning from ear to ear. I’m just thankful that he has that belief in me. I’m going to work my butt off and do everything I can to make it right.”
Orr’s first order of business will be to work with Harbaugh in filling the defensive coaching staff. The Ravens reportedly have hired Michigan defensive analyst and former Atlanta Falcons defensive backs coach Doug Mallory as the replacement for Wilson, who was hired as the Tennessee Titans’ defensive coordinator. They still need a defensive line coach after Weaver joined the Miami Dolphins as their defensive coordinator. They also need to fill the inside linebacker coaching job that was vacated by Orr.
Next, Orr can focus on putting his stamp on the defense and building off what the group accomplished in 2023 under Macdonald, whose ability to diagnose and attack offensive weaknesses and make in-game adjustments kept the Baltimore defense ahead of opponents.
“I want our defense to play together, first and foremost — 11 people playing as one, let’s start there,” Orr said. “The next thing is, I want it to be violent — very violent, physical. That’s just the standard here. Everything we’re going to do is going to be with physicality and violence. Then, just execution — executing at a high level, executing in certain situations, executing all the time.”
Orr has never been in a defensive play-calling position. His first two seasons with the Ravens post-retirement were spent as a coaching and personnel assistant, and then he transitioned full time into the coaching side as a defensive analyst in 2019 and 2020. He was hired by Urban Meyer to coach the Jaguars’ outside linebackers in 2021, but his stint there was short-lived. He returned to the Ravens in 2022 to coach the inside linebackers.
He said he started preparing to call a game about three years ago when he’d watch film and think about what he’d call in certain situations. He’s gone over in his head many times how he’d combat certain game plans and certain offensive schemes.
He also said it will be important for him to remain on the sideline when he’s calling games, rather than moving upstairs, which is where offensive coordinator Todd Monken operates on game days. Being closer to the action fits Orr’s personality. He can be loud and animated. He also loves celebrating and challenging his players, often in a fiery manner.
“I have to look players in their eyes and see what’s going on and get a feel for how guys are feeling out there,” Orr said.
Since the Ravens announced his promotion to defensive coordinator on Feb. 1, Orr said he’s gotten about 800 text messages offering congratulations. They came from friends and family members, former coaches, ex-teammates and current players.
“He just brings a different type of passion and a different perspective to the game that you have to appreciate,” said Ravens outside linebacker Odafe Oweh.
All-Pro middle linebacker Roquan Smith, who had Orr as his position coach the past two seasons, also talked up Orr’s passion and ability to relate to players.
“His mentality is very similar to mine, so I’m stoked,” Smith said. “I just know it’s going to be great for us.”
Things haven’t quite come full circle for Orr, who envisioned playing as long as he possibly could. However, having come to terms with the necessary end of his playing career, he now feels he’s exactly where he should be.
Orr still remembers the 2017 phone call from owner Steve Bisciotti inviting him to return to the team in a coaching capacity and vowing to have then-general manager Ozzie Newsome get in touch with him to facilitate that process. Orr didn’t want to wait for the phone call. He called Newsome the very next day.
“Just him making the phone call, and the organization doing that for me meant the most, because I didn’t have time to sit there and hang my head,” Orr said. “I got right back to work, and they helped teach me and get me ready for my second career, which is coaching. They’ve been with me every step of the way and supported me every step of the way.”
(Photo: Gail Burton / Associated Press)