20 years of Ravens – Chapter 2: The Marchibroda Era
Be sure to check out previous entries in this series:
Prolouge: Give Baltimore the ball
Chapter 1: Art Modell gives Baltimore, the Ravens
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Ted Marchibroda was a quarterback in the glory days of the NFL. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1953, served a year for the U.S. Army, and then finished his career with the Steelers and the Chicago Cardinals in 1957. He became head coach of the Baltimore Colts in 1975, and led the Colts to three straight playoff appearances. In 1976, he helped make an MVP out of QB Bert Jones. He coached in Baltimore until 1979, and would return to coach the Colts franchise in Indianapolis in 1992. The closest he got to the Super Bowl was in 1995, when a Hail Mary attempt by the Colts was dropped in the endzone, sending the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX, where they eventually lost to the Dallas Cowboys dynasty of the 90s.
After that drop, Art Modell reached out to long-time friend, and all around very well liked guy in the league, in Marchibroda, to coach his Baltimore Ravens. In his first season, the Ravens went 4-12 under the shadow of the Browns, and even Baltimore Colts before them.
As the Ravens second season rolls around, the luster of the shiny new football team in Baltimore is gone. They aren’t the old Colts. They aren’t the new Browns. They are the Baltimore Ravens, searching for their identity. Not just identity, but with a chance that few teams ever have these days. A chance to write their history books starting with a clean slate.
After finishing 4-12 in the inaugural campaign, despite boasting some stout offensive numbers and sporting a Pro Bowl QB in Vinny Testaverde, Ozzie Newsome and Ted Marchibroda knew that if the team was going to achieve success, the identity had to be one synonymous with a scary defense. One that would make opposing offenses uncomfortable. Make them alter their gameplan, which plays right into the Ravens hands.
They were so committed to bolstering the defense, that in 1997, he and the Ravens brass chose eight defensive players out of the 12 picks they owned in the NFL Draft.
With their first pick, the fouth overall, the selection was Florida State outside linebacker and defensive end, Peter Boulware. An All-American for Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles. Boulware would later go on to be named one of the top defensive ends in college football for the 20th century by Sports Illustrated.
In round two, Baltimore chose another outside linebacker in Jamie Sharper out of Virgina. Shaper played in 136 straight games to start his career. Five of those seasons with the Ravens before being selected by the Houston Texans in the 2002 expansion draft.
Peter Boulware played in 111 straight games to start his career, all with the Ravens. Boulware and Sharper were quite the bookends for second year star middle linebacker, Ray Lewis. Lewis in 97’, notched the second most tackles ever in a season with 186. A career high for one season. Lewis would be named to his first Pro Bowl, and Boulware with 11.5 sacks was the NFL’s defensive Rookie of the Year In just two years, and by hitting right on three draft picks, Ozzie Newsome built the best linebacking group in the game.
However, their best was yet to come…
To further bolster the defense, defensive end Michael McCrary, and fan favorite “Gooooooooooose”, Tony Siragusa, who played for Ted Marchibroda in Indy was also brought in via free agency. McCrary was a seventh round pick of the Seahawks out of Wake Forest, where to this day, he still holds school records for sacks in a season (16) and in a career (30). He would record 9.5 sacks in his first year as a Raven. Siragusa never had any personal accolades, as he was the guy who did the dirty work, fending off double teams, allowing guys like Lewis, McCrarry, Rob Burnett, Sharper, and Boulware to attack ball carriers and quarterbacks relentlessly.
1997 showed some promise as the Ravens started off 3-1 after a quarter of the season. But as the weather got colder, so did the team, losing their next three games. A week 11 shutout, 37-0, at the Steelers was the official low point as they would go winless from weeks 10 through 14. They managed to get a tie in there at home against the Eagles. They would only manage to win two of the last five games, but in the three losses, all three were decided by three points or less. What could have been in 97’? The Ravens improved upon 1996, but lost some tough, close games, to finish with a 6-9-1 record.
The defense vastly improved, as they allowed nearly 100 less points in 97’ (345) than in 96’ (441). The offense however went from sixth in points scored, to 16th.
The last home game of the season was a 21-19 win over the Tennessee Oilers. Eric Zeier threw three touchdowns on the day. One to Michael Jackson, one to Eric Green, and the last one to Derrick Alexander. It would be the final touchdown scored by the home team before Memorial Stadium would close its gates for the final time. Oilers QB Steve McNair gets credit for the stadiums final touchdown, a one yard run in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter. The Oilers then recovered an onside kick, and looked poised to spoil the venerable stadiums retirement party. But with no timeouts, and the Ravens defense making a stand, they never made it into field goal range.
Remember how I said the Ravens were no longer in the shadow of the Colts? Well, in the only way deemed appropriate, it would be the Colts who officially closed up shop on 33rd street. Following the game, 22 Baltimore Colts greats took to the field and ran one final play. It would have been fitting to have Johnny Unitas hit John Mackey on a crossing pattern for the score. But Unitas had recently had surgery on his hand and was unable to throw. The crowd was more than happy with the running play that was called, as Unitas handed off to Lydell Mitchell, who pitched to Lenny Moore on a reverse. Moore ran into the endzone and handed the final ball to Ravens receiver Michael Jackson. It was the final symbol of transition. The Colts handing the ball to the Ravens as they now move on to their very own, state of the art, downtown stadium for the 1998 season and beyond.
The new home of the Ravens is complete. A project starting before the Ravens even took the field in 1996, was ready for play for the 1998 season, just as Art Modell was promised when he brought his team to Baltimore. The stadium, like Oriole Park just next door, was ground breaking when it was built. It would set the standard for football stadiums to come, looking to break the cookie cutter mold. Places like Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, and Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, just to name a few that are unique in their own right. The highlight of the stadium are its video boards. Two of them, one placed in each endzone, that measure 24 by 100 feet. They were the largest video boards in any stadium at this point, and creatively located on the second deck on the stadium, easy to view from any seat in the house.
The new field surface contained over half of the grass taken from Memorial Stadium, blended with a “Sportgrass” turf.
The official capacity for the opening of Ravens Stadium was 69,426 seats. A number of events were planned over the summer to test out the facility for the public. There was an open house where fans could come in and see the new stadium at which time the Ravens held a practice session. There was also a “Super Flush” where fans flushed all 1,074 toilets in the facility at the same time in order to test out the septic system.
While the finishing touches were being put on the stadium, the Ravens brass was hard at work, continuing to build upon their improvements form 1997. The draft class of 98’ was not one of Ozzie Newsome’s finest. But they continue to bat 1.000 on first round picks. For the third year in a row they target the state of Florida in round one, and take Miami cornerback, Duane Starks. Starks would intercept 25 passes in his career spanning nine years. He missed just two games in his four years as a Raven, and notched, five, five, six, and four INTs in those seasons. He had the luxury of learning from one of the all-time greats, Rod Woodson, who was signed after the 49ers released the five time All-Pro. Woodson was second on the team in tackles and led the squad with six interceptions. Two of those returned for TDs.
The remainder of the offseason was not a pretty one as their leading rusher, Bam Morris, was jailed for 120 days for violating probation after a marijuana conviction. It wasn’t long after that the team decided that Morris would not in the team’s future plans and parted ways. The Ravens down a running back traded a third round pick to acquire Errict Rhett from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Rhett only earned two starts that year, totaling a mere 245 yards from scrimmage and never finding the end zone.
However, the Ravens struck gold for the first time in the undrafted market. As an undrafted free agent in 1997, Priest Holmes burst onto the scene in 1998 earning the lion share of the carries. He would rush for over 1,000 yards and total seven scores. Holmes wouldn’t let go of the starting job until a rookie unseated him a couple years later.
The Rhett deal wasn’t the only trade the Ravens would make to attempt to improve a slipping offense. Ted Marchibroda was able to bring in his guy from Indy. Quarterback, Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh was on Marchibroda’s 1995 squad that came one drop away from a Super Bowl appearance. He was aptly nicknamed “Captain Comeback” for his ways of finding a way to win late in games. Not being able to finish games was the Ravens offensive identity to this point, and Harbaugh was supposed to help. Just before mini-camp started, Vinny Testaverde, the Ravens first QB, was waived by the club.
In addition to Harbaugh, rumor had it that 38 year old, Jim Kelly, as also being talked about as a possible addition.
Harbaugh, age 35, was not “Captain Comeback” anymore. He was banged up with nagging elbow and finger injuries, only starting in 12 games. He completed 56% of his passes for 1,839 yards. 12 TDs and 11 INTs. Eric Zeier made four starts and went 1-3 in those games. Harbaugh, 5-7.
The Ravens we’re not able to open their new home in style, as they were downed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, 20-13 in the stadiums first regular season contest. The Ravens had every chance to win that game as it was inexcusable mistakes that plagued them. A dropped TD pass by Jermaine Lewis. A dropped, easy pick six by Woodson. A low snap to punter Kyle Richardson goes through his legs and the Steelers take possession inside the Ravens five yard line for an easy TD. Even kicking legend, Matt Stover, missed three FGs on the day (42, 42, 45 yards).
The team got off to a 2-2 start, but after a week 5 bye, the wheels officially were coming off. The Ravens lost 12-8 in week 6 at home to the Oilers. 16-6 loss at Pittsburgh. 28-10 loss at Green Bay. If the writing on the wall wasn’t already apparent that Marchibroda could not lead this team, it became clear in week 9 when the Ravens found themselves down 42-16 at the half, at home against the Jaguars. The final would be 45-19. At 2-6, with the defense seemingly regressing from 1997, and the offense completely anemic, there was little hope for the second half of the season. They would go 4-4 in the second half of the season, but another six win season (6-10), was not enough to earn Ted Marchibroda another season as coach.
He would be let go following the season, during a meeting that left Art Modell in tears. He cared a lot about “Teddy” and wanted to see him succeed badly. But at the end of the day, even Modell knew that Marchibroda wasn’t fit for it. Skeptics cite the head coach’s mismanagement of the running game and not giving Rhett enough reps before benching him for Holmes. Also the fact that he started young receivers Patrick Johnson, James Roe, and Ryan Yarborough over nine year veteran, Floyd Turner. Michael Jackson had become vocal about his dislike of the Ravens offensive system and the way things were run after he didn’t catch a single TD in 98’. Combined with the public dismay of the team, he was promptly shown the door.
The Ravens were an improving team, and the 6-10 record was a step back. In fact, 6-10 is generous considering how the 1998 team played at times. However, there were two highlights to take away from the season. The first, was Baltimore beating the Indanapolis Colts in an emotional, 38-31 thriller, that saw the Ravens erase two separate 14 point deficits in the game. In the final game of the season, the Ravens beat the Detroit Lions 19-10, in what would be Barry Sanders final game. He would rush for just 41 yards on the day.
As the Ravens look towards 1999, the search for a new head coach, the second head coach in the franchise’s history, was underway.
Notable draft picks
1997: Peter Boulware (1st round, 4th overall), Jamie Sharper (2nd round), Kim Herring (3rd round), Jeff Mitchell (5th round)
1998: Duane Starks (1st round, 10th overall), Patrick Johnson (2nd round)
1997, 1998: Marvin Lewis (Defensive Coordinator), Jim Schwartz (Defensive Assistant), Ken Whisenhunt (Tight Ends)