20 Years of Ravens – Chapter 5: The Third Era Begins
Be sure to check out previous entries in this series.
Prologue: Give Baltimore the Ball
Chapter 1: Art Modell Gives Baltimore, The Ravens
Chapter 2: The Marchibroda Era
Chapter 3: Festivus Maximus
Chapter 4: Eight Quarterbacks in Seven Years
Share your memories from this era on our message board.
The 2007 Ravens finished a disappointing 5-11 on the season, leading to major changes in the organization. Head Coach Brian Billick was let go after nine seasons in which he posted an 85-67 record, which includes going 5-3 in the playoffs, a Super Bowl title, and leading the team to a franchise best 13-3 record just a year prior. But also a franchise worst nine straight losses before one meaningless win to wrap up his tenure. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, said that firing Billick was “the hardest decision he ever had to make.” Brian Billick never coached again in the NFL, despite being more than qualified. He got into the broadcasting booth and is an analyst of Xs and Os on the NFL Network’s “Playbook” show. Probably the last bastion of actual football analysis in the mainstream which is the only reason why Billick agreed to join the network, after stint as color commentator for FOX Sports.
Whenever Billick is asked if he would coach again, the very frank coach proclaims, “Everyone is looking for young and cheap. I’m neither.”
The Ravens needed to go in a new direction as Billick, and the entire coaching staff was let go, including heralded defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan.
Five candidates were in the running for the head coaching vacancy. Rex Ryan was a candidate, but not necessarily a serious one. He did however interview in Atlanta for their top spot. A spot eventually given to Mike Smith, a former Baltimore defensive assistant. Ryan would be retained as the DC in the new regime.
Marty Schottenheimer is another name that often came up, but he never had serious talks with the Ravens either. His son, Brian, the Jets offensive coordinator, did interview though. But he would end up staying in New York before moving onto the same job in St. Louis in 2012, and now has joined the college ranks as the OC for the University of Georgia.
The Ravens number one candidate for the job was former Dallas Cowboys backup quarterback, Jason Garrett. Garrett was a Princeton grad, and played 14 seasons of pro football, one in the CFL. Garrett was never a premier player in the league, most notably being the backup QB to Troy Aikman from 1993-99. He would break into coaching as the QB coach for Nick Saban’s Miami Dolphins in 2006, then it was back to Dallas as Offensive Coordinator a year later.
His 2007 Cowboys squad would finish second in total offense, making him an attractive candidate for a head coaching position. The Ravens interviewed him, offered him the job, and Garrett would turn it down to stay in Dallas. Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, gave Garrett a $3M annual salary, more than some head coaches salaries at the time. Here we are seven years later, and according to Forbes, Mike McCoy of the Chargers is the lowest paid head coach at $4M a year. Jerry Jones also promised Garrett the title of Assistant Head Coach if he returned to Dallas, which he did.
Enter John Harbaugh. The least sexy head coaching candidate around. Harbaugh came from a football family as his father, Jack, was an assistant of Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan. Brother, Jim, would play quarterback for the Wolverines, and had a successful NFL career including a short stint here in Baltimore. He would go on to head coaching jobs at Stanford, San Francisco 49ers, and now back at his alma mater, Michigan. His sister, Joani, even has an eye for athletics as she would marry Indiana head basketball coach, Tom Crean.
So why was Harbaugh unsexy? He was a special teams guy. Ever since his third coaching gig of his career at Morehead State in 1988, through to his ninth season with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2006, he was a special teams coach. At Harbaugh’s request, Andy Reid promoted him to Defensive Backs Coach for the 2007 season, to make his resume appear more attractive as a head coach in the future. Owners and GMs always seem to target the coordinators for the top spot. But in all reality, special teams guys work with the entire team. They also work closely with the younger players, who need to prove themselves on special teams to earn a roster spot. It’s the special teams coach that really builds the young, under the radar talent. Molds them for future success. This is what was so appealing to the Ravens. A team who began making the draft a top priority. A team who was done overpaying for free agents (certainly not overpaying for Jason Garrett), they gladly accepted compensatory draft picks for the players they would lose to free agency, and would build new, young stars, year in and year out. Who better to build, coach, teach, mold young talent, then a guy with 23 years of experience doing just that.
Furthermore, Steve Bisciotti made his millions (or billions?) with a company called Aerotek. A staffing company in the aerospace technology field. He hired many young, untested people for very important jobs to make them earn their resume. Bisciotti would go on to say the following…
“I kind of made a living on hiring people with thin resumes and it’s worked out pretty well for me in the last 25 years… I think that works to John’s advantage. I said three weeks ago you have to take chances to be successful. You have to be willing to do things that the masses wouldn’t do, or I don’t think you will be able to separate yourself from the masses.”
“Is it a little bit more of a perceived chance? Yeah, but the time we spent with John Harbaugh gave me a comfort level that we hired the right guy. You go with your instincts, and I have pretty good instincts.”
After Harbaugh accepted the job, Steve Biscotti made one phone call. It was to Art Modell, making him the first to know that the Ravens hired John Harbaugh.
January 19, 2008
John Harbaugh is introduced to Baltimore, and becomes the third head coach in the 12 year history of the Baltimore Ravens. It took 18 days to make a decision on the new head coach. John Harbaugh wasn’t the first choice, but he was the right choice for the direction the Ravens wanted to go. He had Rex Ryan returning to keep his vaunted defense going, and Harbaugh hired Cam Cameron as Offensive Coordinator. Cameron was a failed head coach whose only shot resulted in a 1-15 season with the Dolphins the year before. The one win, you guessed it, the one that ultimately cost Brian Billick his job. Cameron also had ties with the Harbaugh’s as he was Jim’s QB coach at Michigan.
Harbaugh signed a four year deal worth roughly $2M a year. $1M per less than Jerry Jones paid Jason Garrett to stay an assistant for him.
It was time to get to work on turning around a 5-11 team.
April 26, 2008 – Draft day
The story goes that Steve Bisciotti wanted Matt Ryan no matter what. You can’t run a successful team without a franchise quarterback. Having never had one in 12 seasons in Baltimore, the owner was willing to give up whatever it took to move up from #8 to #2, one spot ahead of the Atlanta Falcons to take Matt Ryan, the top QB on everyone’s board. The staff convinced the owner that the smart play would be to move back from #8, acquire some picks, and still get the guy they wanted, Joe Flacco.
At Flacco’s pro day, a wet, windy day, he showed up with a bag a footballs and his Delaware receivers. The coaches in attendance, including the Ravens, brought other NCAA receivers they wanted to scout, and brand new, out of the box, slick, not broken in, NFL footballs. Trying to throw Flacco off his game, get in his head, and mess with his routine. Flacco threw 150 balls, and only five hit the ground. Joe was cool, calm, and unflappable, no matter the conditions.
The Ravens convinced the owner to move back from #8, that there was very little difference in Ryan and Flacco. Both could be franchise material, and it wouldn’t cost them the two first round picks, plus second and third round picks to move up to #2.
The Falcons did select Matt Ryan with the third pick in the draft. Ryan would go on to become NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Head Coach Mike Smith would become NFL Coach of the year, much to Baltimore fan’s chagrin.
By moving down in the draft, Baltimore acquired from Jacksonville pick #26, two third round picks and a fourth round pick. With pick #8, Jacksonville selected DE, Derrick Harvey from Florida. Harvey held out of camp for 38 days becoming to last rookie of the class to sign on the dotted line. He would play for three years in Jacksonville before being waived, and claimed by Denver for just one year. He is likely the biggest bust in Jaguars draft history, amassing 92 tackles and eight sacks in four career seasons.
Baltimore traded back to #26, but the owner was pacing, unsure that Flacco could fall all the way to #26. Steve Bisciotti rarely gets involved in football decisions. He is a business man and leaves the football to Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta, and his coaches. But in this instance, he couldn’t help but all but force his men to trade a third round pick and move back up into the teens to make sure they could get their guy. They sure as hell didn’t want to be stuck with Chad Henne, or Brian Brohm. The strategy from #26 if Flacco didn’t fall was to draft a CB like Aquib Talib or Antoine Cason, then go for Henne in round two. Bisciotti is a man of instinctive moves, and man if he doesn’t bat 1.000 in that department.
The Ravens traded #26, one of their newly acquired third round picks and a sixth round pick to Houston at #18, and took Joe Flacco. Quarterback. University of Delaware.
Skepticism arose from the experts who were unsure if Flacco could make the leap from Delaware where he played against schools like Towson. Well, not like Towson. Actually, Towson. He didn’t face the Alabama’s and USC’s of the world. Some pegged him as a second round talent. Flacco started off his collegiate career at Pitt, but transferred when he realized the opportunity for playing time wouldn’t be there for him. Flacco said upon being drafted…
“I had to go down to the minor leagues of college football to prove who I was. I’m going to carry that with me the rest of my life and use it for the best.”
In the second round, Baltimore would select Ray Rice. Running Back. Rutgers University. Thus giving them a rookie head coach, a rookie quarterback, and a rookie running back to try to turn around a 5-11 team. The plan would be to bring Joe Flacco along slowly and learn to crawl before he walks. Quarterbacks Kyle Boller and Troy Smith were still on the depth chart, and listed one and two ahead of Joe.
June 28, 2008
The first draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens, Jonathon Ogden, announces his retirement after 12 seasons. He would go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame the minimum five years later.
Also during this offseason, center Mike Flynn would be released after failing a physical. These were two of the last few Ravens leftover from the championship team of 2000, leaving Ray Lewis, Matt Stover, and Chris McAlister. Kelly Gregg was on the practice squad in 2000, but did earn a ring.
Without staples like Ogden and Flynn, the offensive line looked to be in disarray. But Coach Harbaugh, a master of molding young men, molded a solid line with a young Jason Brown playing center, second year guard Ben Grubbs coming into his own, and supplemental draft pick Jared Gaither contributing at tackle. Willie Anderson (T) and Chris Chester (G) rounded out the hog-boodies up front. Second year lineman Marshal Yanda only made five starts on the year. Offensive line wouldn’t be the only obstacle that John Harbaugh had to fix. Quarterback was about to be another one.
The plan was for Flacco to come along slow. Learn from Kyle Boller. Learn what? I don’t know? And I’m glad we never knew. Boller injured his shoulder in preseason game number two, and would have to go on season ending IR. Troy Smith also found himself unable to comepte because of tonsillitis that was too severe. In preseason games three and four it was the Joe Flacco show, along with veteran Tood Bouman brought in for depth, and competition.
Week 1 seemed to approach faster than ever, with a Ravens team still trying to put the pieces together, and about to trot a rookie quarterback out on an NFL field for 60 minutes against a division rival for the first time. Good luck.
Flacco proved to be cool, calm, just like the coaches saw in that day out in Delaware. Not only that. The whole world discovered that Joe Flacco had some wheels as well. His first touchdown would be a 38-yard run of all things. The 6’6” Flacco doesn’t look fleet afoot, but don’t tell him that. That score in the third quarter was the deciding factor in a Ravens 17-10 victory in front of the home crowd. It was the first time in NFL history that a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback together won in their debuts. Flacco completed a manageable 15 for 29 passes for 129 yards.
As if the Ravens didn’t face enough obstacles, their week 2 game against the Houston Texans would be postponed due to damages done at Houston’s Reliant Stadium from Hurricane Ike. Week 2 would become the Ravens bye week. Spelling, 15 straight games to finish the regular season, while the rest of the league gets their bye weeks in the middle somewhere. Another gift from the football gods. Force a rookie from Delaware into action, force him without the protection of two of your best lineman, and no breaks for the team the rest of the year. Good Luck.
This must the type of thing that builds character and makes you stronger, capable of things we never thought possible. The following week the Ravens whooped up on Cleveland 28-10 at home thanks to big plays by all the defensive superstars in Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Chris McAlister. They we’re 2-0, and maybe on to something here within this new era of Ravens football.
But as quickly as those notions came about, they went away. An OT loss on the road at Pittsburgh, loss to the Titans at home, and a 31-3 beating at the hands of Peyton Manning in Indy left the Ravens at 2-3. That one woke them up. They went on to win seven of their next eight ball games, and in dominating fashion. In those seven wins the Ravens won by an average margin of 20.7 points per game, improving to 9-4.
As the season winded down, the highlight is easily week 16, primetime game, in Dallas, at the final game to be played at Texas Stadium. Dallas is a little full of themselves at times with the “America’s Team” moniker that is long past true anymore. Plus, I think Jerry Jones did some folks some favors, so those folks would do the favor of putting a 5-11 team from the year prior in the Texas Stadium finale to give the Cowboys the best chance of closing the doors to the place with one last win. The Ravens embraced the opportunity to spoil that party. Baltimore mounted a 9-7 halftime lead, then a 16-7 lead when Flacco hit Derrick Mason for a 13 yard score. Mason played this game essentially with one arm, dealing with a shoulder injury. One of the more impressive feats of toughness I’ve seen in the game.
In the final 15 minutes, Dallas and Baltimore exchanged field goals. But then the Cowboys scored a TD, cutting the lead to two, 19-17. Just like the gods wanted it. A dramatic, comeback win for the Cowboys, in the “dome with a hole in the roof so that God can watch the Cowboys.” Did I mention they are full of themselves? But the celebration was short lived as Willis McGahee scampered for a 77 yard touchdown, silencing the crowd. Not what the Cowboys had in mind. But then, they were right back in it. A quick touchdown for Dallas, and it was now again a two point deficit, 26-24. A defensive stop, the boys get it back with a chance to win it. But Le’Ron McClain had other ideas. He ran the ball right down the throats of the Dallas defense, and if there wasn’t a wall past the endzone he’d still be running. An 82 yard run for a touchdown, which would go down as the longest run allowed by the Cowboys in the history of Texas Stadium. Former Cowboy Deion Sanders on the color commentary on that call was at a loss for words, which is very rare for Deion.
Ravens win, 33-24, improve to 10 wins, and would finish the season 11-5, second place in the AFC North, and playoff bound, with a rookie head coach and quarterback. Who knew?
In the opening round in Miami, the Ravens made quick work of the Dolphins, 27-9. Ed Reed returned an interception 64 yards for a TD because that’s what Ed Reed does. They forced five Miami turnovers on the day, and Flacco contributed a 31 yard TD to Derrick Mason.
It was onto Tennessee to face the top seeded Titans. Flacco again found favorite target Derrick Mason for a 48 yard score in the first quarter, drawing the score even at 7-7. It would remain that until the fourth quarter. The Titans fumbled away a scoring chance at the Ravens 1 yard line, and later would settle for a field goal tying the game at 10, instead of possibly taking the lead. On a controversial 3rd and 2, Flacco completed a pass up the seam to Todd Heap, but the play clock had appeared to expire. No call, the play stood, and the veteran Matt Stover drilled a 47 yard field goal with under a minute to play to lead the Ravens to the AFC title game, in the most unlikely of circumstances a team could possibly face.
Joe Flacco started etching his name in playoff lore, becoming the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games in his rookie season.
It was the hated Steelers for the right to go the Super Bowl. The Steelers had eeked out wins in both regular season matchups. Unfortunately, the Ravens were just one step behind them all year. They were in the game the whole way, but never led. They always responded to adversity, but trailing by two in the fourth quarter, a Troy Polamalu interception returned for a score with the Ravens driving sealed Baltimore’s fate. It was as if the rookie Joe Flacco did absolutely all he could do. But the Steelers were just the better team that year.
Asking the team to go 18 straight weeks without the luxury of a bye week, while the Titans and Steelers both earned two weeks off in that stretch…it’s remarkable that the Ravens hung in there as long as they did. Even though 2008 came to an end with a heartbreaking loss, you couldn’t help but applaud the effort in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season n Baltimore.
It’s that chip on their shoulder that Joe Flacco carries with him from being looked over at a Division-I school. It’s that chip on his shoulder John Harbaugh carries when people call him “just a special teams guy.” It’s the chip on our shoulder the fans of the city of Baltimore have carried for years, looked at as the inferior eastern city among the New York’s and D.C.’s they are sandwiched between. It’s the chips on our shoulders when Harbaugh and Flacco appeared to be better choices for Head Coach and Rookie of the Year respectively, and get snubbed by the national media time and time again. It is those things that drive the Ravens to do great things. That drive the fans to make the home stadium one of the loudest, and toughest places for a road team to play. It’s those things that drove the Ravens “Special teams guy” and “Untested quarterback” to continue down this road of winning football games…a lot of them over the coming years.
In 2009 they went 9-7, and beat the Patriots on the road in the playoffs 33-14.
In 2010 they went 12-4 and beat the Chiefs on the road in the playoffs 30-7.
In 2011 they went 12-4, win their first division title in the Harbaugh/Flacco era, and beat the Texans at home in the playoffs 20-13.
But each of those three seasons to follow the unexpected 2008 campaign set the bar higher and higher. But it had been one win, and out each time.
It was absolutely it’s most brutal in 2011 when the Ravens made it back to the AFC title game for the first time since 2008. This time against New England Patriots in Foxboro. Joe Flacco out dueled Tom Brady on the day, and did his part to get his team to the Super Bowl, where expectations had now been raised to in his fourth successful season. In the closing seconds… how do I put this…? Lee ****ing Evans…. didn’t secure the ball good enough in the endzone as it was stripped from him, as if the ****ing Super Bowl wasn’t on the ****ing line with seconds left in the fourth quarter. Billy ****ing Cundiff would come on to attempt a chip shot field goal to send the game to OT, and he ****ing shanked it….ball game, season, Super Bowl dreams… over, in a blink of an eye.
Talk about having the ultimate chip on your shoulder going into the 2012 season…
Notable Draft Picks
2008: Joe Flacco (1st round, 18th overall), Ray Rice (2nd round)
2009: Michael Oher (1st round, 23rd overall), Paul Kruger (2nd round), Lardarius Webb (3rd round)
2010: Dennis Pitta (4th round), Arthur Jones (5th round)
2011: Jimmy Smith (1st round, 27th overall), Torrey Smith (2nd round), Chykie Brown (5th round), Pernell McPhee (5th round)
2008: Cam Cameron (Offensive Coordinator), Rex Ryan (Defensive Coordinator/Asst. Head Coach), Vic Fangio (Linebackers), Jim Hostler (Receivers), Hue Jackson (Quarterbacks), Chuck Pagano (Secondary), Mike Pettine (Outside Linebackers)
2009: Greg Mattison (Defensive Coordinator) Al Saunders (Offensive Consultant), Cameron, Fangio, Hostler, Jackson, Pagano
2010: Jim Zorn (Quarterbacks), Cameron, Mattison, Hostler, Pagano, Saunders
2011: Chuck Pagano (Defensive Coordinator), Teryl Austin (Secondary), Cameron, Hostler