20 Years of Ravens – Chapter 6: One Last Ride
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
Chapter 5: The Third Era Begins
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After the 2011 season, many would start to wonder if this era of the Ravens were destined to be one of those “best teams to not win a title”. They had been to the playoffs four years in a row under John Harbaugh, and to the AFC Championship game twice. The bar was now set at Super Bowl or bust. Joe Flacco was also entering the final year of his contact, and turned down extension offers leading into the 2012 season. A high risk on his part to not take more guaranteed money when a fluke injury can end your career in the blink of an eye.
The Ravens would eventually release two scapegoats from the 2011 club. Lee Evans, who dropped the touchdown catch in the waning seconds of the AFC title game in Foxboro. Billy Cundiff, who shanked the 32-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
Taking their spots on the 2012 roster would be a pair of free agents. Wide out Jacoby Jones, previously of the Houston Texans. A speedster with questionable hands and route running ability, but a threat at returning kicks. Beating out Cundiff for the kicking job in training camp was undrafted rookie out of the University of Texas, Justin Tucker. The young man with the big leg would go on to own many of the Ravens kicking records, just two years into his career. Even more special considering Matt Stover is one of the game’s all-time best. Tucker’s franchise records include most FGs in a season (38), points in a season (140), FGs in one game (6) and longest FG (61 yards). The 61-yard field goal in Detroit in 2013 was also an NFL record for longest FG in a domed stadium.
Tragedy hit home for the Ravens on more than one occasion through 2012. The man who made all of this possible for us in Baltimore, Art Modell, died of natural causes at the age of 87. He passed away on September 6, 2012, four days before the Ravens would kick off the season. Modell spent 43 years in the NFL, and gave up majority ownership of the Ravens in 2003. He was a guy who knew everyone by name from the highest profile guys, down to the practice squad. He would attend Ravens practices in stifling August heat, and icy December chills. His accomplishments throughout his career are well documented. The Hall in Canton is still awaiting his long deserved arrival.
The Ravens honored Modell, opening the gates for fans to pay their respects at the 50-yard line of M&T Bank Stadium. The team would wear a black patch on the jerseys with the name “Art” close to their hearts for the entire season.
After a 1-1 start to the 2012 season, tragedy reared its ugly head once again. Tevin Smith, the brother of wide receiver Torrey Smith, died early one Sunday morning in a motorcycle accident. Torrey Smith was obviously not expected to play in the matchup with the New England Patriots later that night in prime time. But Torrey made it clear that the Ravens are his family too, and this was a time to be with family. His brother would have wanted him to play, and in a way that I can’t even begin to fathom, Torrey mustered up the courage to suit up.
Wouldn’t you know it, Torrey Smith had one of the best games of his life, all for his brother. He hauled in six passes for 127 yards and found the endzone twice. His performance helped lead the Ravens to a 31-30 win over the Patriots, getting a small piece of redemption from last season’s defeat to end the year. A very small piece of redemption. But this win was not about that. It was about prevailing with heavy hearts. The Ravens improve to 2-1.
After week 6, the Ravens were cruising with a 5-1 record, albeit in close games. Jacoby Jones was key in the win against the Cowboys with a 108-yard kickoff return for a TD. It was a missed FG by Dallas kicker Dan Bailey that gave Baltimore a 31-29 win to get to five wins. But the Ravens were about to face yet another major hurdle. In the game, top cornerback Lardarius Webb suffered a torn ACL and his season would be over. The legend, Ray Lewis, suffered a torn triceps muscle, which appeared to be season ending. But not officially ruled out for the season. He was placed on injured reserve with the designation to return, allowed for one player on the roster per year. Wishful thinking at the time as the surgery can take three months alone to heal from, then the rehab time on top of that.
The next week the Ravens would welcome back Terrell Suggs to the team, who had torn his Achilles tendon during the offseason. But with Suggs getting acclimated, no Ray Lewis, no Lardarius Webb, and a banged up Ed Reed, playing with a torn labrum, it was one of the worst losses in team history handed out by the Houston Texans, 43-13. This led into a bye week, giving them an extra time to stew over the loss.
It must have been a wake-up call as the Ravens got right back at it, beating up on weaker teams. They beat Cleveland on the road 25-15, then came home and won their 16th straight home game, destroying the Raiders 55-20. 55 points is a franchise record for points in a game. And for the second time in four games, Jacoby Jones ran back another kickoff for a TD. This time 105-yards.
The Ravens, sitting at 8-2 after beating division rival Pittsburgh on the road, headed out west to San Diego. Ray Rice made not only the Ravens play of the year, but the NFL’s play of the year. The Ravens faced 4th and 29, needing to convert or the game would be over. Joe Flacco checked down the pass to Ray Rice in the flat. A play that got everyone saying “What the….” Need 29 yards you throw it to the flat? But the other receivers had taken the defenders well down field with them, giving Rice plenty of green grass to work with. He sprinted up field, juked, turned, headed across the field, got a hellacious block by Anquan Boldin that sprung him just for enough to pick up first down yardage. The Ravens drive continued, and they would win in overtime, 16-13, now 9-2 on the year.
Once again, hurdle to overcome. The Ravens would fall to the Steelers at home. But what made matters worse was it was against third string QB Charlie Batch. The Ravens led in this game and in fourth quarter, the time to be running the ball and running out the clock, the Ravens were throwing the ball, leading to incomplete passes. Star RB Ray Rice wasn’t even on the field. Not injured. Just rotated out.
The following week, late game play calling decisions led to their second straight loss, this time on the road at Washington. Again, a backup QB would enter the game had have his way. It was the first time that the Ravens had lost back to back games in over three years. The inept offense, and the questionable play calling, led to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron getting fired, with just three games left in the regular season, and the Ravens sporting a 9-4 record. Unusual circumstances, and usually the type of drama that has a negative effect on a team midseason.
Quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell took over play calling duties on an interim basis. He didn’t fare any better in his first shot against the high powered Broncos, the Ravens lose three straight, 34-17. But when the Steelers lost on the same day, the Ravens clinched a spot in the playoffs, despite not doing anything to help their cause for almost a month. Funny how things work sometimes.
In week 16, the Ravens had a chance to lock up the AFC North division, and they did just that with a convincing 33-14 win at home over the New York Giants. They were 10-5 and locked into a home playoff game.
The Ravens finished 10-6, benching their starters in the final week with no chance of moving up or down the standings for the playoffs.
2012 playoffs, and a shocking announcement
By winning the division, Baltimore fittingly hosted the Colts, who often got the better of them. But this time they would be led by rookie quarterback, Andrew Luck, and former Ravens assistant and now Colts Head Coach, Chuck Pagano. Pagano was stricken with Leukemia and missed some games during the season. It was a rallying cry for the Colts throughout, and they became an emotionally driven team that made it back to the postseason.
Baltimore was also about to be emotionally driven. Not just by the team playing for the memory of Art Modell, or Torrey Smith honoring his fallen brother. But Ray Lewis, the Ravens heart and soul for all 17 years of their existence, announced his retirement following the season…whenever that would be. Could be one game, could be four more games.
“I talked to my team today.” I talked to them about life in general, and everything that starts has an end. For me, today, I told my team that this will be my last ride.”
Lewis went to 12 Pro Bowls, was named NFL All-Pro seven times, and NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice. At the time, the only people to make more than 12 Pro Bowls are Bruce Matthews (14), Jerry Rice (13), Reggie White (13) and Tony Gonzalez (13). Not bad company. Just the best ever at their positions.
The time came for Ray Lewis to dedicate more time to his children. They had sacrificed for him for 17 years, and it was time for him to give back to them. His son, Ray Lewis III, had earned a full scholarship to dad’s alma mater, University of Miami. Lewis always told his son if he got a full ride that, “Daddy is going to be there.” He wanted to honor that commitment.
Terrell Suggs on Ray Lewis’ retirement announcement.
“It was sad. It affected me, because for the past 10 years of my career, I’ve been sitting right next to the man and going to war on Sundays. It’s going to be one hard, last ride, and we need to make it one to remember.”
Suggs was right. It would be one to remember.
Baltimore being the number four seed meant that in all likelihood, the game with Colts would be the final home game of the season, and final home game for Ray Lewis. He would make his return to field for the first time since tearing that triceps in week 6. He played with a giant brace strapped to his arm as it may not have been fully healed yet. But who is going to tell Ray Lewis “no”?
Lewis exited the tunnel as the team surrounded him for one last trademark “squirrel dance” that always revved up the home fans. Lewis made a game high 13 tackles in his return for the home crowd, and nearly had an interception that slipped through his hands. Coach Harbaugh ensured that Ray would leave the field a winner, putting him in the backfield in the victory formation, as Flacco kneeled on the ball for a 24-9 win. A special moment for everyone.
With the win, Joe Flacco became the first QB in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons.
It was onto Denver to face the top seeded Broncos and once again, Peyton Manning. It always feels like its Peyton Manning. This would be the third time in seven years the two of them squared off in the postseason. You don’t want to make any mistakes, or give up easy points when playing Manning. The Ravens spotted him seven by allowing a punt return for a score early in the first quarter by Trindon Holliday. Flacco rebounded and threw a deep TD to Torrey Smith. Then 30 seconds later, Corey Graham got a rare interception of Manning and took it back for a score. Manning would quickly compose himself, lead a TD drive, and it was 14 a piece after one quarter of play. The two squads exchanged TDs in the second, 21-21 at the half.
Once again, special teams failed them, as Holliday return the opening kick in the third for a score, 104-yards. Ray Rice would later score from a yard out to tie the game.
The give and take continued into the fourth quarter, 41 seconds to play and the Ravens find themselves 70 yards away on 3rd down, trailing 35-28. Ray Lewis could only watch his fate on the sideline be decided by the offense. Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, two of the game’s all-time greats, who had never played in the big game, watching their season unfold from the sideline.
Over the years, the Ravens have always been on the search for quality wide outs to surround Flacco with. They signed TJ Houshmanzadeh in 2010. He dropped a ball that was a sure first down, ending the Ravens playoff run up in Pittsburgh. In 2011, they signed Lee Evans, who dropped the touchdown in New England. 2012, Jacoby Jones is the new wide out signing. I remember standing in my living room too drunk excited to sit, and shouting, anyone but Jacoby. Don’t let another wannabe Raven ruin our season. Jones had already dropped a ball on the previous possession, ending the drive.
On that third down, the Broncos rush just three guys, and drop eight into pass coverage. Marshal Yanda, All-Pro guard, got beat on his block, and Flacco had to step up into the pocket, as the defender got a hand on him. Flacco heaved up a prayer into the Denver night. The ball went 55 yards in the air, over the entire defense, and the speedy Jacoby Jones out ran his defender to run under and grab it. Safety, Rahim Moore, mistimed his jump to try to bat the ball down, and Jones was free and clear, tying the game at 35 after the Tucker PAT. The play would go down as the “Mile High Miracle”.
The Broncos seemed flustered, and started making mental mistakes. With two timeouts and 30 seconds left, they took a knee to go to overtime. Plenty of time with Manning at the helm to complete a couple passes and get into at least a triable field goal range in the thin air of Denver. Even in overtime they made some questionable decisions, playing ultra conservative. Trying not to lose rather than trying to win. Late in overtime, the Ravens flushed Manning form the pocket. He made a rookie mistake, throwing across his body, back towards the middle of the field. Corey Graham stepped up and intercepted the pass, his second of the game. It didn’t take much for the Ravens to move into field goal range, and the rookie Tucker slipped a 47-yard attempt inside the right upright, sending the Ravens onto New England. For the first time, the Ravens beat the great Peyton Manning in January. As Ray Lewis’ last ride continues, he racked up 17 tackles in the game.
For some reason, that game seemed like the toughest test the Ravens would face. Yeah, they were heading to New England, again. Facing Tom Brady, again. AFC title game, again. But beating Manning was real monkey on their back. They had won in New England in January before. They had beaten Brady before. Even the games they lost they played good enough to win. I think the Ravens felt that way too. They wanted to leave no doubt, and the defense pitched a shutout in the second half of the game in Foxboro, where no one is supposed to win in January. Flacco led the way with three more TDs in a 28-13 win, and Ray Lewis continued racking up the tackles in bunches. 14 of them against the Pats.
The Ravens were Super Bowl bound for the second time, and the first time in the Harbaugh/Flacco era. The city was full of buzz, similar to their last trip in 2000. Ed Reed gave his rendition of Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise,” as he prepared to play in his first Super Bowl, with his career winding down as well. It would be John Harbaugh facing his brother Jim and the 49ers in the big game down in the “Big Easy”, New Orleans.
Leading up to the game, knowing this is Ray Lewis’ last time suiting up for battle, damn if it wouldn’t go of with some kind of controversy. Nothing good in sports seems to happen without controversy these days. McGwire/Sosa. Bonds. Armstrong. Tiger. Spygate. Deflategate. Insert Patriots numerous accusations and tainted championships here_________. The week before the game, Sports Illustrated reported that Ray Lewis used Deer Antler Spray to heel his torn triceps faster so he could play in the playoffs. Lewis denied those accusations unequivocally and without hesitation. He never failed a test. The spray contains IGF-1, a banned substance. Long story short, experts weighed in and noted that IGF-1 is only effective when injected, not in spray form as Lewis was accused of using. It’s also very unstable, and couldn’t survive outside of a lab, unless it arrives in a cold, freeze dried case. Turns out that Mitch Ross, the owner of the company supplying the spray, who dropped the dime to SI, was basically looking to strike it rich. He did, as sales of deer antler spray skyrocketed by the thousands that week, since every media outlet was saying those words every five minutes. The story quickly went away, and Lewis’ legacy was untarnished by the accusations.
Super Bowl XLVII
Putting the drama behind them, it was game time. Super Bowl XLVII. San Francisco came in as a four point favorite. Just the way we like it. Alicia Keys sung the National Anthem. Beyonce performed at halftime. Jonathan Ogden, and the other Hall of Fame inductees of that year’s class were on the field for the coin toss. The Ravens rolled early, as Joe Flacco threw two more TD passes, in a historic playoff run, giving the Ravens a 14-3 lead. Ed Reed picked off Colin Kaepernick, making his mark in Super Bowl history books. The Ravens had great field position, but squandered it on a fake field goal attempt that came up a yard short of the first down. The defense remained strong, and Jacoby Jones, the hero in Denver, caught another deep pass, failing down, but regaining his footing, and scampering for a 56 yard score, making it 21-3, and eventually 21-6 at the half.
Through six quarters of Super Bowl football in Ravens history, they had still not allowed an offensive TD.
Jacoby Jones was amazing once again, returning the opening kick of the second half 108 yards, 28-6 Ravens. The Ravens were playing lights out….quite literally. Half of the stadiums power went out for about 30 minutes. Everything from equipment failure, to Beyonce’s performance, to Jim Harbaugh himself, to Commissioner Roger Goodell were to blame for the outage.
Once play resumed, it was all 49ers. A 31-yard TD to Michael Crabtree. Ravens go three and out. 49ers return the punt deep into Ravens territory. Frank Gore TD. Just like that it was 28-20. Ray Rice fumbles, 49ers kick a FG, 28-23. Ravens drive the length of the field, but settle for a FG, 31-23. 49ers respond with a TD drive, but fail to make the two point conversion, 31-29. Ravens moved the ball well again, including a ballsy throw on third and inches to Anquan Boldin, that took pinpoint accuracy, and physical catching to haul in, moving the chains. Tucker kicks another FG, 34-29 with a little over four minutes to play.
The 49ers got it down to 1st and goal at the Ravens 7, inside two minutes to go. They ran for two yards. Kaepernick tossed two incompletions, bringing up fourth down. One last shot. They went to the ever popular fade to the back corner of the endzone. Ravens CB Jimmy Smith matched up with Michael Crabtree. Both players were hand fighting, but the pass landed well out of bounds, no flag on the play, much to the dismay of Jim Harbaugh. For being the last chance in the biggest game of your life, Crabtree didn’t put up much of a fight for the ball, or the penalty. The Ravens still needed a first down, and didn’t get it. Instead, punter Sam Koch ran around the endzone trying to kill 12 seconds, took the intentional safety, and could now punt from the 35 with four seconds left.
Josh Bynes tackled Ted Ginn on the punt, the clock hit zero, and somehow the Ravens held off the 49ers just enough to bring home championship number two to Baltimore. Confetti falls, Ray Lewis wins the last game he would play. Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs will have “Super Bowl Champion” attached to their names forever.
Joe Flacco was the game’s MVP, going 22-33 for 287 yards and three TDs, no INTs. In fact, Flacco’s 11-0 TD/INT ratio is matched only by Joe Montana in postseason history. Before he threw an interception in a 2014 playoff game in New England, he had had 17 touchdowns and no interceptions, and a QB Rating of 121.1 over nearly his last six full postseason games.
Ray Lewis, in prime of his career form, notched 51 tackles in the four postseason games, riding off into the sunset. The Ravens fans were treated to one more appearance by Lewis on the home field, where the ticker tape parade ended, and the home fans watched him exit the tunnel onto the field, Lombardi Trophy in hand.
Prior to the season, Joe Flacco rolled the dice on himself, and he cashed in big. Not taking a deal prior to the season, risking not getting another deal, or as good a deal. Instead, with the win, he become the highest paid player in the game. He signed a six year, $120.6M contract, $29M signing bonus. His reign as highest paid was short lived as Matt Ryan, and Aaron Rodgers signed larger deals in the same offseason.
2013 and beyond
They say there is such a thing as a Super Bowl hangover. It had been nearly a decade since a team that won the Super Bowl, had gone back and at least won a playoff game the following year. I wouldn’t call it a hangover. I’d call it, turnover. And the Ravens had a lot of turnover from the title team, to 2013. Anquan Boldin was traded. Dennis Pitta suffered a broken hip in training camp and made one start toward the end of the year. There was problems with Bryant McKinnie (attitude) and Michael Oher (injuries) on the offensive line. Matt Birk retired allowing Gino Gradkowski to take the snaps. Gradkowski was overwhelmed, and a sieve up the middle. Ray Rice couldn’t get anything going, and Flacco was running for his life game after game with the lack of protection, and lack of receivers who can get open quickly.
On defense, Ray Lewis isn’t there anymore. Large shoes to fill, not just on the field, but in the locker room.
The Super Bowl would also be Ed Reed’s last game for the Ravens, as he was not re-signed after his contract expired. He had tossed around the idea of retirement before, but wanted to keep playing, and signed with the Houston Texans. After a short stint, and being waived in week 9, The New York Jets and his former coach Rex Ryan signed him. He didn’t play at all in 2014, and this past offseason, officially announced his retirement, signing a one day contract with the Ravens to do so here in Baltimore.
Reed retires as a nine time Pro Bowler, five time All-Pro. Defensive Player of the Year (2004), three time INTs leader for a season, NFL record holder for interception return yards (1,590), punt blocks returned for a TD (3), longest INT return (108 yards), postseason INTs (9). He hung them up with 64 INTs (6th all time), 13 TDs and 11 forced fumbles.
You lose so many of those pieces, and throw in the turmoil that was offensive line play, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the Ravens went just 8-8, and missed the playoffs for the first time in five years. Baltimore parted ways with eight starters, which is three more than any other Super Bowl champ in history.
The downward spiral continued through the offseason when Ray Rice was caught on video assaulting his fiancé, Janay Palmer. A despicable act that was handled by Rice, the Ravens, and the NFL poorly from the start. But that’s another story entirely. Rice was suspended indefinitely for 2014, and hasn’t played football since being reinstated.
In 2014 they dealt with that ugly black cloud hanging over their heads, but were able to ignore the noise, and get back to winning football games. Baltimore added key pieces in WR Steve Smith, who was having a career year in the early portion of 2014, but began to slow as the season went on. They also added Gary Kubiak to call the plays. Under him the Ravens scored a franchise best 409 points, and Joe Flacco had career highs in TDs (27) and passing yards (3,986). They got back to the playoffs and beat Pittsburgh in their house for the first time in January, then once again, off to New England. The story of 2014 was the play of the secondary. Injuries to Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb, and poor play by others, led the Ravens to starting sixth and seventh options there. They finally got exploited as the defense blew two 14 point leads in the game, leading to the Pats moving on to the Conference Championship. Flacco did his part and continued to shine when it mattered most with a four TD game.
Season 20 – 2015
It starts, tomorrow afternoon. How will this final chapter, wrapping up two decades play out?
To be continued….
Notable draft picks
2012: Courtney Upshaw (2nd round), Kelchi Osemele (2nd round)
2013: Brandon Williams (3rd round), Kyle Juszczyk (4th round), Rick Wagner (5th round)
2014: C.J. Mosley (1st round, 17th overall), Timmy Jernigan (2nd round), Crockett Gillmore (3rd round), John Urschel (5th round), Michael Campanaro (7th round)
2012: Deen Pees (Defensive Coordinator), Jim Caldwell (Interim Offensive Coordinator
2013: Steve Spagnuolo (Sr. Defensive assistant)
2014: Gary Kubiak (Offensive Coordinator), Rick Dennison (Quarterbacks)