Novelty and nostalgia had defined the Baltimore Ravens.
A new generation of Baltimoreans finally had a team after 12 years in the NFL doldrums, but the Ravens were much closer to being the Bengals than the Steelers in those early years, going 16-31-1 in their first three seasons and finishing no higher than fourth in the old AFC Central. General manager Ozzie Newsome was building a promising foundation anchored by left tackle Jonathan Ogden and middle linebacker Ray Lewis — two Pro Bowl talents and the first two draft picks in team history — but no one knew exactly when or if that work would pay off.
From playing their first two seasons at Memorial Stadium and hiring Ted Marchibroda as their first head coach to the Baltimore Colts marching band playing and Johnny Unitas and other legends attending games, the Ravens were draped in Baltimore football history. It was a smart and heartwarming nod to the past, but the organization ultimately needed its own legacy after relocating from Cleveland in 1996.
Those Ravens were somewhere between the old Browns and the new Colts, but they were nowhere near NFL relevancy.
The 1999 campaign brought flashes in December with the Ravens winning for the first time in Pittsburgh and blowing out eventual AFC champion Tennessee on their way to an 8-8 finish, but a couple good performances playing out the string after a 3-7 start couldn’t be viewed as a definitive breakthrough. Brian Billick’s second year as head coach would tell the truth.
Baltimore opened the 2000 season with an impressive 16-0 win at Pittsburgh, building on the significant defensive improvement shown during the previous season. But the bigger test would come in Week 2 when the Ravens hosted Jacksonville for the home opener at PSINet Stadium.
The Ravens had never beaten the Jaguars, who had become the class of the AFC Central shortly after their expansion start in 1995. An 0-8 mark consisting of squandered leads, the occasional blowout, and plenty of last-minute heartbreak best illustrated how far Baltimore still needed to come while Jacksonville was coming off its fourth straight postseason appearance, a 14-2 record, and a trip to the AFC Championship game.
No breakthrough appeared imminent in the first quarter as Pro Bowl quarterback Mark Brunell and Pro Bowl wide receiver Jimmy Smith shredded the Baltimore defense for 45- and 43-yard touchdown passes and Billick’s team trailed 17-0 at the end of the period. These looked like the same old Ravens.
Still trying to cement the starting job after a solid finish to 1999, quarterback Tony Banks threw a touchdown to rookie wide receiver Travis Taylor to put the Ravens on the board, but the rest of the second quarter wasn’t much better than the first with the Jaguars adding two more field goals to take a 23-7 lead into halftime. This wasn’t what anyone in Baltimore had wanted, but old habits die hard, especially against Jacksonville.
“At halftime, I told them one thing,” Billick said. “What I told them was, win or lose, it will make no difference. The second half will define who we are. How we conduct ourselves will define the kind of team we are.”
The Ravens took those words to heart coming out of the locker room as the offense needed only four plays to find the end zone with Banks throwing another touchdown to Taylor. A two-point conversion cut the deficit to 23-15 and brought a previously frustrated sold-out crowd to life.
A Banks interception on the next drive led to the fourth Mike Hollis field goal of the day, but the 27-year-old quarterback bounced back with a touchdown pass to fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo, making the score 26-22 late in the third quarter. The stage was set for a thrilling final period.
After punting on their first possession of the fourth quarter, the Ravens collected their second takeaway of the day when outside linebacker Jamie Sharper forced a fumble and recovered the ball at the Jacksonville 12. Banks threw a touchdown to the speedy Jermaine Lewis on the next play as Baltimore took a 29-26 lead with 10 minutes to go.
Maybe it would be different this time.
That optimism only grew after safety Kim Herring intercepted Brunell on the next drive, setting up a 44-yard field goal by Matt Stover to increase the lead. The Jaguars answered with a 48-yard field goal as Baltimore still held a 32-29 advantage with time dwindling.
Having forced two turnovers leading to 10 points in the fourth quarter, the Ravens defense had regrouped from that ugly first half and now had its opportunity to cement that elusive first win against Jacksonville. However, Brunell and Smith still had 2:42 left to torment Baltimore one last time.
After picking up a first down to move into Ravens territory and now facing a third-and-6 from the 40 with 1:55 to go, Brunell faced a heavy blitz and heaved one deep toward wide receiver Keenan McCardell. What happened next seemed to be the cruelest trick yet in the Ravens-Jaguars history as the ball deflected off McCardell’s hands and right to Smith, who broke a Duane Starks tackle and jogged into the end zone for the go-ahead score. It was Smith’s third touchdown catch of the day as he finished with a whopping 15 catches and 291 yards, the most by an opponent in Ravens history.
Here we go again.
Despite erasing a 16-point halftime deficit to take the lead in the fourth quarter, the Ravens were trailing 36-32 with 1:45 to play and back in a familiar position with the Jaguars on the verge of improving to 9-0 against them. Only a few fans moved toward the exits while the remainder sat quietly, lamenting how this had happened again.
But the Ravens finally changed the script as Banks completed a pair of throws to little-used receiver and special-teams veteran Billy Davis — who made only one other catch all season — to move the Ravens into Jacksonville territory. A 12-yard completion to Ayanbadejo moved Baltimore to the 29-yard line before Banks spiked the ball to stop the clock with 48 seconds left.
To this point, the start of former Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe’s tenure with the Ravens had been quiet as he didn’t register a catch in the season opener and had only two receptions for 21 yards in the ongoing shootout. Newsome had not only been looking for more production at tight end with the high-profile signing that February, but he valued Sharpe’s pedigree as a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and a two-time Super Bowl champion for a franchise that was still learning how to win.
The time was perfect for a lesson.
Sharpe took off right down the seam at the snap and caught a 29-yard rope for the touchdown. The 32-year-old tight end danced and smiled in the end zone while Banks lifted his arms in celebration upon throwing his fifth touchdown of the game, a new team record.
The catch brought a roar louder than anything experienced in the brief history of the 69,000-seat stadium opposite Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Thousands of voices were lost, ears rang, and the upper deck swayed as Stover kicked the extra point to give the Ravens a 39-36 lead with 41 seconds left.
There would be no miracle answer from Jacksonville this time as safety Corey Harris intercepted Brunell on the last play of the game. Chants of “Let’s go, Ravens!” bounced down the ramps as departing fans celebrated.
Novelty and nostalgia had been replaced by an arrival.
It didn’t matter that it was only a Week 2 victory. Banks would lose his starting job to Trent Dilfer six weeks later and the Ravens would go five straight games without scoring a touchdown in the middle of that 2000 championship season, but that wasn’t the point. From that exhilarating moment, they were no longer the old Browns or even the new Colts. The Ravens were a viable NFL franchise and here to stay.
The last-minute win over Jacksonville had changed everything.
“It says we’re headed in the right direction,” said defensive end Michael McCrary, who had joined the Ravens in 1997. “It said that the offense had the confidence and composure to go down the field and score. It was a huge turnaround from our teams of the past.
“We’ve never beaten them, and we needed to know as a team where we stood.”
Now two decades later, the Ravens own two Super Bowl championships, have multiple Hall of Famers, and are among the NFL’s model franchises.
But that was the moment that started it all.