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Byrne reminisces about his quarter century never missing a Ravens game

Posted on 26 July 2020 by WNST Audio

His presence was the first here in Baltimore as a representative of what would become the Ravens franchise and a lifetime of football memories from Cleveland and St. Louis.

It was a pleasure to chat at length with the longtime public relations director and the conscience of the Baltimore Ravens from their inception in 1996 – now emeritus Senior Executive Vice President Kevin Byrne.

As he points out in this epic discussion, he’s not going too far away just yet…

 

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Ravens regular-season moment No. 1: Beating Jacksonville

Posted on 29 June 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 2 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE and the entire top 25 list HERE.

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.

Goosebumps.

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.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts ahead of Memorial Day weekend

Posted on 20 May 2020 by Luke Jones

With the NFL’s virtual offseason program rolling on, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Team president Dick Cass confirmed again this week that the organization aims to be able to conduct training camp and has no expectation of the 90-man roster being at the Owings Mills facility before then. Time remains on teams’ side with the usual start to camp still two months away.

2. Two-time Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen said he wouldn’t have made it in the NFL had the pandemic taken place when he went undrafted in 2013. With Baltimore already having a deep roster and 10 draft picks, rookie free agents are missing out on valuable opportunities to impress.

3. Opinions vary on playing football this fall, but Dr. David Chao, former team physician of the San Diego Chargers, discussed key considerations in this video ranging from what to do about team meetings and locker rooms to considering face shields on helmets and alternatives for huddling. Really interesting stuff.

4. With Rooney Rule changes making headlines, the lack of diversity in NFL hiring remains disappointing with Ozzie Newsome going from a Hall of Fame playing career to becoming one of the best general managers of all time serving as the best example one needs. The league must do better.

5. Some have mentioned the peculiarity of having two preseason games against regular-season opponents (Dallas and Washington), but teams just don’t show enough in these exhibition contests for this to really matter anymore. Conducting joint practices with a regular-season opponent would be a different story.

6. A superb secondary and Wink Martindale’s propensity to blitz should ease short-term concerns at edge rusher, but Matthew Judon, Pernell McPhee, Jihad Ward, and Tyus Bowser are only under contract through 2020. Even if Jaylon Ferguson takes a step forward, something will have to give.

7. Calais Campbell has wasted no time making an impact locally as his foundation announced an initiative to provide 100 laptops to disadvantaged students. His superb play is a given, but adding a veteran like him during such unusual times will pay off even more on and off the field.

8. The recently retired Eric Weddle taking time to speak to Ravens players virtually was hardly surprising. He’ll relish more time with his family, but it’s difficult imagining him staying away from the game for very long.

9. Many have already dunked on the following tweet, but the 2012 defense did come up big in some critical spots despite its mediocre overall profile. Still, I would put at least 15 Ravens defenses ahead of that one without even needing to look up any stats. What an odd pairing.

10. Terrell Suggs had a forgettable Arizona homecoming, but he recently drew praise as a mentor from Cardinals edge rusher Chandler Jones, who led the NFL in sacks in 2017 and had 19 last year. It’s unclear whether he’ll return for an 18th season, but the ex-Raven became an underrated leader.

11. If you felt old hearing Ray Lewis turned 45 years old late last week, perhaps you’ll take consolation learning Cal Ripken will be 60 in August. You’re welcome.

12. I really could have gone without reading the latest example of what’s made Tom Brady so insane great over the years. At least Ryan Mallett learned something from the six-time Super Bowl champion?

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Ravens regular-season moment No. 19: “You want to be the last team standing”

Posted on 19 May 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 20 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

The 2006 campaign was shaping up to be a pivotal one.

With the Ravens coming off their worst season since 1998, head coach Brian Billick was firmly on the hot seat and former first-round pick Kyle Boller wasn’t the franchise quarterback the organization hoped he would be after drafting him three years earlier. That prompted general manager Ozzie Newsome to trade a fourth-round pick to Tennessee for former MVP quarterback and longtime rival Steve McNair to boost a mediocre offense needing to better complement a championship-caliber defense led by future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, who were both healthy after injuries the previous year.

Baltimore began the season with a bang, shutting out Tampa Bay on the road and flattening Oakland in the home opener. A fourth-quarter comeback win at Cleveland gave the Ravens the first 3-0 start in franchise history to set up a Week 4 showdown with undefeated San Diego at an energized M&T Bank Stadium. Led by MVP running back LaDainian Tomlinson, the Chargers and their No. 1 scoring offense going up against the league’s best defense felt like a potential preview of the AFC Championship game.

The teams traded touchdowns in the first quarter, but it was an ugly affair for the Ravens for much of the day with McNair throwing two interceptions, backup tight end Dan Wilcox fumbling at the San Diego 1 in the third quarter, and top wide receiver Derrick Mason dropping a sure touchdown in the fourth quarter. But the Chargers had made their own mistakes with conservative play calling and a fumbled snap that squandered a 52-yard field goal attempt that could have put them ahead by two scores midway through the final period.

Backed up on its next possession and not wanting to give the Ravens a short field with time winding down, San Diego intentionally took a safety to make it a 13-9 game with 3:12 remaining. It was just enough time for McNair, who had led the go-ahead drive against the Browns a week earlier and was trying to redeem himself after a poor showing in front of his new fans.

After punting or committing a turnover on their first five drives of the second half, the Ravens moved into the red zone thanks to two completions to Mark Clayton and a vintage 12-yard scramble by McNair. Out of timeouts after burning all three in the third quarter, Baltimore faced a second down from the 10 with 41 seconds to go.

Motioning across the formation, Todd Heap wasn’t a primary read on the play, but the Chargers rushed only three after applying heavy pressure much of the day, allowing McNair to look back to his left. Heap, a two-time Pro Bowl tight end despite having played with a motley crew of quarterbacks over his first five seasons, reined in a high pass and absorbed a shot from Pro Bowl outside linebacker Shawne Merriman at the 3 before stretching across the goal line with 34 seconds remaining.

“I felt the hit,” Heap said after the 16-13 win. “Luckily, I was able to bounce, fight, and do whatever I could to get in the end zone. You want to be able to take the hit. You want to be the last team standing.”

The upper deck seemingly shook during one of the loudest eruptions in the stadium’s history. All that was left was for the Ravens defense to put a bow on its impressive performance against an offense that averaged just over 30 points per game that season.

A fourth-down completion from Philip Rivers to Antonio Gates gave the Chargers a last-gasp chance from the Baltimore 49, but outside linebacker Jarret Johnson sacked the San Diego quarterback on the next play as time expired. The Ravens had prevailed to improve to 4-0 and would go 13-3, the best regular-season record in franchise history until 2019.

The Chargers and Ravens would finish as the AFC’s top two seeds respectively in 2006, but there would be no January rematch with both teams being upset in the divisional round. Still, you couldn’t ask for better theater in Week 4 than what Ravens fans witnessed on that early October afternoon.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on drafting LSU linebacker Patrick Queen

Posted on 24 April 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens selecting LSU inside linebacker Patrick Queen with the 28th overall pick of the 2020 draft, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. A 20-year-old undersized inside linebacker from a college football powerhouse selected late in the first round sparks memories of a certain Hall of Famer. Even Lamar Jackson was calling Queen “Ray Lewis Jr.” on Instagram Live after the pick was made. No pressure.

2. Queen is “so tired of hearing” his 6-foot, 231-pound frame is undersized and believes he’s “more mobile” than Lewis was while making clear the Baltimore legend was “probably the best to play.” I like that confidence in someone who had to wait his turn behind former Tigers teammate Devin White.

3. Wink Martindale did an admirable job rotating inside linebackers last year, but having a three-down starter with a high ceiling and cover ability will make life much easier. Queen’s speed also makes him an enticing blitz option in the same way the Ravens used Patrick Onwuasor.

4. Fair concerns about Queen’s size should be eased by the additions of Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe up front. Lewis was at his absolute best playing behind the likes of Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa, Haloti Ngata, and Trevor Pryce, so a big defensive line should help Queen roam more freely.

5. Remarkably, it took 25 years for the Ravens to finally draft a player from LSU, an elite SEC program that’s won three national championships since 2003. In contrast, Baltimore has selected multiple players from Central Florida, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, and Weber State. Go figure.

6. Asked how Ozzie Newsome reacted to an LSU draft pick, Eric DeCosta said, “He kept saying something, but we muted him. He kept waving his hands, and the video went out. That’s the thing with technology sometimes — it can be manipulated. I think it was the Russians.” Funny stuff.

7. You wonder about a college player who only started one year, but Queen really stood out against Georgia, Oklahoma, and Clemson and was named defensive MVP of the national championship game. Excelling against top competition seems to be a good trade-off for the lack of starting experience.

8. Queen is the fifth linebacker to be drafted by the Ravens in the first round, joining Lewis, Peter Boulware, Terrell Suggs, and C.J. Mosley. The first four each made at least four Pro Bowls and combined for 28 in Baltimore. Again, no pressure.

9. Credit DeCosta’s patience as options such as edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson, linebacker Kenneth Murray, and center Cesar Ruiz started coming off the board in the early 20s. Standing pat in the first round for the first time since 2017, the Ravens protected their remaining six picks in the top 150.

10. General managers always say the player they picked topped their board, but that appeared to be the truth with Queen, who fit one of Baltimore’s biggest needs. DeCosta said he received a congratulatory text from Dallas defensive coordinator and former Ravens assistant Mike Nolan for his pick.

11. DeCosta is dedicating this draft to former Ravens scout Ron Marciniak, who died at 85 last month and was the creator of the famous “red star” meeting in which each scout picks a draft prospect who stands above the rest on and off the field. It was a classy gesture.

12. Credit the NFL, ESPN, and NFL Network for pulling off a quality broadcast despite such challenging circumstances, but there was so much going on in this scene at Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel’s house that I haven’t a clue what to even say.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts entering 2020 draft week

Posted on 20 April 2020 by Luke Jones

(Photo courtesy of Michigan Athletics)

With the Ravens counting down to their 25th draft in Baltimore beginning Thursday night, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Logistics alone make this one of the most interesting drafts ever, but the cancellation of pro days eliminated forums in which scouts and coaches around the league informally exchange opinions on prospects. Less groupthink could lead to bigger surprises on draft boards. I’m all for it.

2. Eric DeCosta and Ozzie Newsome before him have always maintained the sanctity of trusting game tape when evaluating prospects, which is more important than ever with the other gaps in this year’s evaluation process. Teams with continuity and a trusted process have a bigger edge than normal.

3. With general managers completing a dry run for the draft on Monday, DeCosta offered a look at his war room on ESPN’s NFL Live. He has his TV and computer screens in order as well as contingency plans and a generator in case of a power failure. What a time.

4. It’s impossible to anticipate which 27 players will be gone when Baltimore is scheduled to pick, but I’ll go with Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray for my prediction, which means you can expect someone else now. Given the depth and value in this draft, however, trading back wouldn’t surprise me at all.

5. As others have noted, how teams handle the signing of undrafted free agents — a hectic endeavor under normal circumstances — should be interesting. This is another area in which the Ravens should have an advantage while recognizing their reputation for giving real opportunities to undrafted talents.

6. Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz has been mentioned as a possibility for the Ravens at the end of the first round, but would you simply keep him at the center position with Matt Skura’s status uncertain? For what it’s worth, Skura did start 12 games at right guard in 2017.

7. The Ravens will presumably take at least one swing in the deepest wide receiver classes in recent memory, but they used more than one tight end on 42 percent of their plays last year. An option like Dayton’s Adam Trautman in the third or fourth round would make sense.

8. Isaiah Simmons of Clemson will be long gone by the time the Ravens pick in the first round, but Wisconsin’s Zack Baun is another “positionless” defensive player who’d be an intriguing toy for Wink Martindale, especially if DeCosta would trade back. Defense is trending more and more this way.

9. Leonard Fournette being on the trading block is the latest example why investing heavily in the running back position just isn’t wise. A back with a career 4.0 yards per carry average and a $4.167 million salary for 2020 isn’t at all appealing.

10. The top four offensive tackles won’t be on the board long, but the thought of moving a tackle inside to guard is intriguing, especially with a Ronnie Stanley extension looming and Orlando Brown already having a Pro Bowl under his belt. Will the Ravens be able to pay both?

11. With New England being the latest team to change its uniforms, I’d be leery if the Ravens wanted to switch theirs. How many in recent years — hello, Tampa Bay and Cleveland — have been more about fixing ugly mistakes? Wrinkles like the purple pants have freshened up Baltimore’s look enough.

12. The draft brings hope for the future, something we need from the last major sporting event for the foreseeable future. As was the case with Sunday’s debut of “The Last Dance” Michael Jordan documentary, it’s fun for sports fans to have an event to be excited about in this climate.

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Ravens were AHEAD of schedule

Posted on 01 February 2020 by Dennis Koulatsos

Prior to the start of the 2019 season, my co-host and producer Peter DiLutis and I took a look at the Ravens schedule.  It’s an annual exercise which I’m sure all of our fellow Ravens fanatics engage in.  We look at each game and mark it down as  “W” or an “L”.  Our consensus was that the floor for this team would be 8 wins while it’s ceiling 11.  We thought there was a chance they would make the playoffs, but if they didn’t we didn’t consider it a big deal, given the surprise playoff appearance the year prior.

We knew how hard Lamar Jackson had worked, liked the draft class and also the addition of Earl Thomas.  We figured this would be a “foundational year”, one in which the team would build upon.  In the off-season they didn’t have much cap space to work with, so we thought that 2020 would be the year were Eric DeCosta could roll up his sleeves and do some serious work in bringing some great free agents to Baltimore.  Add in one more strong draft class, and we thought 2020 would be the year that this team would make the playoffs.

I am only aware of one prognosticator who foresaw the dominant season the Ravens would have.  99.99% of us never saw it coming.  At least not in the fashion that it did, in the form of a 14 – 2 season with a #1 seed in the playoffs to boot.  As the win streak grew, naturally the expectations grew along with it.  The Ravens cruised into the playoffs with a first round bye and were installed as 10 point favorites over the upstart Titans.  We know what happened next.

Yes.  The unthinkable and most unlikely thing happened.  The Ravens lost.  Not many people thought the Titans would win.  Tennessee’s three beat writers all picked the Ravens.  Not many expected the Titans to advance to the AFC Championship game.  The Ravens had AFC Champs t-shirts in boxes, champagne on ice, all that good stuff.

We’ve had some time to reflect on the loss.  The NFL laughed at us.  Rival fan bases mocked us, while we had to keep reminding ourselves of a plethora of feel good things – Lamar Jackson is only 23, and he’s going to be the MVP.  The team overall is very young.  It took Peyton Manning 6 years to win a playoff game.  We have cap space in 2020.  We won back to back division championships. The list went on and on.

We broke down the game to the point of exhaustion.  Were the Ravens outcoached?  Did the coaching staff panic?  Was the team rusty?  Should the starters have played some snaps against the Steelers in game 16? Should they have treated it like a pre-season game? Were the coordinators distracted by their interview process and what was at stake for them?  Why did the Ravens get out hit?  Why did the Ravens lose the battle in the trenches, on both sides of the ball?  Why did they lose the field position game?  I am sure there are several more items we can interject here.

I’ve had some time to get my emotions under control after soaking up that horrible loss.  I’ve watched the All-22 film on the NFL Game Pass.  It is clear by now to most knowledgeable Ravens fans that the team needs to add a few more key pieces.  Eric DeCosta saw what you and I saw.

Expect EDC to shore up the front 7, including the pass rush.  He will no doubt address the offensive line, particularly with Marshal Yanda being on the retirement fence.  After the Titans loss, I would have bet all I had that he was retiring.  Three weeks later I am not so sure, but either way the Ravens must address the offensive line.  They must address both lines.  Great teams are built from the trenches out.  A mean d-line and a mean o-line are the keys.  And then there are the receivers.  Hollywood Brown, Willie Snead and Miles Boykin I’d bring back.

I would also give Jaleel Scott, Antoine Wesley and Sean Modster every chance to make the team.  I would also draft a wide receiver rather high, and also sign a solid veteran.  This organization must draft a Pro Bowl wide receiver at some point, although I think Hollywood Brown will in fact make the Pro Bowl.  His play was outstanding, particularly if you factor in that he still wasn’t 100% as he recovered from his Lisfranc injury.  I can’t wait to see what he can do when fully healthy.  But due to his stature, he is not going to win many 50/50 balls.

And that’s exactly what the Ravens desperately need.  As I was watching the Pro-Bowl (first time in over 2 decades) there was a play where Michael Thomas went up to get a jump ball.  Booger McFarland – who is the butt of many social media jokes – made an outstanding comment as the play unfolded.  He quipped that when Thomas goes up to get a 50/50 ball, it’s really an 80/20 ball.  And as he was saying that, Thomas did in fact come down with the ball.

Clemson’s Tee Higgins wins a lot of those balls.  I don’t think he’ll be there at #28 in the first round when it’s the Ravens’ turn to make a selection.  But he would be such a difference maker!  This is a very deep wide receiver class in the 2020 draft, so even if they get a great route runner with great hands and a little bit more size than Brown (LSU’s Justin Jefferson comes to mind) then they could look to free agency for that second receiver that they need.

AJ Green would be a terrific addition, but the past several seasons he’s spent more time in the tub nursing injuries than with the club on the field.  Robbie Anderson could be a great fit if they could get him at the right price.  Either way the Ravens need to add a minimum of two “real” receivers in the off-season.  John Harbaugh said as much at his season ending presser.

Since taking over the general manager duties from Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta has shown that he’s willing to take a few more gambles, as few more chances than the Hall of Famer.  I’m confident he’ll get the additional pieces to make this team even stronger in 2020.  Although I don’t expect their record to be 14 – 2 again, I do expect the team to be even better.  And that is great news for Ravens nation.

You can bet Lamar Jackson will keep putting the work in to get himself to the next level.  What he has over Michael Vick and all of the other “running” quarterbacks that preceded him are the recent rule changes where defenders just can’t abuse the QB.  Unless he suffers a freak injury, he stands no greater chance of being hurt than a traditional drop back pocket passer.

The QB, head coach and coordinators are all coming back.  The team has cap money.  There will be a brand new draft class coming in.  The schedule doesn’t look as daunting as the one that was rolled out a year ago.  I’m not too concerned about the loss to the Titans.  The team arrived a year ahead of schedule.  that is my opinion.  If I am right, I will be writing this column from Tampa on February 7, 2021, home of Super Bowl 55.  Hope to see you there!

 

 

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A bright purple idea to replace The Ray Lewis Squirrel Dance with a new thing

Posted on 30 October 2019 by Nestor Aparicio

Because most of you know I turned the Ravens bye week into a “buh-bye” week at WNST and served up a healthy dose of Baltimore Positive conversations, I had some time to digest the Ravens win in Seattle in many ways from the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The incredible win at The Link in The Emerald City was certainly a statement win for the 2019 version of the Ravens but also for the franchise and its new leader Lamar Jackson, who has electrified the sport and suddenly reinvigorated the football energy in Baltimore. This kind of Sunday night against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots is everything you’d want for our city and our stadium as Light City – the coolest idea our city has had to bring people back to the Inner Harbor since Governor Schaefer built Harborplace – kicks off in earnest in my ‘hood.

(This is your official invitation to come back downtown and participate in what is great about Baltimore! I will be happy to show you around!)

One thing that a puke green weekend 3,000 miles away in the rain in Seattle showed me was how rowdy a city hungry for football can still be – but also how really inspired the brilliant “12th man” brand they have created for the Seahawks is on game day as a real home field asset. The fans and locally chosen Seattle celebrities and dignitaries and former greats get to raise the flag and make the crowd go berserk at kickoff.

I remember what that was like in Baltimore when Ray Lewis danced every Sunday to ignite an energy that made 33rd Street feel like a bingo hall.

You don’t have to be a rock and roll fan to know that seeing Mike McCready of Pearl Jam stoke the crowd is pretty bad ass. (Of course that didn’t help the Seahawks players tackle Lamar Jackson 20 minutes later but I think you get my point, especially if you ever attended a game where No. 52 did the Squirrel Dance and the hair on the back of your neck stood up. I remember to never forget!)

I have been wanting to write and discuss this for a month now but there was NOTHING that has happened at a Ravens game recently that surpassed that moment when Brian Billick came out of that tunnel holding up the Lombardi Trophy against the Browns on that day they put him into the Ring of Honor.

It occurred to me that we had 105 players (and lots more significant humans if you count coaches, staff and other “ring wearers” from the organization and front office) on the field who won the Super Bowl as Baltimore Ravens and deserve to hoist that silver trophy for the fans one more time.

If Brad Downs and the folks over at the purple palace want my best idea for free, here it is:

Bring back a Super Bowl 35 or 47 champion EVERY week for as long as they are alive and have them lifting the Silver Betty (or its 12-year baby brother “Joe”) and make that our “12th man” or some kind of replacement for the irreplaceable and never to return Ray Lewis Squirrel Dance.

Anquan Boldin came out and took a bow two weeks ago. Was the Lombardi Trophy unavailable that day? Imagine how nuts the crowd would’ve gone?!?

We once had Nelly and “Hot in Herre” and a transcendent football player who now has a statue at the gate. That ain’t coming back any more than the Johnny Unitas statue next to it is walking back into Memorial Stadium in black high tops.

In Baltimore, Maryland, we have trophies that should be shown off more often than the humble Ravens have cared to do so in recent years – and that should change.

I’d never let a team walk into our stadium and not know and FEEL it ever again.

I know it didn’t go well against the Cleveland Browns after the Billick silver “sky spear” than it went for the Seahawks two weeks ago at Century Link Field, but it is a moment worth replicating and certainly better than anything goofy Terrell Suggs ever did in the aftermath of the Ray Lewis Squirrel.

The Ravens could sell it and stock it with players who were a part of a championship team. And then encourage it for the alums who made big plays in January that led to those Super Bowl parades. And every one of them was on the field for many a Ray Lewis Squirrel Dance and a confetti shower.

THAT’S the way to kick off a game against Tom Brady – or anyone for that matter – if you want to intimidate the opponent. If Billick can roll out of the tunnel with Silver Betty then why not James Trapp or Mike Flynn from Tampa? Or Michael Oher or Bryant McKinnie from New Orleans?

We are 23 years into this thing and the Baltimore Ravens are always chasing their own greatness and higher standards than the orange puke across the parking lot where they canceled their own offseason fan festival and still treat the fans like an ATM. As a guy who has dedicated his life to the passion around Baltimore sports, I have seen how hard the Ravens franchise and its human beings have had to work in the aftermath of London and the aging

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With tough schedule ahead, Ravens defense hoping for another step forward

Posted on 10 October 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens defense took a step in the right direction in Pittsburgh.

Needing overtime to beat Steelers rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges — who still managed a 98.1 passer rating in relief of the injured Mason Rudolph — hardly qualifies as a breakthrough, but standout cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s strip and recovery against Pro Bowl wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was exactly what the Ravens needed for a 26-23 win and a long exhale after giving up a combined 73 points and over 1,000 yards the previous two weeks. The performance was far from perfect, but it was good enough, especially with a home game against winless Cincinnati looming on Sunday and the rest of the AFC North seemingly in disarray.

Executive vice president and former general manager Ozzie Newsome said it best to defensive coordinator Wink Martindale on the plane ride home to Baltimore.

“He said, ‘Just keep getting better. Just keep getting better,’” said Martindale, who praised his group’s improved tackling and situational work against the Steelers. “And that’s true. That’s the way this National Football League is.”

Of course, the road victory over their struggling division rival didn’t come without another significant setback as strong safety Tony Jefferson was lost for the season with a serious knee injury. Labeled the “heart and soul” of the defense by head coach John Harbaugh and having just taken over the responsibilities of relaying the calls in the defensive huddle, Jefferson was a veteran leader for a group already missing former Ravens Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, and C.J. Mosley. Jefferson’s loss on top of the existing concerns about the pass rush, inside linebacker, and the other injuries in the secondary is tough to take.

Third-year safety Chuck Clark is expected to take his place with 2018 sixth-round pick DeShon Elliott also stepping into a larger role in different sub packages. It’s hardly ideal, but Clark played well in two starts in place of Jefferson last year and has been praised repeatedly for his football intellect. The Ravens are about to find out what they have with their two younger options next to six-time Pro Bowl free safety Earl Thomas, who is still finding his own way in a more complex system than what he was used to in Seattle.

“We just have to go on with business as usual,” Thomas said. “Chuck will come in, and he’ll help out and I’ll fit right where I need to be. If I know the check-it and I see it, I’ll be vocal about it, but Chuck is going to take on that role as well.”

The Ravens were able to slow their heartbeat at inside linebacker with the addition of veteran Josh Bynes, whose performance as the “Mike” linebacker against Pittsburgh after only three practices and not being with an NFL team since March was nothing short of remarkable. The 30-year-old has rarely been a full-time starter in a nine-year career that began in Baltimore and will surely be tested by better offenses in the coming weeks, but the Ravens hope the stability he brought to the position in Week 5 will continue after the offseason plan to go exclusively younger and faster in the wake of Mosley’s free-agent departure clearly wasn’t working.

Bynes’ arrival has allowed the Ravens to move Patrick Onwuasor back to the weak-side position where he thrived down the stretch last season. It’s a move the fourth-year linebacker is on board with after his early struggles at Mosley’s old position. The shuffling led to 2018 fourth-round pick Kenny Young being a healthy scratch and fellow second-year linebacker Chris Board playing only one defensive snap against the Steelers.

“I felt way more comfortable. I was flying around,” said Onwuasor, who finished with seven tackles and one for a loss. “That was my natural position. It just felt like it fit me perfectly, and I think Wink could tell a little bit that I like that position a little bit better.”

Martindale will continue to tinker with both the starting lineup and sub packages to find the optimal fits, especially in a secondary ravaged by injuries. Last week brought the promotion of veteran cornerback Maurice Canady to the starting lineup after second-year defensive back Anthony Averett had struggled in place of the injured Jimmy Smith, who will miss his fifth straight game with a knee injury. Brandon Carr continues to play most of the snaps at the nickel position after the preseason loss of Tavon Young, but the 33-year-old would ideally be on more of a pitch count to keep him fresh all year.

Still, the greatest concern remains with the pass rush as the Ravens are tied for 24th in the NFL with only nine sacks and 26th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, which is adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. Unlike the secondary that has Smith’s return to look forward to, there are no pass-rushing reinforcements on the way unless general manager Eric DeCosta pulls off a significant trade by the Oct. 29 deadline. Harbaugh and Martindale both expressed optimism this week about an increasing role for rookie Jaylon Ferguson, but 2017 third-round pick Tim Williams was waived just over a week ago after being advertised this offseason as part of the solution to replace Suggs and fellow free-agent departure Za’Darius Smith. Those two combined for 15 1/2 sacks last season and have a total of 8 1/2 for their new teams so far.

The Ravens have received three sacks apiece from starting outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee, but they’re playing too many snaps, putting strain on their second-half performances as well as their long-term stamina for a 16-game season. Judon is playing 82.1 percent of the snaps on defense after taking 65.1 percent of them a year ago while McPhee is averaging a career-high 42.6 defensive snaps per game, far from ideal for a 30-year-old with an injury history.

Despite Martindale bringing plenty of blitzes in hopes of pressuring and overwhelming two inexperienced quarterbacks in Pittsburgh, the Ravens managed only one sack and three quarterback hits in nearly 65 minutes of play.

“When it really comes down to it, we have to win our one-on-ones up front,” Judon said. “We have to help our defense. We have to do a better job of getting to the quarterback and applying pressure and helping our secondary out, so they don’t have to cover forever.”

The reality is this is a much different defense than the top-shelf group that last played Cincinnati in Week 11 last season, meaning expectations for improvement must be realistic. Of the 11 defensive players who started against the Bengals in Lamar Jackson’s first NFL start 11 months ago, eight are either no longer with the organization or sidelined with long-term injuries. When dealing with that much change, you’ll gladly take another step or two in the right direction against a struggling opponent Sunday — even if the Bengals’ recent history of success against Baltimore shouldn’t be forgotten.

The schedule picks up considerably in Week 7 and beyond, meaning the Ravens must take advantage of this opportunity for a win and another confidence boost. Yes, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton has broken the Ravens’ hearts in the past, but the Bengals have already allowed 20 sacks and rank in the bottom 10 in many offensive categories. The continued absence of seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green will certainly help as the Baltimore secondary tries to find its way with another key cog now out of the picture.

“We’re seeing what we’re good at. We’re seeing what we’re struggling at, and we’re making the right corrections,” Thomas said. “It might not show up right off, but it’s going to pay off in the end.”

After Sunday, the Ravens will play six of their next seven games against teams currently holding winning records. The defense is going to need those growing pains and adjustments to start paying off much sooner than later.

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O. Brown, Eluemunor, Ray practice after passing conditioning test

Posted on 26 July 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens’ infamous conditioning test has victimized many players at the start of training camp in the John Harbaugh era, but the entire current roster has now passed.

After sitting out the first full squad workout of the summer, starting right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor, and outside linebacker Shane Ray were all activated from the non-football injury list and practiced Friday upon passing the conditioning test. Brown and Eluemunor — who worked as the starting left guard during spring workouts — were relegated to second-team duties in what appeared to be a temporary punishment for their early-camp conditioning woes.

A failed conditioning test garners much attention in the early days of training camp, but very rarely has fallout lingered beyond some short-term ridicule and embarrassment. Even potential future Hall of Fame safety Earl Thomas found the running test to be intimidating upon reporting for his first camp with the Ravens, a sentiment shared by numerous veteran free agents over the years.

“I feel like I trained pretty well in the offseason,” Thomas said, “but I thought I was going to throw up at the end.”

Center Matt Skura was the only new absence from Friday’s workout as he was excused from the team to attend a funeral, according to head coach John Harbaugh.

With players practicing in helmets, shells, and shorts for the first two days, workouts haven’t varied much from spring organized team activities, but that will change Saturday with pads and full contact being introduced. The threat of contact is frequently a separator between young players who have stood out playing in shorts in the spring and others who haven’t yet been able to use their physicality. As veteran safety Tony Jefferson remarked in the spring, that is when coaches begin finding out who the real players are.

The rookies will also get their first taste of playing at M&T Bank Stadium as the Ravens hold a free and open practice Saturday evening.

“They’re going to put the pads on, and they’re going to be in the stadium,” Harbaugh said. “OK, what is that going to look like? It could be a little off, but I talked to them. I said, ‘Let’s not get caught up in all of that. Let’s just keep it simple, keep it on football, get in our box, and do our job.

“The field will still be the same length and the same width. It’s still a 10-foot free throw. That’s a ‘Hoosiers’ reference. Remember that?”

Jackson adds “muscle, not fat”

Many have commented on Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson looking bigger than he did last season when he was listed at 212 pounds as a rookie, but that is by design.

The 22-year-old said he’s gained seven to 10 pounds of muscle this offseason “to put some more meat on” his bones, stressing that it was muscle and not fat and joking that he’d soon look like head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders. The body change hasn’t seemed to hinder his speed as Jackson has continued blowing past many teammates in practices.

“You take hits. Those guys are big out there,” said Jackson about his reasoning for adding weight. “The league is totally different. Grown men are trying to feed their families. Three-hundred-pounders coming at you running 4.5s. It’s different out there in the league.”

Lewis to begin practicing early next month

Like rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown, fourth-year guard Alex Lewis has been working out individually off to the side, but his practice debut is at least another week or two away after rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery.

“If everything stays the same, he should be full-go in early August,” Harbaugh said. “When is that, a week and a half, two weeks? He looks good. He’s strong. He’s over 320 pounds. Everything looks stable. He passed his conditioning test. He’s moving well, and we just have to get him to practice now.”

Currently on the physically unable to perform list, Lewis will be competing for the starting left guard spot in the final year of his contract, but injuries have limited him to just 20 games in his first three seasons.

Leach recognized

Retired fullback Vonta Leach played more games with the Houston Texas in his 10-year career, but he chose to officially retire as a Raven because no organization “glorified or embodied” his position in the same way.

The three-time Pro Bowl selection last played in 2013 and was recognized at a Friday press conference that included executive vice president and former general manager Ozzie Newsome and Harbaugh. Leach, 37, was named to two Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl in his three seasons with Baltimore.

“You don’t get a lot of praise unless you really know football,” said Leach about playing the bruising fullback position. “But when the fans yelled my name, ‘Leeeeach!’ no matter what I did on the field, when my name was called, that did something. That was very special to me. As I was walking out there today [at training camp], just when they say my name, they’re always going to stick with me for the rest of my life.”

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