Oh… What?! Do I need to do this AGAIN?! Nope. Uh-uh. I already expended several thousand words on it already, so there’s no point, you can all… Actually, here’s a better excuse: The NFL itself says I don’t need to, so there!
NFL fans may or may not be able to guess just what I’m getting at here. Now is the time to write about the Baltimore Ravens, the team the league plays a cute little game with. That game can be called Pretend One of Our Great Classic Teams Never Moved From its Home and Give the Old Team a Brand New Identity! In case you don’t know, well, I already wrote a whole article about the team these guys used to be. Long story short: Cleveland once had a football team. Then it didn’t. Then it did again, and it claimed to be the same team, only it wasn’t the same team, it’s a brand-new outfit which bastardized the whole institution of professional football and makes a strong case for a relegation system in the United States. The old team is in Baltimore calling itself the Ravens, even though they claim they never existed at all before moving to Baltimore.
You would think Baltimore, of all cities, would know better. If there’s one city that understands the sports pain of losing a football team the same way Cleveland did, it’s Baltimore. They did, after all, have a team of their very own. Like the Cleveland Browns, this team was a storied champion with a history stretching back decades. Like the Cleveland Browns, this team was integral to its community and thought to be safe should the league ever start talking about team relocations. And hell, like the Cleveland Browns, football in Baltimore involved one sir Lord Voldemort… I mean, uh, Art Modellmort… Art Modell. Yeah, that’s it. That’s the name I was looking for.
Anyhow, losing the Colts didn’t sit well with Baltimore. Attempts were started to get the NFL back to the city by the early 90’s. Those were good times for every major sports league, so everyone started expanding, and Baltimore put together a nice little package to get the NFL back to town. And you know who told potential owners to pass up Baltimore? Paul Tagliabue! Yes, the then-commissioner of the league told them that! Although, to be fair, he had a good reason: Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of the Washington Redskins, had a plan to move the team to Laurel, Maryland which the commissioner liked, and he told other owners to hold off in anticipation of it. Ultimately, it didn’t work. But owners listened to Tagliabue, and the expansion teams were given to Charlotte and Jacksonville. So Baltimore started looking at franchise-napping a team of its own. Art Modell answered the call.
At first, the team was going to become the Baltimore Browns. Then Cleveland threw the sports hissy to end all sports hissies. So the league ended up cutting a unique deal when the lawsuits started piling up: Cleveland got to hold on to all the history and the colors of the Browns. That meant that should the league ever return, the new team would become the Cleveland Browns and the history gap would be written off and an operations suspension. Meanwhile, the team in Baltimore would be given a new identity. The NFL did go back to Cleveland a couple of years later to start up a factory of sadness that carries the name and history of the old Browns. Ask the people of Cleveland how they feel about that. The city presumably promised the Key to the City to Art Modell’s murderer should Modell ever set foot in Cleveland again, but that never happened. Modell died of rather more non-murderous causes in 2012.
The “new” team, not having access to its proper historical nickname, was given a brand-new literary moniker. One of the great American writers was Edgar Allan Poe, who was born in Baltimore, spent a good chunk of his life there, and is buried there. Poe was famous for his imaginative suspense/horror shorts, but his most famous work is a poem called The Raven. The “new” team got to be named the Ravens. And being a “new” team, it was only fitting that the Ravens would play like a new team without quotation marks. Or a team much like the current Cleveland Browns. They won their first game, lost a game against the Colts later in the season, and finished with a 4-12 record. There were a couple of good signs, though: Quarterback Vinny Testaverde was voted into the Pro Bowl and two receivers passed the 1000-yard mark.
What proceeded to happen was what is usually hoped for with “expansion” teams, but which rarely happens: Steady improvement. The Ravens finished their “second” season at 6-9-1 with a Defensive Rookie of the Year in Peter Boulware. They also got a new coach the year after, Brian Billick, who was in high demand for his work on offense; he had coordinated the offense of the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, which was the highest-scoring offense the league had ever seen at that time. Having finished 6-10 in 1998, Billick immediately improved the Ravens. They broke even in 1999 after a 3-6 start. Billick, of course, had been hired because of his offensive wizardry. The Ravens tend to get knocked around a lot in the media because they never seem to have anything on offense, but that was the idea with Billick. He was getting results from a team with Tony Banks and Qadry Ismail. They would have gone 9-7 and made the playoffs if not for a loss in the final week.
The Ravens were expected to improve again the next season, and they did. And they went further than anyone ever expected. Tony Banks was the starting quarterback for the Ravens again at the beginning of the season, and the team rushed out to a 5-1 record. Then the team dropped the next three games, and Banks found himself on the bench in favor of Trent Dilfer. Dilfer has never been regarded as a great passer, but what he did that year in Baltimore helped stabilize the team while running backs Jamal Lewis and Priest Holmes gave the offense some sort of momentum. The Ravens did manage to right themselves after that three-game slip… And, in fact, those three games were the last games they lost for the rest of the season. The offense did its job for the rest of the season, but at some point, it became clear that the calling card of the 2000 edition of the Baltimore Ravens was defense. Not just any defense, but the most vicious defense the league had ever seen since introducing the 16-game season. In the regular season, that defense allowed opposing teams to hang 20 points or more on them only three times. It had allowed opponents to score double digits against them only seven times. The Ravens allowed more than a touchdown in only eight games, and pitched four shutouts. Even in their losses, the Ravens basically lost only because their offense was punchless; the defense only allowed more than two touchdowns in two of them. The other two were laughers against Washington (which ended 10-3) and Pittsburgh (9-6). At the end of the regular season, the Ravens had allowed only 165 points to be score against them – around 10 points per game. Their defense featured Sam Adams, Rod Woodson, and the mighty Ray Lewis – a linebacker who has since built a powerful case for himself as the greatest to ever play the position.
The Ravens weren’t the top seed, though, because the Tennessee Titans had gone 13-3. So they had to play the Wild Card round. And play it they did! Their dominant defense held the Denver Broncos to three points in the opening round. The next week, the Ravens hammered the Titans 24-10, the only time in the playoffs they allowed a double digit score against them. After beating up the Raiders in the AFC Championship, the Ravens took after so many of Baltimore’s NFL teams before them and went on to the big game. In the ensuing Super Bowl, a revived rivalry of sorts beckoned. The NFC was going to be represented by the New York Giants. Now, back in the pre-merger days, the Giants had played a couple of title games against the old Baltimore Colts. Those happened in 1958 and 1959. The Colts won them both, and the 1958 game is considered one of the great sports watershed moments among sports historians. That game was aired on national TV and was watched by over 50 million people, and it was when football’s bigwhigs realized their novel little sport might have a real shot at the big time. That game went into sudden death overtime, ending when Baltimore quarterback Johnny Unitas led his team on one of history’s great football drives for the winning field goal. And hell, while Ray Lewis may be the greatest linebacker in NFL history, the Giants have plenty to say about that as well. In the 80’s, their defense featured Lawrence Taylor. Whether or not Taylor was a better linebacker than Lewis pretty much depends on who you ask, but one way or the other, no one is getting through them.
This Super Bowl really should have been a better story with the football history between the two cities. But there were a couple of problems: Those big showdowns between the Giants and Colts were way back in the 50’s. Both of those teams had been powerhouses. And while the Giants did feature Michael Strahan and Tiki Barber, their whole visit to this Super Bowl had more or less been an accident. Their defense was good but not great, and their offense wasn’t especially spectacular. They had enough talent to damage a weak division, which is what they did. After being at 7-4 during the regular season, coach Jim Fassel – who was pretty pedestrian as far as coaching went – went out and guaranteed that his team would at least make the playoffs. The Giants didn’t lose another game. At least until the Super Bowl. This Super Bowl shouldn’t be allowed the dignity of being called a football game. The Giants didn’t fare any better against the Ravens than their old teams did against the Colts. The Ravens held them to 11 first downs, three of which were by penalty. They recorded four sacks, five turnovers, and 152 yards of offense, never letting the Giants within 25 yards of their endzone. Only a poorly-covered kickoff return saved the Giants the indignity of being the first team to get shut out in the Super Bowl. The final was 34-7, and it wasn’t as close as that score makes it look.
How do you go about defending a title earned with the most badass defense in the history of anything? Well, you get a new quarterback: Elvis Grbac! Yeah, that’s not a hell of a lot, is it? The team lived and died on Jamal Lewis again, and while the defense showed the occasional flash of what it used to be, it was still only able to secure the Wild Card spot in 2001. Could there be a real run left in the team? Well, they started the playoffs by destroying the Dolphins 20-3. The Steelers met them in the next round, though, where Grbac threw three interceptions and the Ravens lost 27-10.
The next few years were the up and down sort that can plague a team. It didn’t help the Rod Woodson left, although the Ravens upgraded when they stole Ed Reed from the Draft. But after that 2001 season, any idea of the Ravens being some kind of league powerhouse went pfft. Flash quick, they turned into an average team. The one feature they always had going for them was that terrifying defense; players like Terrell Suggs, Reed, and Lewis could make an offense quiver and break down in fear, and the rest of the team, for what it was worth, always did seem to take after them. Bad records or not, you didn’t frequently see the Ravens roll over and die in any game, ever, no matter how little it meant. Basically, everything was the offense’s fault. Billick stayed on as the coach for awhile. Yes, he was a reputed offensive guru, but his offenses in Minnesota featured Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter, and Randy Moss. In Baltimore, he got, um, Kyle Boller? The one blip the Ravens had was in 2006. One of the players who saw the clear potential in Baltimore was former Titans quarterback Steve McNair, in that late-stage ring-chase phase of his career. Having gone 6-10 the previous year, the Ravens started 2006 4-0 but lost two straight at the midpoint. Because of offensive trouble. So Billick dropped the offensive coordinator (who, ironically, was Jim Fassel by now) and called the shots for the rest of the season. At season’s end, the Ravens were 13-3 and champions of the AFC North. Finally allowed to bypass the Wild Card games, the Ravens started the playoffs against the team that skipped Baltimore, the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts had Peyton Manning, arguably the best quarterback in football at the time, but that ended up not meaning a whole lot. The game turned into a defensive-side sleeper, the Colts won 15-6, and the Colts eventually won the Super Bowl.
Everything looked bright, but injuries hurt the Ravens the next year and they won just five games. Out went Brian Billick, who had done a very good job in Baltimore all things considered. In came John Harbaugh. With him came quarterback Joe Flacco and the constant and constantly-annoying question of whether or not Flacco is elite. Elite or no, though, he was the one who finally gave the Ravens some sort of consistency at quarterback, so the team was finally able to beef up the non-quarterbacking positions. In no time, Harbaugh made it clear to everyone that he was really, really good at coaching. His first season, he made the AFC Championship, which he lost to Pittsburgh. 2009 saw them go 9-7 and lose to the Colts in the playoffs, but the Ravens had found a new place in the league pantheon. Sticking with their identity as a defensive team, the Ravens started to be legitimately good again. Flacco did what was necessary, the Ravens developed a short playoff rivalry against the Patriots, and they took their division a couple times too. In the playoffs, though, those damn Patriots always seemed to be standing in the way. In 2011, receiver Lee Evans was stripped of a touchdown pass which cost the Ravens.
In 2012, the Ravens and Patriots played against each other in a bizarre prime time game. A streaker ran onto the field at one point, and at another point, the audience chanted obscenities at a referee. The Ravens won it 31-30 on a last-play field goal. The Ravens ultimately took the division again, but with a 10-6 record, had to play the Wild Card round. They beat the Colts 24-9, beat the Broncos 38-35 in double overtime, then won the AFC Championship against the Patriots 28-13. In the Super Bowl, they matched off against the San Francisco 49ers, who just happened to be coached by John Harbaugh’s brother Jim. Baltimore stormed out to a 28-6 lead, but momentum shifted at halftime and the Niners returned and were close to pulling off the comeback. Baltimore held on, and Ray Lewis retired having won his second title.
The impact of Ray Lewis was seen in 2013, the team’s first year without him. They started out 3-2, but lost the next three games – the Packers and Steelers put last-minute field goals on them and the Browns stood off against them to prevent a tie. They went 1-1 in the two following games, won their next four – even turning in a dominant performance against the Jets, beating them 19-3 – but lost their two afterward to finish 8-8, just missing the playoffs. And that’s been the definition of the Ravens ever since – they can’t seem to stave off injuries or win the close games, and they’re back to being average.
The Baltimore Ravens haven’t retired any numbers, but they refuse to issue number 19 out of respect… For Johnny Unitas. Unitas was the first true modern quarterback and a man who won three titles – two in the pre-Super Bowl era, one Super Bowl – while playing in Baltimore. Now, the important thing to remember is that Unitas played for the Baltimore Colts, and that’s how this whole Baltimore/Indianapolis/Cleveland trifecta can be confusing. When a team has a longtime franchise face, is that player loyal to the team or the city if the team he played for ends up moving? Unitas was loyal to Baltimore, and he rooted against the Colts when they played against the Ravens. The Ravens also don’t issue the numbers of Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, and Ed Reed. Lewis is the big name there. He might have been the greatest linebacker of all time, with the possible exception of Lawrence Taylor. In 2000, Lewis was in Atlanta when a fight broke out between his friends and another group. Two men were stabbed to death, and three people were indicted on murder charges. Although Lewis wasn’t even charged with the murders, he did plead guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice, was put on probation, and fined. By all accounts, he managed to get his life together after that and turn into a good citizen, but fans still use the incident to call him a murderer. Lewis was a Super Bowl MVP the following season, but that incident convinced the league to give the Disneyworld phrase to Trent Dilfer.
The Ravens do have a lot to be proud of. Aside from winning two Super Bowls, they also managed to find their identity as a “new” team rather quickly: They’re a stonewalling defensive unit that doesn’t know when to quit. All their major keystone players have been on the defensive side: Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed, Peter Boulware, Sam Adams… It’s a pretty impressive list. They’re not always good, but they always leave everything they have on the field.
It’s a good thing they have that too, because the other major part of who the Ravens are revolves around the Colts and Browns. The Colts are in Indianapolis, of course, and although the Ravens are now two-time Super Bowl Champions, that hasn’t stopped several old-timers from pining for the return of the Colts. The Colts turned out to be pretty impressive themselves; they had some rough years, but they won a Super Bowl in 2006 – it was their second, but their first in Indianapolis – and fielded arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, Peyton Manning. Cleveland got royally fucked over. The Browns were waning, and they had just fired the head coach who is now known as the greatest head coach of all time. But they chose the NFL’s return to Baltimore to become good, which means the real, inherited Cleveland Browns are now two-time Super Bowl Champions and not the pretenders that wear the Browns’ history and colors and make a strong case for a relegation system in American sports. Cleveland seems to openly want their old team back, and you can’t blame them one bit. Cleveland is still so pissed that they still try to mock the nickname of the Ravens, but that only serves to make you wonder what Browns fans are thinking. A Raven is a bird that holds a lot of psychological power. They’re dark, big, and make a scary cawing sound. In movies, they’re used to help set a scary atmosphere, act as an omen, or freak out the main character. And the Browns? Their name is associated with dirt, shit, and possibly the river in Cleveland when it was lit on fire.
The Baltimore Ravens aren’t always good, but whenever they play, they never let themselves roll over and die. No matter how hopeless things look, they’ll always fight to the last, and that’s something their fans can take pride in and learn from.
Name is a cool literary reference; have accomplished a lot in their “short” lifespan; never let themselves get down over a hopeless game; fielded a linebacker who is nearly as good as Lawrence Taylor
Weird continuity; Browns fans won’t shut the fuck up; old school Colts fans won’t shut the fuck up; you’ll get tired of hearing pundits fight over whether or not Joe Flacco is elite
Should you be a fan?
If you’re the kind of fan who wants the battle to mean more than the result, yes. If you’re into classic literature, also yes.