clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Anatomy of a Winner: Baltimore Ravens

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

As Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles begin their quest to build the Jets into a consistent winner, we are going to look at some of the best run franchises in the NFL. We want to see what makes them tick. What are their philosophies? What specific strategies set them apart? Above all, consistent winners have two important pieces, a head coach and a quarterback. How did these teams get these moves right? Today we look at the Baltimore Ravens.

Over the past decade and a half, one of the most successful organizations in football has been the Baltimore Ravens. They have won a pair of Super Bowls and have plenty of deep postseason runs. Especially since 2008, Baltimore has been at the top of the league. Plenty of deserved credit goes to Ozzie Newsome, the architect of the team. What are some of the Ravens' secrets the Jets might learn? Let's jump in.

Describe the organization philosophy in one word: Patient

Almost every profile of Ozzie Newsome discusses his legendary patience. NFL executives crave instant gratification. They aren't any different from many of us. There is always the temptation to spend your savings on a really nice car, even if your car is perfectly good. If you wait and save money, you will end up with enough for a down payment on a house, which will leave you better off. It is easy to say and difficult to do. That goes for NFL executives too.

For Newsome, this began the first time he ran a Draft.

On the field, the team needed a talent like (Lawrence) Phillips. The previous season, no Browns running back had averaged more than 46 yards per game. (Owner Art) Modell wanted an exciting pick to help him sell tickets in a new city. The Ravens already had a good offensive line. But Newsome and Savage were in lock step.


"Art, yesterday we made the decision that he’s (Ogden) the best football player, and that’s who we’re going to take," Newsome said.

"Well, where’s he going to play?" Modell replied.

"Left guard," was Newsome’s retort, which fell flatter than a cornerback blitzing against Ogden. Newsome relayed word to the staffer in New York to write down the name Jonathan Ogden. At the same time Savage leaned over to Modell and said, "I don’t think we will ever regret what we just did."


With the 26th pick, the Ravens were looking for a weakside linebacker to play next to Pepper Johnson, their veteran in the middle. After end/linebacker Marcus Jones went 22nd to the Buccaneers, there was one linebacker remaining on the board whom the Ravens had an interest in: Ray Lewis of Miami.

In the end, with defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis’s input, the Ravens felt Lewis could play weakside for at least a year.

History will show that Newsome’s Ravens were born with two future Hall of Famers drafted to play out of position as rookies. Ogden spent a year at guard before Tony Jones was traded to the Broncos for a second-round pick (which became defensive back Kim Herring). Lewis was so good that the Ravens made room for him at middle linebacker by cutting Johnson before the 1996 season.

There is a lot of instant gratification in expending resources, particularly early Draft picks, to improve a weak part of the team. Is this the right motivation, though?

Tell me this. Do you even remember whether cornerback was a need when the Jets drafted Darrelle Revis? Was center a need when the Jets took Nick Mangold? Did the Vikings need a running back when they took Adrian Peterson? Did the Cardinals need a wide receiver when they picked Larry Fitzgerald. In some cases, the answer was yes. In others, the answer was no. The real answer is, "Does it even matter?" Was the success of these picks based on filling a need from the previous season or on finding players who performed at a top level for years and years?

Newsome and the Ravens are smart enough to understand a great player at a certain position over the long haul is much better than a inferior player at a different position. Ogden and Lewis might not have been needs. If the team was looking for immediate gratification, they might not have made sense, but the true value of the pick is over the entire course of a career rather than year one. By 2013, do you think anybody cared that Lewis wasn't a need when the Ravens took him? Needs change from year to year in the NFL. Many players suddenly decline and create a neeed. Picking Lewis prevented the Ravens from having a need at inside linebacker for over a decade and a half.

One of the early signs that makes me feel good about the new regime with the Jets was the handling of their first pick. Leonard Williams fell to them. Defensive line wasn't a need. The new regime stuck to picking the best player and has the patience to see how this plays out. It would have been easy to pass on Williams for a player who would provide the team more immediate gratification. The Jets deemed Williams the best player, though, and estimated he would provide the most value. Another regime might have rushed to give Muhammad Wilkerson a monster contract extension and forgotten Williams. Maybe the Jets will find Wilkerson wants a reasonable deal. Maybe he and Williams can play together and dominate. If not, the Jets can look to deal Wilkerson, have the cap space they would have otherwise dedicated to him to fortify another area, get another pick or two, and still probably lose nothing off the defensive line. Maybe Williams will disappoint, but the thought process is important. Good thought process more often than not leads to good results over the long haul.

Back to Newsome, his patience manifests itself in other ways. Take this instance from the same piece on him.

Newsome’s next bout with draft-day drama would come in 1999, after a third-straight losing season resulted in the firing of Marchibroda and hiring of former Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick as head coach. Before the draft, the Ravens traded a third-round pick to the Lions for quarterback Scott Mitchell (and would later also sign Tony Banks), leaving them with selections in the first, second, fourth (two picks) and seventh rounds. All agreed to take cornerback Chris McAlister with the 10th overall pick. In the second round the Falcons called and inquired about trading for the Ravens’ pick, in exchange for a first-round selection in the 2000 draft. Newsome explained the deal to Modell and concluded that it was a good trade for the Ravens.

Billick, who had some new-coach cachet, wanted players he could coach now, and Savage, who wanted to protect the work his scouts did, disagreed with Newsome.

"We need players. We need players now," Billick said. "We don’t need players next year."

"I understand that," Newsome said, "but that’s a lot of currency for a second-round pick."

"It could be the 32nd pick next year—they beat my old team to go to the Super Bowl," Billick responded.

Newsome replied, "I don’t think it’s going to be quite that low next year."

As the pick got closer, there wasn’t much talk in the room. Modell looked at Newsome and asked his opinion. "I like the Atlanta trade," he said.

Billick became more forceful. "Ozzie, we need players. The reason I’m here is you don’t have enough good players. That’s why Ted got fired and I’m here," Billick said. "We have a chance to get a good player. You tell me there are good players up there that will help us win."

Billick wanted the instant gratification of a player then and there. Newsome saw that he would win out in the long run if he sacrificed something today for something tomorrow. The Ravens made that trade. The pick they got ended up in the top five the next year. It was Jamal Lewis, who carried the load on offense on Baltimore's first Super Bowl winner as a rookie and ran for over 2,000 yards a few years later. They missed out on a player for a year. In return, they got a star.

If you want an example of a team that recently went the other way, think of the Buffalo Bills. They traded away their 2014 and 2015 first round picks to move up for Sammy Watkins last year. They wanted to be aggressive and land a receiver. Watkins is a wonderful talent. What if they had just stayed put? They originally picked 10th. The next receiver off the board at that spot was Odell Beckham, Jr. Would you rather have Watkins or Beckham plus an extra first round pick? Had the Bills just waited and shown patience, they could have had their impact receiver while not losing a first rounder.

The Ravens usually don't jump head first into free agency either. Early in the free agent process, teams give out big money deals. Some of them work out quite well. Frequently a big money free agent deal becomes an albatross.

Part of this is because Newsome doesn't want to lose out on something good by moving too quickly. By design, the Ravens look to add compensatory picks. That requires they not jump on the top players in free agency. We discussed some of their strategies pertaining to compensatory picks last week. A splashy free agent would help the team now but cost the Ravens extra Draft picks that could help the team later. Instead, Newsome picks his spots. He frequently goes after players released by their former team, who do not count against the Ravens in the compensatory pick formula. These are players like Steve Smith, Owen Daniels, Justin Forsett, and Elvis Dumervil. The Ravens added Jacoby Jones this way also. Jones was an excellent return man, and had the season-saving 70 yard touchdown pass in the dying moments of regulation in their Playoff win against Denver. That was the year the Ravens won their second championship. It isn't accident the Ravens have a league leading 44 compensatory picks since the league started handing them out. That is nine more than the second place team. They don't hit on all of them. The ones who do pan out aren't necessarily stars. Players like Le'Ron McClain, Rick Wagner, Pernell McPhee, and others have been contributors. Because of their patience, the Ravens both add value in free agency and add additional picks.

Sometimes it means waiting longer than most teams. It can mean filling a hole at inside linebacker in June by signing Daryl Smith or by fortifying the offensive line by signing Bryant McKinnie right before the start of the regular season.

There is another aspect of patience. It is easier to recover from the big money player a team doesn't sign than the one it signs and regrets. Miss on a player, and there will usually be another one. Frequently that player will be appreciably cheaper. If a team signs a free agent to a big contract, and said player doesn't pan out, that team can't afford the next one.

Getting the Head Coach Right:

After the 2007 season, the Ravens moved on from head coach Brian Billick. Billick had success in Baltimore. His defenses were almost always at the top of the league. He even delivered a championship. His teams just did not win consistently enough because of his inability to develop an offense.

Baltimore ended up settling on Eagles special teams coach John Harbaugh. The move was a surprise. Harbaugh was not considered one of the hot assistant coaches at the time. He had no head coaching experience. He had never even been a coordinator. He was passed over for head coaching jobs at places like Syracuse and Boston College. (Sigh)

Here is how owner Steve Bisciotti responded to criticism at the time.

"Is it a little bit more of a perceived chance? Yeah, if you didn't spend the last 15 hours with John Harbaugh. But the time we spent with him gave me a comfort level that we hired the right guy. The bottom line is I feel good about our choice and I like the fact that John gets to build his legend right here."

Particularly noteworthy was one person they did not hire, defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. Ryan was the architect of one of the league's finest and most creative defenses. He was popular. Players on the team even lobbied for him to get the job.

Baltimore still went with Harbaugh. Ryan returned as defensive coordinator for one more year and the got a head coaching job with the Jets. His first two years in New York were wildly successful. He was a phenomenon. He grabbed all of the headlines. He developed defensive schemes that befuddled the rest of the league. The Jets were instant contenders and the talk of the NFL. Even though the Ravens were also successful during this time, many wondered whether they made the right move passing on Ryan to hire Harbaugh. At the height of Rex Ryan's popularity, Bisciotti explained the decision with words that just a few years later would seem strikingly prophetic.

"From a chemistry standpoint, we really liked John and we thought it was going to be tougher for Rex to bring the whole team together after him spending 10 years on one side of the ball that was the dominant side of the ball," Bisciotti said, according to a transcript of the call posted on the team's website. "I’ve known Rex for an awful long time. We had struggled for so long on the offensive side of the ball, and we were so dominant on the defensive side of the ball. Through no fault of Rex’s, I think it created a little bit of the haves and have-nots, kind of a big brother-little brother syndrome here."

Ryan's tenure in New York ultimately ended unsuccessfully in no small measure because of his struggles to develop a competent offensive team. Ryan's Jets teams in some ways resembled the pre-Harbaugh Ravens. There were some spectacular stretches, and excellent defense was a constant. There was a lack of consistent success, however, due to the poor offense the team employed. Furthermore, there was a tension between the offense and the defense on Ryan's teams that was well-chronicled.

Nobody is going to confuse Harbaugh with offensive gurus like Chip Kelly or Sean Payton, but his offensive have sustained a level of play that have allowed his team to make the Playoffs six times in seven years along with three trips to the AFC Championship Game in that span and one Super Bowl win.

It isn't just about offense with Harbaugh. There are many things we can discuss, but I am impressed by the guts he shows in some of his big decisions.

We will discuss in detail below how he started Joe Flacco as a rookie, which helped Baltimore to a surprise AFC Championship Game trip in 2008. It would have been easy to dismiss the idea of starting a rookie from a small school who didn't play in a conventional pro system in college. Harbaugh liked what he saw.

The decision to retain Ryan as defensive coordinator displayed some of Harbaugh's admirable traits. In Rex he had a guy who had been passed over the job. Harbaugh knew Rex wanted the job. He also knew many of his players wanted Rex to get the job. It is not unfair to say many coaches would reject bringing back a popular coach who was passed out of hand. It would seem like a recipe to be undermined. Even as a first time head coach, Harbaugh felt secure enough in his ability to run the team to bring back Rex. That move was another key element in Baltimore's success that season.

Perhaps Harbaugh's gutsiest and best decision was firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in December 2012. It was late in the season. Cameron had been with the team as long as Harbaugh. Many coaches would be afraid of losing continuity so late in the season. Harbaugh didn't like what he saw in his offense and viewed continuity as a bad thing. Jim Caldwell took over as coordinator despite Baltimore being in first place at the time. The Ravens ended up winning the Super Bowl, and that move helped.

Getting the Quarterback Right:

One of the favorite stories people like to tell who dismiss the importance of the quarterback position is how the Ravens won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer starting. That is true, but that also isn't the entire story. For the better part of a decade, the Ravens could not find the solution at quarterback. Yes, they won a Super Bowl in 2000. The inability to get a good quarterback also prevented perhaps the greatest defensive team of its era from consistently contending for a second championship.

After winning the Super Bowl, Baltimore thought it upgraded by signing Elvis Grbac. That didn't pan out. Chris Redman  in the third round and Anthony Wright off the scrap heap couldn't supply an answer. Kyle Boller was a first round pick who busted. Baltimore found steady play for one year out of Steve McNair, but his career was shortly over. The quarterback position was holding Baltimore back. In the six seasons spanning between 2002 and 2007, the Ravens did not win a Playoff game. Their defense ranked in the top ten in five of those six seasons.

Part of this story is the role of luck in the NFL. Even the best teams need a bit of good fortune. In 2007, the Ravens were looking at taking Brady Quinn in the first round during the quarterback's freefall in the first round of the Draft. The Browns eventually traded up for the quarterback. Quinn ultimately proved to be a non-entity in the NFL. Imagine what would have happened if the Ravens had landed Quinn. Surely they would not have taken Joe Flacco in the first round a year later. Since Quinn could not cut it in the NFL, Baltimore's offense would have continued to hold that team back. Who knows when they might have found a solution after moving on from Quinn? We might remember Newsome as a guy who could find talent but had a blind spot at quarterback, which held him back. We might even remember him as a former Ravens general manager.

The Ravens missed on Quinn, which proved to be lucky. They still needed a quarterback in the 2008 Draft. Grantland tells the story.

The Ravens loved Flacco and wanted to take him, but graded him out as a player worth taking toward the end of the first round. Despite the undeniable pressure to take the guy they wanted at their biggest position of need when he was available with the eighth pick, the Ravens traded down to the 26th pick and acquired two third-rounders and a fourth-rounder. Baltimore was prepared to wait until their pick came up at 26 to draft Flacco, but owner Steve Bisciotti pleaded long enough with Newsome and got him to move up to the 18th pick by trading one of the third-round picks he had just gotten and a sixth-round pick. In the end, Baltimore got their guy and a pair of midround draft picks to improve their defensive depth. A bad organization would have been terrified of the unknown, taken Flacco eighth, and lost out on the opportunity to acquire another meaningful contributor or two in the process while overdrafting a player because he was at a position of need. That simply doesn’t fly in Baltimore.

I post that analysis not because I agree with it. When we are talking about finding a quality quarterback, who cares whether a team uses the 8th pick or the 18th pick? The reason I post this is the role of luck. The narrative here shifts quickly had a team in front of Baltimore taken Flacco or somebody had moved in front of the Ravens. Then the story becomes, "The Ravens lost out on the quarterback they have needed for years over a few midround picks." Don't underestimate the role of good fortune.

Don't take this to mean Baltimore's success is pure luck, though. The Ravens are an exceedingly well-run organization. There are still lessons to be learned from their selection of Flacco.

The first is they kept trying to find a quarterback. They were not scared off by previous failures. Saying, "We missed on an early round quarterback before. Let's not waste another pick," can be a popular refrain among fans. Under this thinking, the Ravens should have been scared off by Kyle Boller and never targeted another quarterback in the first round. Baltimore understood the only way to make up for drafting the wrong quarterback is to find the right quarterback, not the abstain from ever going after a quarterback again.

The second lesson came from how they handled Flacco once they got him. They had a small school quarterback who did not play in a pro system in college. It would have been easy to say he needed one to two years on the bench to sit and learn. The Ravens liked what they saw and threw him right into the fire from Week 1 as a rookie. He provided steady enough play for Baltimore to make the AFC Championship Game. It was a first season that set the tone for a long run of success for a rookie quarterback (and head coach). It is easy to typecast players, but each one is unique. It might have been by the book to sit Flacco as a rookie, but the Ravens saw he could hold up just fine. Without that correct evaluation, Baltimore just would have wasted time developing a young quarterback who didn't need it.

In future installments of this series, we are going to talk about other franchises who made decisions finding their quarterback which cut much further against the grain and were much more unconventional. Ultimately, the Ravens found Flacco in a fairly conventional way. Still, it was a decision that changed their franchise, and we can learn from things Baltimore did. Say what you will about Flacco. He plays at a level that is good enough for the Ravens to win consistently, and he has earned a reputation as a quarterback who elevates his level of play in big games. These things were not true of many of his predecessors.

Other things of note

The 20/20 Club: When it comes to players, it is usually better for a team to develop a young player than to bring in an established player. There are many reasons for this. One is the conditions that made a player successful somewhere else might not exist with the new team. The culture, supporting cast, and system are all different. It is better to mold a young player who knows nothing else into your ways of doing things than to teach an old dog new tricks.

The Ravens have been terrific at developing players, but they take a number of these concepts when it comes to grooming members of their front office. They have a program in place to develop talented, young, hungry personnel executives into the next great talent evaluators in the Baltimore front office.

The Ravens have what is known as the 20/20 Club as Judy Battista explained in a New York Times profile:

One reason Newsome has such faith in his system is because he has trained almost everybody who works in it. In a program Newsome borrowed from Belichick, the Ravens rarely hire a scout from outside the organization. Rather, Newsome has his 20-20 club. He pays 20-somethings who hope to rise through the personnel department $20,000 a year. They work 20 hours a day filing tapes, picking up free agents at the airport and cleaning out the refrigerators of released players who have abandoned their apartments. In 1996, Coach Ted Marchibroda used to give DeCosta $100 and ask him to get an oil change for his car and keep the change. DeCosta dutifully scouted out the places that would do an oil change for $9.

In the meantime, Newsome and his staff get a read on an up-and-comer’s work ethic and intelligence. The older scouts tutor the younger ones in what to look for, so everybody’s eye is trained the same way.

The Ravens create a pipeline of young scouting talent. When somebody moves to an organization, they usually have an in house replacement ready who understands what the organization looks for in players. Some of the recent Jets seasons have given us a first hand look at the pitfalls when everybody in the organization is not on the same page. They do not have that problem in Baltimore.

Senior executives like Eric DeCosta and Joe Hortiz have come through the 20/20 Club. People lower on the foodchain like area scouts Mark Avezedo, Ian Cunningham, and David Blackburn are more recent graduates.

No Central Scouting: The league has a few services that provide standardized information to teams pertaining to the scouting process. The Ravens have a different approach as stated by Grantland.

The Ravens also don’t subscribe to either of the independent scouting services (BLESTO and National Football Scouting) that the vast majority of the league’s teams use, so there’s no influence from outside sources who don’t take Baltimore’s specific schematic concerns and player-evaluation credos into account.

The rest of the league might put a different value on certain traits than the Ravens do. The Ravens have specific traits that fit their system. Hortiz says as much.

"It forces us to become more reliant on ourselves and not reliant on somebody else's word of mouth," Baltimore national scout Joe Hortiz said. "The scouting services probably grade more off of athletic talent and measurables versus anything else. Whereas we might grade a guy who is the most athletic and talented guy, but he doesn't fit our scheme, temperament, our persona as a defense, what we're looking for in a receiver. We are grading specifically for the Ravens."

Next team we will examine in this series: Green Bay Packers