By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007
OWINGS MILLS, Md., Jan. 10 -- With their offensive line aging and battered last season, surrendering sacks and getting overpowered at the line of scrimmage, the Baltimore Ravens were at a crossroads. A team that prided itself on playing punishing football faced a threat to its identity. But where some franchises might have made sweeping changes and spent millions on free agents, the Ravens took a different approach.
During personnel meetings last January, in the wake of a 6-10 season, General Manager Ozzie Newsome, his scouts and the coaching staff dissected the offensive line, evaluating their players as well as those throughout the NFL. They concluded that the young linemen the Ravens had drafted in recent years, despite their initial foibles, were sufficiently talented. There was adequate depth and the solutions lay within.
A year later, the Ravens' offensive line has become a source of strength, arguably the most improved unit in the NFL. It allowed a franchise-low 17 sacks -- second best in the NFL and 25 fewer than in 2005 -- and were more physical in the running game. Most importantly, the line allowed quarterback Steve McNair, who had been bothered by injuries in recent years, to start all 16 games. Without the dramatic improvement of the line, the Ravens would not be hosting Indianapolis in an AFC semifinal Saturday.
"You don't panic when you have those situations," Newsome said. "You just have to look at the total situation. We looked at the young linemen we had, and knew they're smart, they've got some toughness in them, and they're athletic enough to play and they liked each other. So it wasn't a matter of us doing some wholesale changes.
"We had already drafted two [in 2005] and we knew we would be heading this way and those guys needed some development and that's one position where you've got to develop your own. So we said, 'Hey, before we start going out and getting other people's players, let's give our young guys a chance.' That's how we transformed ourselves."
Four of Baltimore's five starting linemen were 31 or older last season -- including left tackle Jonathan Ogden -- and the Ravens were already fortifying for the future. In 2003 they selected tackle Tony Pashos in the fifth round, and he replaced injured 36-year-old Orlando Brown last season for seven games and started every game at right tackle this season. In 2005, Baltimore signed low-level free agent guard Keydrick Vincent -- a former undrafted free agent -- to replace Bennie Anderson, who was overweight and no longer wanted. The team lost reserve center Casey Rabach to the Washington Redskins as a free agent that year -- a player Newsome wishes had not left but was somewhat expendable given Mike Flynn's production.
Vincent struggled in 2005 -- which Newsome expected ("Free agents are going to need some time to get acclimated to the way you do things," he said ), as did 2005 draft picks Adam Terry (second round) and Jason Brown (fourth round). But this season Brown started 12 games at left guard with Edwin Mulitalo on injured reserve, and Terry started the final two games with Ogden injured and thrived in wins against tough defenses (Pittsburgh and Buffalo). Vincent missed four games because of injury, and rookie Chris Chester (a second-round pick in 2006) filled in capably, and with Chester and Brown improving the Ravens likely have the eventual replacement for Flynn, 32, on the premises.
"I'm very proud of the way they've played," Coach Brian Billick said, "particularly with the way we've had to roll guys through this year [because of injuries]. You look at the sack totals and the productivity they've had, and I think it speaks well of the group and speaks well of Ozzie Newsome and his group and the athletes we've brought in here. It's great to see those young guys mature."
The Ravens were criticized by some for not investing a first-round pick on such a position of need in recent years, but studied the development of interior linemen (tackles excluded) and historically they can be had cheaply in the draft, or as an undrafted free agents. As Eric DeCosta, the team's director of college scouting pointed out, the four interior offensive linemen on the 2006 AFC Pro Bowl team were either third-round picks or went undrafted, so they looked for value there in later rounds, knowing the organization would give them time to grow.
"Ozzie loves the draft and he has a lot of patience to let players develop," said DeCosta, who spent 1995 as intern with the Redskins before going to Baltimore and climbing its scouting ladder. "He's not the kind of guy to make a quick decision on somebody. We've had a lot of players over the years who in their first year maybe [contribute] nothing, second year -- nothing, in the third year they're coming a little bit and in the fourth year they're a good player. He and Brian have a great relationship together where if we take a guy, he doesn't have to play right away. Players do get better, that's one of Ozzie's sayings, and it's fun to be a college scout in this organization, because you know you've got a chance to contribute."
The team hired an additional offensive line coach this season to hasten its development, and Newsome kept a steady hand, realizing that 2005 was the first season that assistant head coach-offensive line Chris Foerster was with the club, and that the transition would take time. The decision to acquire McNair, a former NFL co-MVP, provided an immediate boost to the offensive line as well, with his precise footwork, savvy and quick release preventing many sacks and inspiring confidence. Billick also varied the pass protection schemes after firing offensive coordinator Jim Fassel in Week 7.
"All of us have been together for a year, now, and the guys have a better understanding of what I'm asking," Foerster said. "That being said, that's about fifth or sixth on the list why this [line] has gotten better. Number one is the quarterback and his comfort with the offense."
Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end, prized the importance of camaraderie along the line. The draft took precedence over free agency, and consistency ruled the day.
"When you try to sign a bunch of free agents and you don't have good young players beneath them," DeCosta said, "once the free agents go down or get older -- and the chemistry is not the same because you're bringing in players from all these different organizations -- your organization topples over because there's nothing underneath. So we try to build from the bottom through the draft, and then supplement with free agency.
"We think it works for us, it's very rewarding for our scouts, our coaches appreciate it. If you draft well, you may have some lean years, but more often than not you'll be fine and, if you've got good veteran leadership the young guys can learn from, it's a never-ending cycle, and that's what we try to do."