By John Feinstein
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, January 12, 2009 1:36 PM
The focus this week, as it should be, is going to be on the rookie coach and the rookie quarterback. A year ago, Joe Flacco was playing quarterback for Delaware. Six months ago, when training camp started, a security guard didn't want to let John Harbaugh into the locker room.
"But I'm the head coach," Harbaugh said.
"Sure you are," the guard answered.
Harbaugh isn't likely to have that problem again anytime soon, even though he still looks a lot younger than 45. And Joe Flacco, the kid quarterback who shrugs off pressure so easily that his teammates call him "Joe Cool," isn't likely to run into any closed doors anytime soon, either.
In an NFL postseason of unlikely stories, the Baltimore Ravens are the most unlikely story of all. Yes, more unlikely than the Arizona Cardinals.
It's true that few expected the Cardinals or the Eagles to play in conference championship games this coming Sunday. But they were teams considered likely to make the playoffs last summer. Meanwhile, Harbaugh was trying to talk his way into his own locker room.
The Ravens were in rebuilding mode, coming off a miserable 5-11 season that had forced team owner Steve Bisciotti to fire Brian Billick, a coach who had won a Super Bowl seven years earlier and had taken the team to the playoffs four times. It wasn't that Bisciotti or anyone else thought that Billick had forgotten how to coach, he just thought the players needed to hear a different voice.
That voice turned out to be Harbaugh, who wasn't even a hot coordinator when he interviewed for the job. He was the Eagles' secondary coach, an up-and-comer, no doubt, but seemingly still a step from being ready to be the boss. But Harbaugh wowed Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass and General Manager Ozzie Newsome with his smarts, his enthusiasm and his look-you-in-the-eye approach.
Hiring a young coach seemed to make sense. Even if he had to learn on the job, the team was going to need to rebuild. Steve McNair was retiring. Oft-injured quarterback Kyle Boller was still unproven going into his fifth year. The Ravens would draft a rookie quarterback and groom him to lead the team when it was ready to seriously compete again.
Except that the rookie coach and the rookie quarterback didn't need too much time to learn on the job. Flacco made mistakes early (seven interceptions the first five games), but he rarely made the same mistake twice. Harbaugh and Cam Cameron, his hand-picked offensive coordinator, built an offensive game plan that played to his strengths as the season wore on.
And then there was the defense.
And there was also the old kicker.
For all the well-deserved talk about the kid coach and the cool quarterback, the Ravens' remarkable 13-10 victory on Saturday in the divisional round of the playoffs over the top-seeded Tennessee Titans really came down to three men who were part of that Super Bowl win in January 2001: defensive coordinator Rex Ryan; middle linebacker Ray Lewis and placekicker Matt Stover.
One of the smartest things Harbaugh did after getting hired was keeping Ryan around. Ryan had interviewed for the head coaching job after Billick was fired. A more insecure rookie coach might not have wanted a holdover from the old staff around -- especially one whom many of the players had wanted to take over. Harbaugh saw experience and continuity in Ryan. He also saw someone he knew didn't have the kind of ego that would cause any problems for him.
Rex Ryan is Buddy Ryan's son. While he may have inherited his father's genius for defense, his personality could not be more different. He is outgoing, funny and self-deprecating. He will be an NFL head coach soon enough. Every year when Ryan's name is being tossed around for head coaching jobs -- currently he is being considered by the Jets and Rams -- Cass, the team president, puts an arm around him and says, "Rex can you give us one more year?"
"Dick, you said that last year," Ryan will respond.
"I know," Cass will answer. "And I hope to say it again next year."
They may not have that conversation next year. Saturday was, arguably, Ryan's finest performance. He lost Terrell Suggs, his best pass rusher; he lost starting safety Jim Leonhard and he lost all-pro cornerback Samari Rolle -- having already lost his other all-pro cornerback, Chris McAlister, midway through the season.
Ryan did two things as he kept losing players: He changed his defensive looks to try to confuse the Titans, and he turned to Lewis. The 34-year-old Lewis is still a danger to any offense, but the case can be made that, play to play, Suggs and Bart Scott mean as much to the Ravens defense as he does.
But it is impossible to understate Lewis's importance to his team as its leader. He doesn't just lead the defense, he leads the entire team. Emotion is frequently overrated -- especially in football, where there's a lot of jumping around and trash-talking. But in the toughest moments, when a team is wounded and fighting to survive on the road, leadership becomes critical.
In those moments, the Ravens always look to Lewis and he is always there, telling his teammates that they will get the stop they must have. The Titans moved the ball on the defense almost all day, but when the Ravens had to stop them, they did -- whether it was with one of three key turnovers or a four-and-out on the game's final series, Baltimore's defense found a way. It started with Ryan's maneuvers and Lewis's leadership.
It ended with Stover's 43-yard field goal in the final minute. Stover's first year in the NFL was 1990, when he spent the season on injured reserve for the Super Bowl champion Giants. He moved on to Cleveland and has been the kicker for the Browns-Ravens ever since. That's why Derrick Mason joked after the game that Stover had been kicking in the NFL "for 40 years."
Not quite. Stover is 40 now and his leg isn't as strong as it once was, despite the manic training program he puts himself through each offseason. That's why the Ravens carry a second kicker for kickoffs -- to save Stover's leg.
Clearly, it's worth it. Although Stover got off to a shaky start this season, missing a couple of kicks he would normally make, he was back to his nearly automatic self inside 45 yards during the season's second half. Although he had never kicked a game-winner in postseason (he'd never missed one either), he had kicked 13 game-winning field goals in his career.
The Ravens have complete faith in Stover's ability to make a kick if he tells them he can make it. At the start of each quarter, he jogs onto the field to check the wind currents. (Stover knows more about wind currents than any weatherman who has ever lived). He will then tell his special teams coach, usually to within a yard, how close he needs the offense to get for him. On Saturday, with the wind behind the Ravens in the fourth quarter, Stover told his coaches that anything inside 50 yards would be fine. He no doubt would have tried -- if asked -- from longer, but it wasn't necessary.
From 43 yards, there was never any doubt.
Like quite a few football players, Stover is deeply religious. People notice that he always points to the sky to give thanks after every kick he makes. What they often don't notice is that he does the same thing after he misses. "I'm thankful for the opportunity," is his explanation.
Throughout his career, he has almost always made the most of every opportunity.
In that sense, he is a mirror of this team. Few people picked the Ravens to be better than 8-8, if that, this season. They are now 13-5 and one step from the Super Bowl. Given the way the Steelers played on Sunday, going into Pittsburgh and beating them will be an extremely difficult task.
But this is a team that has come a long way. Joe Cool and the kid coach have been remarkable. But the old men shouldn't be forgotten. Against the Titans, they were the difference.
The first game ball Saturday went to O.J. Brigance, a linebacker on the 2000 team who now the Ravens' director of player development. Brigance is suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), but his illness hasn't dampened his spirit in the least.
"The mission," he told the team, "is not complete."
He was right, of course. But the fact that the mission can still be accomplished at this late date in a long football season is, like Brigance's courage, truly extraordinary.