In case you missed it while wallowing in sorrow over the Washington Redskins, the team up the road, the one that lost Shannon Sharpe and Rod Woodson, Jamie Sharper and Jermaine Lewis, is still playing for a division title with two weeks left in the NFL regular season. The team that hasn't had its signature player, Ray Lewis, for six weeks keeps trucking with a league-record 19 rookies, many of them free agents signed for a grand total of $1,000 each.
The Washington Redskins entered the season hoping to make the playoffs but are 5-9 and done, appearing now to be a team full of holes. The Baltimore Ravens, rebuilding this year with an eye toward 2004, are 7-7 with a roster full of guys we now know to be unpolished gems. Why the juxtaposition? What have the Ravens done that the Redskins, or for that matter any number of teams, have been unable or unwilling to do?
That's easy. The Ravens have been able to systematically identify better prospects, draft or sign them, then coach them better. The GM credits the coach, the coach credits the GM, and they're both right. Still, after getting rid of all the big salaries from the 2000 Super Bowl team, getting below the cap and starting over completely, Ozzie Newsome had to deliver Brian Billick some players.
"The people who wrote in the preseason about how terrible we would be," Newsome said this past week, "didn't know about Todd Heap and Ron Johnson and Anthony Weaver and Ed Hartwell and Gary Baxter and Ed Reed. People just didn't know about these guys, or how good they could be early in their careers. It's almost as if we could say to them, 'If you just show up here and are any good, you can make our team.' They'd have been on practice squads . . . some maybe wouldn't have been in the league. But they've gotten a lot of coaching and a lot of attention they never would have gotten if they were trying to make it on a veteran team."
Newsome understates his role, which has always been his way. But if you listen to talent evaluators around the league, they say the Hall of Fame tight end is on the very short list of the football men in the league. The Redskins, you may have noted, don't have a single football person in charge of shaping the overall on-field philosophy of the team. Newsome, not owner Art Modell, decided to let go former stars such as Duane Starks and Sharper all at once to help get below the salary cap. Modell, one of the league's patriarchs, could have said he didn't want to spend his final two seasons overseeing a massive rebuilding project, but he trusted Newsome to have the franchise's long-term health in mind.
So, Newsome went out and drafted Ed Reed, a safety and team captain at the University of Miami, and defensive end Tony Weaver, a team captain at Notre Dame. He drafted wide receiver Ron Johnson, a Minnesota team captain and son of a NFL player, and drafted in the fifth round Terry Jones Jr., an Alabama team captain.
Ted Marchibroda once told Newsome to forget the slavish devotion to heights and weights and look instead for players with a football temperament. So Newsome, ever desperate to find that, loves to study film of college players when their teams are way, way behind in the fourth quarter, the better to see who is still killing himself to make a block or tackle or catch.
"Some characteristics survive," Newsome says.
Some philosophies may be borrowed, but most times Newsome, college scouting director Phil Savage and pro scouting director James Harris simply know what they're doing, and the scouting staff has had so little turnover these last four years. Knowing a rebuilding team has to play a field position game, Newsome drafted a punter -- Dave Zastudil -- in the fourth round, and the kid has more than justified Newsome's gamble. Sixth-round draft pick Chad Williams, a 5-foot-9 safety from Southern Mississippi, has won two games already.
The Redskins, on the other hand, came close to trading their first-round pick, quarterback Patrick Ramsey, before he signed his contract. Before Ramsey replaced Danny Wuerffel in the starting lineup, the 2002 rookie class was seen but not heard from. Steve Spurrier called his Florida imports "cheap and available," but the Ravens have had seven undrafted free agent rookies make noticeable contributions this year, guys who signed for a $1,000 bonus.
At a time when fine coaches such as Mike Holmgren and Marty Schottenheimer have proven to be lousy personnel men, Billick and Newsome have a relationship that works. Billick and Newsome start almost every workday in Newsome's office for 20 to 30 minutes. For all the talk about Billick's ego, he made his name as an assistant by coordinating Minnesota's record-setting offense under Dennis Green but, as a head coach, realized his team had to win with defense.
"Brian's got an ego, and I have an ego," Newsome said, "but we can always sit there and talk. The thing we both understand is the need to listen and to acknowledge that we all make mistakes."
Asked why so many coaches (including Holmgren) believe they can do both jobs and so many owners (including Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones) believe they can function as GMs, a job that seems to me would require years and years of evaluating talent and the intangibles that help determine a prospect's worthiness, Newsome laughed and said, "This is a very ego-driven business."
Beating Cleveland in Baltimore today and the Steelers in Pittsburgh next week would very likely give the Ravens a division championship. The Ravens have won a championship, rebuilt, and moved back into playoff contention while the Redskins are still trying to climb the mountain once. It would suggest Billick (behind Philly's Andy Reid) should get some coach of the year votes and Newsome, officially named GM a few weeks ago, should get some votes for executive of the year. Even a 7-9 year, given where Baltimore started and the absence of Ray Lewis and the departure of defensive coach Marvin Lewis, would be encouraging. But as Newsome said, "If we're not in San Diego [for the Super Bowl], then we haven't finished."