As the architect of this year’s AFC champion Ravens, general manager Ozzie Newsome’s opinion of the team counts for something.
Newsome provided an assortment of thoughts about the Super Bowl-bound squad on Friday morning at the Under Armour Performance Center.
What makes this team special and has allowed it to run through the AFC playoffs to reach its second Super Sunday?
“I think this team, I think John (Harbaugh) has used the word ‘resolve,’” Newsome said. “There’s a lot of resolve and I think you saw that with those first four games in 17 days. That was a tough stretch. John did a very good job with his staff of preparing the team for that stretch. For them to see the resolve that the team had, they never blinked during those first four weeks, and we were able to come away, I think, 3-1.
“So I think the resolve of the football team, I think we’ve got outstanding leadership on our team and I think what they do in the locker room - we have a mentoring program where some of the veteran players actually take and spend a lot of time with our rookie players - so we’ve got great leadership also.”
Does Newsome see any similarities with the Ravens’ 2000 team, which won the franchise’s only Super Bowl?
“I talked with Brian (Billick) about that, and he said, ‘Ozzie, those past four or five weeks of the season going into the playoffs, anything I asked that team to do, they would do.’ And I think John will say the same thing,” Newsome said. “The way the team has responded to John and his coaches, how he’s asked them to practice, the different things like that, how he wants them to prepare, I think that has been very similar as to the way that it was in 2000.”
The Ravens have overcome major long-term injuries suffered by linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, and cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith to reach this point. So defensive depth has been critical.
Newsome spoke specifically about the contributions of linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Corey Graham. Ellerbe finished second on the team with 92 tackles and tied for third with 4.5 sacks, playing an increased role because of Lewis’ and Suggs’ absences. Graham had two interceptions and 60 tackles during the regular season before adding two interceptions and 26 tackles so far this postseason to help the Ravens overcome the injuries in the secondary.
“I think with Ellerbe, we saw that he could play a year ago when he got the opportunity. Corey Graham was a guy that we brought in because he was a special-teamer, he had been to the Pro Bowl, but when he had played for the Bears, he had played very good football,” Newsome said. “Corey Graham is one of the better people as a person that I have been around. When he came into this building and this locker room, we got better because of Corey as a person. He wanted an opportunity and we saw some things during the early stages of mini-camp that he can play.
“He has the height, weight, speed that we look for at the position. But then when he got his opportunity, he stepped in. We knew Dannell Ellerbe could play. It was just a matter of him getting on the field and I think he was on the field as a sub when Jameel (McClain) came out.”
A key decision that helped precipitate the playoff run was choosing not to shelve Lewis for the season when he tore his right triceps on Oct. 14. Lewis’ last ride has been among the focal points of the Ravens’ postseason.
Newsome talked a little about how that decision to place Lewis on the new designated to return injured reserve came about.
“Mario Williams, he saw him at the Super Bowl and Mario told the commissioner, ‘You know, I could have played in the playoffs.’ So the commissioner (said), ‘Why can’t we allow our marquee players?’ ” Newsome said. “Eight, nine years ago, that could have been Tom Brady when he blew his knee out. Once we got all the information and people were saying, ‘11 weeks, 12 weeks, 10 weeks.’ But I was saying, ‘If anybody could get himself ready to play sooner, it would be Ray Lewis.’ So let’s use the designation.
“It was there for us. The other good thing about that was it was an upper extremity injury. When it’s time to leave the game, it’s your legs. I still can think as good as any football player, but my legs, I can’t move at all. It wasn’t his lower extremities and he was able to maintain his cardio and all of that. I don’t know if he would have had to play those other 10 or 11 weeks, where that body would be right now. But you know what, he had a 10-week break. He is getting better and fresher as we go forward.”
Rookie running back Bernard Pierce has been another factor in the Ravens’ success this season, not just because of his own production - 108 carries for 532 rushing yards and one touchdown - but because he has helped make it so star tailback Ray Rice was fresh for the postseason.
Newsome likes what he has seen from Pierce, who was selected in the third round of the 2012 draft, and how he helps the Ravens.
“We’ve seen in this league, you need two backs,” Newsome said. “We were back in here, (running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery) always takes the opportunity to go down on the field when the running backs are working. He played the game. He came back and said, ‘I’m impressed with this guy Pierce.’ Then, we put the tape on and the grades come in and he brings a different dimension.
“He’s a tackle-breaker and he’s explosive. He’s a good match to what Ray is. And he was there for us to pick in the third round. For him to sit there and be in the meetings with Wilbert and Ray and be able to learn the importance of protection and all of those other things, it’s just very beneficial.”
And all of that has played a part in getting the Ravens back to the Super Bowl.
“I said this to John on the bus. You just don’t know how hard it is to get to the Super Bowl,” Newsome said. “It’s even harder now (because) you have to go and win it. But 12 years since we did this and we got knocked out in the AFC championship twice, it’s hard. You’ve got to manage injuries, so many different things that you have to manage just to get this opportunity and the other 31 teams don’t care for you. It’s hard to do. You’ve got to take your hat off to people like Bill Belichick in New England and Pittsburgh that have been so many times. You take your hat off to those people. It’s really, really hard to get to this point. It’s hard.”