Freitag, 26. Dezember 2008

All the right moves

How the Ravens went from a 5-11 team to a playoff contender in 1 year

Before the Ravens showed a resourcefulness worthy of a wizard, before Joe Flacco made his quantum leap from Delaware, before Ray Rice demonstrated playmaking ability running among giants, before Le'Ron McClain started moving piles and before Fabian Washington even was on the roster, coach John Harbaugh said he expected to contend for the AFC championship this season.

This was last February in snowy Indianapolis. Harbaugh - one month into his new job, having inherited a dysfunctional 5-11 team from Brian Billick - was addressing the media at the NFL scouting combine. The statement seemed improbable at best.

Ten months later, Harbaugh looks clairvoyant and the Ravens look as if they're for real, even after Steve McNair and Jonathan Ogden packed it in and a number of key players - Kelly Gregg, Dawan Landry, Marshal Yanda, Kyle Boller and Chris McAlister among them - went on injured reserve. However far the Ravens go this year - whether they don't get out of the regular season or go deep into the playoffs - they've already accomplished one of the league's more remarkable turnarounds.

Without McNair and with a rookie quarterback. Without a certifiable deep threat in the passing game, but with a pair of gritty receivers, Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, who simply make plays. With an offensive line that was busted up all training camp but came back to play like a veteran group.

How did this happen?

Harbaugh hates the term "rebuilding" and refused to use it when he interviewed with the Ravens. "I think what we did was we just build, we didn't rebuild," he said this week. "We started building. It's not like we came in here with no players, with no foundation."So many things were already in place. We had to build some depth, we had to add at certain positions, and we still have to do that. We'll be building this thing for however long providence chooses for this group of people to be together."

Still, there was that tumultuous training camp, when Harbaugh's physical practices sent a multitude of players to the infirmary. "There are no disasters, only opportunities," Harbaugh said. "Things are going to happen to football teams and people in life. ... That's how we make ourselves better."

Harbaugh's Zen-like approach has worked. Here's how a 10-5 season has come together:

Jan. 18: Harbaugh accepts Ravens' offer

Jason Garrett's decision to stay in Dallas as heir apparent to Wade Phillips was a blessing in disguise for the Ravens. Garrett has wrestled to restore stability and peace to the Cowboys' high-profile offense. Harbaugh faced the same kinds of issues and took control of a locker room that had run amok.

Jan. 23: Cam Cameron hired

Bounced by the Miami Dolphins after a 1-15 season, Cameron decided to join Harbaugh, his former underling at Indiana University. Cameron recognized McClain's potential to be a ball carrier after the previous regime saw him only as a blocker. He saw the benefit of an unbalanced line - sometimes using three tackles on one side of the ball - and the need to protect Flacco with a running game. This Ravens offense is much more resourceful at using its assets than any in the recent past.

Jan. 28: Rex Ryan retained

Technically, Ryan was fired with the rest of Billick's staff. And after he failed to get the head coaching job in Atlanta, Ryan chose to return to Baltimore, with a new title (assistant head coach) and a bump in pay. "It would have been easy to go to a different team," Ryan said recently, "but these are my guys." And rock-ribbed defense is still the prevailing identity of this team.

Feb. 5: Hue Jackson hired

Jackson, the quarterbacks coach, has been instrumental in the development of Flacco, who played college ball in the former Division I-AA. Offensive coordinator with the Falcons last season, Jackson also played a big role in the draft, going with Cameron and receivers coach Jim Hostler to Delaware to work out Flacco.

"I take a lot of pride in making sure [Flacco] can go out and play well, week in and week out," Jackson said earlier in the season. "My job is to make it seem like it's clockwork when he goes out to play."

April 26: Flacco, Rice drafted

The Ravens traded down and then up to get Flacco with the 18th pick and jumped on Rice with their second-round pick. Flacco won the starting job by default when illness sidelined Troy Smith but has earned it with his performance. Rice, despite being only 5 feet 8, is a playmaker in the passing and running games and plays big on third downs.

April 27: Washington acquired

On the second day of the draft, the Ravens sent a fourth-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for Washington, a former first-round pick who had fallen out of favor. Although he was hurt much of training camp, Washington replaced McAlister at left cornerback in Week 7 and has improved with each game, a huge addition to a vulnerable secondary.

April 28: Jim Leonhard signed

After three seasons in Buffalo, Leonhard was not invited back by the Bills. He came to Baltimore on a two-day tryout, was signed right after the draft and has been making big contributions ever since. He became the starting strong safety when Landry was injured in Week 2, and has been the team's best punt returner.

Aug. 12: Lorenzo Neal signed

With the running game in a state of flux and healthy backs scarce, the Ravens signed the Pro Bowl fullback in camp, then devised a jumbo backfield with him and McClain. Neal is a savvy veteran who played under Cameron with the San Diego Chargers and has lost none of his physicality.

Sept. 5: Willie Anderson signed

Wanting to reinforce a young offensive line, the Ravens grabbed the 13-year veteran after he was cut by the Cincinnati Bengals. He played initially in the unbalanced line, then took over at right tackle for injured Adam Terry in Week 6.

Nov. 23: Defeated Philadelphia for seventh win

One week after a 30-10 loss to the New York Giants, the Ravens regrouped by beating the Eagles at home, 36-7. Eagles coach Andy Reid benched quarterback Donovan McNabb at halftime of a 10-7 game, and the Ravens romped.

Dec. 7: Defeated Redskins for ninth win

The Ravens improved to 9-4 with a 24-10 victory over the Redskins to set up a first-place showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers the next week (which they lost after a controversial goal-line call by an official).

Dec. 20: Defeated Cowboys for 10th win

At the start of the season, the Ravens had four games each against the NFC East and AFC South, two of the best divisions in the NFL. By beating the Cowboys, the Ravens went 3-1 against the NFC East. With today's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars remaining, they are 1-2 against the AFC South.

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