Ravens' run a testament to skills of Ozzie Newsome
Ravens' run a testament to skills of GM (cont.)
NEW ORLEANS -- In some form or fashion, on multiple fronts, the issue of legacy hangs over every Super Bowl these days. But that discussion at Super Bowl XLVII should start nowhere else but with the singular feat that would be Ozzie Newsome's if his Baltimore Ravens triumph Sunday night against San Francisco.
In the NFL's Super Bowl era, which now touches six different decades, no one has done what the universally respected Ravens general manager could accomplish with a win against the 49ers: Newsome would be the first club executive to preside over a franchise that won twin Super Bowl titles, 12 years apart, with two different head coaches, two different quarterbacks, and only one player (linebacker Ray Lewis) taking part in both championship seasons.
It would be a remarkable achievement, and one that I cannot find an exact historic parallel for anywhere in the game's modern era. Oakland Raiders owner/general manager Al Davis won Super Bowl titles as far apart as 1976 and 1983 using two different head coaches (John Madden and Tom Flores) and two different quarterbacks (Ken Stabler and Jim Plunkett). And San Francisco's dynasty kept winning with Steve Young and George Seifert after Joe Montana and Bill Walsh left the scene, but there was never more than five seasons between Super Bowl rings in the 49ers' glory era that stretched from 1981-94.
That Newsome would manage such bookend titles it in the game's salary-cap era, amid the restrictions of a free-agency system that demands the rebuilding of a
roster every four years or so, only serves to make it all the more impressive.
"I've never seen it done, because when you think of a head coach in this game who has won the Super Bowl, you usually think of just one quarterback," said ex-Ravens head coach and current Fox and NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, who worked for Newsome when the franchise won its only Super Bowl championship after the 2000 season.
"Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw. Tom Landry and Roger Staubach. Say a name and the quarterback comes to mind. It's one reason why we hold [Washington head coach] Joe Gibbs so high, because he did it with three different quarterbacks. But for Ozzie to win with two different coaches, two different quarterbacks, more than a decade apart, it's historic."
This year's rather unexpected Ravens Super Bowl run is the exclamation point on the most successful five-year period in the relocated franchise's relatively brief history. After parting ways with Billick after nine seasons (1999-2007), Newsome hired ex-Eagles assistant John Harbaugh in early '08, then drafted first-round quarterback Joe Flacco out of the University of Delaware three months later. Five consecutive playoff trips have ensued, with Baltimore winning at least one playoff game each year, and making it to the AFC Championship game three times in that span. The Ravens are 54-26 in the regular season since Harbaugh and Flacco arrived, with another eight wins in the playoffs.
An appreciation for the historical heft of Newsome's track record in Baltimore has come fully into view this week, and a Super Bowl upset of San Francisco would serve to well define and further distinguish a front-office career that has now become as accomplished as his Hall of Fame playing career as a Cleveland Browns tight end.
From '00 on, Newsome's Ravens have logged nine playoff trips, eight 10-win-plus win seasons, four division titles, and two Super Bowl berths. Baltimore has endured just three losing seasons in that span, and four times won 12 or more games. The Ravens earned at least one playoff win in seven of the nine years they've qualified for the postseason.
"What's impressive is that he's rebuilt that team in effect two or three times," said former Colts, Panthers and Bills general manager Bill Polian, himself a future Hall of Famer and one of the game's most proven personnel executives. "I said on the radio last night when asked what Ozzie's greatest accomplishment has been, it's this: For a general manager to keep a team in contention for 12 years, in this day and age in the salary cap era, it's the most difficult thing to do in sports.
"Because the cap is so restrictive and it's designed to gut your team as soon as you're good. Super Bowls at each end of an era are great, but to stay in contention for 12 years to me is the most impressive accomplishment. Because in 12 years you've got to build three pretty separate teams, every four years or so. And to do it with two quarterbacks, that's rare. We were able to have our run in Indianapolis with just one quarterback (Peyton Manning). So that's a tribute to Ravens ownership for staying the course, and for Ozzie doing his typical great job."
Talk to anyone who has watched Newsome and his work up close, and they'll repeat a variation of the same theme: He made the rare transition from great player to great team executive and personnel evaluator by prioritizing listening and learning before talking, and being able to assimilate vast amounts of information and condense it down to its most salient points. Somehow, Newsome is able to block out the noise and avoid drowning in the details, which paves the way to more decisive and reasoned decision making in the inherently inexact science that is football scouting and evaluation.
"The genius of his ability to absorb all the information is second to none," Billick said. "I always equate it to watching him look at the draft board is like watching Russell Crowe [play Nobel Laureate in economics John Nash] in the movie 'A Beautiful Mind,' in that scene where the math just kind of comes off the board for him. That's Ozzie with all those names and statistics. Of course, he has a great eye for talent, too, but his ability to orchestrate that process, to gain that information, is unmatched.''
In addition to competing against Newsome's Ravens in the AFC when he was leading the Colts' front office, Polian for years served on the league's influential competition committee with Newsome, and saw his analytical skills come in very handy on that deliberative body, which oversees the game's playing rules and regulations.
"He's very, very sponge-like," Polian said. "He can absorb ideas and suggestions and sort through it and synthesize it and give you a solution back, in one sentence. "OK, here's what I think we should do.' He does that better than I think anyone I've ever been around. He's really good at that."
The fundamental tenets of Newsome's leadership formula sounds simple enough. He listens more than he talks. He empowers others to do their job, without an ego that demands he owns every decision. And he has a great sense for the game, having been a player, a coach, a scout and a club executive. Lastly, he is renowned for his steady, even-handed approach to his job. Throughout the wins and losses, in the midst of both soaring highs and crushing lows, Newsome is a calming and reliable presence who sets an invaluable no-panic tone at the very top of the Ravens organization.
"He's got a great memory, he's a great listener, and he's really good at history," said Ravens assistant general manager and longtime personnel man Eric DeCosta, who one day is expected to succeed Newsome in Baltimore. "He's got 17 years of data (as the Ravens general manager) in his head. He knows over the years what's worked and what hasn't worked, and he's able to call on those experiences and make them relevant today. And that's really, really helpful.
"Plus he just understands the nuance of evaluation. He played and he's got a really good feel for the game, at all positions. And most importantly, he doesn't micro-manage people. He gives everyone a chance to do what they do best, and he doesn't have to be the guy who gets all the credit or who makes the decision every time. He's got this great ability to kind of listen to everybody and figure out what's most important in that given situation, and that leads him in making a decision."
Newsome has never been quick to discuss his legacy in the game, and easily deflects credit to others. Flacco, for instance, is the reason he's at the Super Bowl this week instead of "playing golf down in Alabama somewhere," according to Newsome. But by now, Newsome doesn't have to talk about himself much because others are so willing to do it. Name me another figure in the NFL who has managed to stay beloved in both Cleveland and Baltimore, the cities that became mortal enemies of sorts when the Browns left and became the Ravens in 1996.
"I don't say anything in the draft meeting up until Thursday and Friday before the draft," said Newsome, whose Ravens personnel department consistently rates among the game's most successful draft evaluators. "I try to take the opportunity to be a good listener and try to consume as much information as I can, and I think that drives my ability to make a decision. If I'm doing all the talking then I'm probably not doing all the listening."
Traditionally, the divide between a team's front office and the locker room can be chasm-like. But not in Baltimore. There's as much admiration for Newsome and the job he does among Ravens players as can be found anywhere.
"Anybody who knows anything about football has respect for him," veteran Baltimore receiver Anquan Boldin said. "Here's a guy who on a yearly basis has a team that's able to compete for a championship, year in and year out, and that's especially difficult in the free-agency era. He's done a great job of not only drafting guys that fit this organization, but also bringing guys in as free agents. The best part about him is he was a player, and he gets it. He understands what it takes in this league to succeed."
Said Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, who is now on his third NFL team: "Dude, this is as good as it gets. I've been in two other organizations (Kansas City and Houston) and they've been great. But at the same time, Baltimore has been really, really freakin' good to me. Ozzie has done a great job. Ozzie understands the players he wants in this system. He doesn't want the best player in the draft, Ozzie wants who's going to fit the system. He and this scouting department have been great with that."
Having been a player, Newsome said he understands a player's need for honesty. Even if it's a harsh reality he has to deliver from time to time.
"The biggest thing is when you're dealing with the players, you've got to be truthful to them," said Newsome, one of the game's premier tight ends from 1978-90, all with the Browns. "They start to trust you if you can just tell them the truth, and sometimes you're telling them some things that they don't want to hear. A lot of what I have to do in evaluation [I learned as a player]. I had to evaluate how to pretend I wanted to block Lawrence Taylor or Carl Banks or some of those other guys. You're evaluating talent while you're playing."
Super Bowls can often be career cappers, but Ravens sources I spoke with don't expect Newsome to walk away from the game and choose retirement, even with a validating second Lombardi trophy secured. Win or lose against San Francisco, the Ravens general manager is thought eager to follow up this year's Super Bowl run with another attempt in 2013. If he announced sometime this summer that next season would be his last, I wouldn't be all that surprised. But his desire to ensure that Baltimore keeps it Super Bowl window of opportunity open for a while longer is obvious.
"When we did it before (won the Super Bowl after the 2000 season), we made a run, and then we tried to make that second run and knew we were going to have to start over," Newsome said. "I think this team will be able to continue to be a successful team because of some of the youth on the football team. The quarterback, the running back (Ray Rice), the offensive line, (defensive tackle) Haloti Ngata, and we've got some young corners. So I think we'll be able to contend for two or three years without having to blow the thing up like we did (after) 2001."
I suppose if you have to have somebody "blow the thing up," at least there's nobody better than Newsome at putting the pieces all back together. And winning even while he's doing it. Call it history in the making in Baltimore.