It was still summer when Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis saw the future. The rest of the pro football world was wondering why Baltimore had hired a career assistant as its head coach and had traded three draft picks to select a gangly quarterback from Delaware named Joe Flacco.
Lewis noticed that Flacco, a low-key rookie with a buzz cut, did not back down from the boisterous defense during training camp.
“This,” Lewis told the coaches, “is the guy.”
Lewis, the sage of the Ravens for more than a decade, was right.
This week, Flacco said that even when he was working out with his father and brothers in the backyard, he expected to be quarterbacking a playoff team by now. Although many people outside the Ravens’ headquarters might have disagreed with that thought, Baltimore has emerged with Flacco this season as one of the NFL’s best turnaround stories.
Seven teams in the postseason field were not in the playoffs last season, and today’s AFC wild-card game features two of the biggest shockers: the Ravens (11-5) and the Dolphins (11-5).
In fact, the last time anybody was paying attention to a Ravens trip to play the Dolphins was late last season, when Baltimore became the only team to lose to Miami in 2007. The Dolphins’ winning touchdown on a 64-yard catch-and-run through the Ravens’ vaunted defense was the final indignity for a team that was on its way to a 5-11 record after finishing 13-3 in 2006. It cost coach Brian Billick his job and led to the bold draft-day move for Flacco.
He may be the sooner-than-expected star of the team. A local radio ad proclaims: “The Ravens are back in the playoffs. And now they have a quarterback.”
But Baltimore was in better position for a rebound than either Miami or Atlanta, the other playoff teams with rookie coaches.
Coach John Harbaugh, the former special-teams guru with the Eagles, inherited the Ravens’ superb defense — the foundation for everything in purple and black. The biggest problem last season was a rash of injuries: Ravens starters missed a total of 77 games, with the secondary hit particularly hard.
“Honestly, I knew we had a good opportunity of making the playoffs this year,” receiver Derrick Mason said.
“It’s not like we did a blowout of the team and got rid of a bunch of guys. We brought in a new head coach, one offensive coordinator, and we brought in a few players. But for the most part, everyone was here from last year and everyone was healthy. I knew if everyone stayed healthy, we’d be in the same position we were two years ago.”
Still, the Ravens and the Dolphins started so slowly this season that their regular-season game in October seemed inconsequential until this week. Both teams were 2-3, and the Ravens had lost three in a row, including a 31-3 humiliation to the Indianapolis Colts, who were also struggling at the time.
Almost everything seemed to be going against the Ravens. Even the schedule suggested a long slog to irrelevance when their bye week was rescheduled to the second week of the season because hurricane damage had forced the postponement of their game in Houston.
But in Miami, the Ravens summoned a vintage performance, with a pounding running game and a smothering defense that was the first to stymie the Dolphins’ Wildcat offense and one of the few to intercept Chad Pennington, who ended up tossing just seven interceptions this season. Flacco had what still stands as his best passer rating: 17 of 23 for 232 yards and a touchdown.
The Ravens have since gone 8-2, including a critical come-from-behind victory at Dallas in the next-to-last week of the regular season.
“The Miami game was a turning point,” offensive tackle Willie Anderson said earlier this week. “We all bought into the brotherhood of fighting. Everything was against us, no bye week.
“The world was saying we were done after that three-game losing streak after we got smashed in Indy. I think the turning point was Miami, and I think it was the turning point for them.”
It’s funny how things work out. A commercial for a local trucking company has been showing on Baltimore television stations this week. The star of the commercial would look familiar to those in Miami, too.
It is Cam Cameron, the offensive coordinator credited with Flacco’s emergence.
A year ago, Cameron was the man in a tearful embrace with the Dolphins owner, H. Wayne Huizenga, as they celebrated the lone bright spot in a bleak season. Cameron would lose his job as Miami’s coach soon after. But Harbaugh scooped him up to join his staff.
Two turnarounds began, even if one will end in more tears today.