After five years, Ravens cash in on good fortune

January 07, 2001|By MIKE PRESTON

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - You know things are going the Ravens' way when they go five games without a touchdown and win two of them.

You start to feel this might be the Ravens' year when New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde throws for nearly 500 yards and the Ravens still win.

You start believing in this "team destiny" theory when a pass that should have been intercepted turns into a 58-yard touchdown catch by Shannon Sharpe.

Ravens coach Brian Billick isn't superstitious; he believes in fate. Call it whatever you want, but some good fortunes have fallen upon the Ravens this season.

After four years of having an ominous black cloud over this franchise, the wind apparently has shifted and blown it back to its native land of Ohio where the Browns and Bengals play.

No one should say luck is the main reason the Ravens are playing the Tennessee Titans today in the AFC semifinals, because the Ravens have proved they are a quality team.

But things have fallen into place quite well, thank you, and it's about time.

"The breaks do even out if you last long enough," Billick said.

The Ravens were due. Before last season, this team was in such a bad-luck funk that even stray black cats stayed away. Some of the problems were self-induced like those Testaverde and Tony Banks fumbles and interceptions, or Bam Morris failing a drug test.

Again.

But then there were moments strictly out of the "Twilight Zone," like when quarterback Eric Zeier tripped over the leg of left tackle Jonathan Ogden on a two-point conversion try that would have tied a game against Jacksonville in 1997. Zeier's path was so clear he could have moonwalked into the end zone. Instead, the Ravens lost, 29-27.

Remember Earnest Hunter, another of those Albert Einstein running backs, who decided to dive from the 4-yard line and landed at the 2 on a goal-line run that eventually cost the Ravens in a 31-17 loss to Pittsburgh in 1996. Hunter was in the game because Leroy Hoard had lost his shoe on the previous play.

Other poor moments came out of ignorance, money problems, poor timing ... the list goes on and on.

The Ravens couldn't afford to field a practice squad in 1996. Several months after that season, they reached agreement in principle with Dallas linebacker Broderick Thomas, only to watch Cowboys owner Jerry Jones charter a plane and fly him out of Baltimore that night and back to Dallas, where he signed a new contract.

The ultimate embarrassment, though, came about a month earlier when the club reportedly signed Cowboys safety Brock Marion, only to have a news conference to announce he had flunked his physical. No deal.

Ouch.

"We have gotten our share of breaks this year," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel. "But it will take another two or three years to even this out. I mean, we're way behind because we've been through a mess."

The ball is now bouncing the other way.

How else do you explain rookie back Jamal Lewis running downfield at home against the Titans, having the ball punched several feet into the air and then catching it? Or Qadry Ismail catching a 40-yard touchdown pass after it went through the hands of Dallas cornerback Phillippi Sparks?

Who would have guessed that Titans kicker Al Del Greco would miss both an extra-point try and a 43-yard game-winning field goal in the Ravens' 24-23 win at Tennessee on Nov. 12?

Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa still smiles about the wind storm that came into PSINet Stadium last Sunday to help neutralize Denver's passing game, and then disappeared on Monday.

"If you get to this point, you have to have favorable bounces," Billick said. "Over a period of time, bad breaks will balance out. I don't believe in luck ... [but] I do believe that fate takes a hand, and that's probably the most frustrating part of the game for a coach because that is one part you can't control one way or another."

Like injuries, for example. The Ravens have a light training camp compared with most NFL teams, and that has helped them down the stretch the past two years. But every team has broken bones, pulled muscles and knee injuries, right?

Nope, not the Ravens. With the exception of strong safety Kim Herring (high ankle sprain), they've been virtually injury-free.

The Ravens have taken the good luck and good bounces and mixed them with one of the top two defenses in the league depending if you're a Ravens or Titans fan. The Ravens have a phenomenal plus-23 turnover ratio. The Ravens emphasized forcing turnovers in training camp but didn't expect anything like this. That's two years of turnovers for some teams.

Boy, has this team come a long way. At one time, the Ravens seemed cursed like the Bengals, Browns and Chargers. But this team has survived its star player being in a double-murder trial in May and dealt with a rash of quarterbacks in five years.

The Ravens have been successful in spite of themselves at times. Now they are just two games and a couple of breaks away from the Super Bowl.

"We have stayed incredibly healthy," Billick said. "We have a good chemistry on this team, and success breeds success. Over the summer, this team was challenged by the trial, and they weathered it. Now when things get hot, they know they can handle it. ...

"You can get into a cycle where bad things keep happening to your team; sometimes its from coaching or the administrative end. Before I came here, I was aware of the tough transition period, the team's economic picture and the mood of the city. There were just a lot of things this team had to work through."

It's over now. Hopefully, the Ravens will stay on this positive run for quite a while.

It's about time.

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