The first time, the best time

Ravens: For the players, for the fans, this will always be a miraculous Super Bowl season like no other.

Super Bowl Xxxv

Ravens Vs. Giants

January 17, 2001|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN COLUMNIST

This is the best time. The first time. The time when there are no expectations, no memories against which to measure the moment.

The time when everyone can see what is happening and share in it, yet no one can quite believe it.

A time like no other.

Baltimore first experienced it with the Colts in 1958, then again with the Orioles in 1966 - hallowed years in a city that treasures its sporting past, years whose very mention evoke indelible images of unforeseen triumphs, now recalled in black and white. Alan Ameche bulling into the end zone. Brooks Robinson leaping high with joy.

Now, out of nowhere, it's happening again. The Ravens are heading to the Super Bowl for the first time, a relatively new team forging a new set of indelible images, their improbable success casting a summery light amid January's gloom and chill. It wasn't supposed to happen, but it did. And it will never feel this good again.

No matter how often the Ravens make it back to the Super Bowl from now on, no matter how many titles they win, they will always have done it before. The element of surprise - make that shock - won't compare, can't compare. Nor can the joy in realizing that a dream you thought was impossible is, in fact, realistic. Unfolding right before your eyes, as a matter of fact.

From now on, there will be expectations, a yardstick against which to measure each of the Ravens' seasons, and, with that, an implied, unyielding pressure to get back to the Super Bowl. Never mind that real fans know sports doesn't work that way, that such glories visit even the greatest champions only rarely. Human nature is a tougher critic. Fairly or not, when you do something once, everyone expects you to do it again.

And when you do, the overriding response is relief more than happiness. Whew, did the impossible again.

The Ravens are confronting none of that this season. Everything is good, their psychological slate clean, no expectations, no complications, nothing but the simplicity of shooting the moon. Pressure? Shoot, just making it to the playoffs for the first time almost was enough. So was winning the first playoff game against the Broncos. Then winning the second playoff game in Tennessee.

Big doings have come in a season when little doings would have sufficed, when there wasn't even a road map to where the Ravens have gone, when the experience has left everyone dazed and disbelieving.

The Ravens had never had a winning season, and now they're favored to beat the Giants in the Super Bowl.

In 1958, the Colts suddenly rose up and won the NFL championship in just their sixth season after moving to town, winning the title in overtime in New York. They went on to win another title the next year and rule the city for more than two decades, winning a Super Bowl along the way, but the thrill of '58 was the one that made the franchise, the one everyone remembered, the one that fans put in a mental frame and hung on their walls.

In 1966, the Orioles, perennial pretenders, suddenly ran off with the American League pennant and then delivered one of the biggest surprises in baseball history, a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. They kept winning for almost two decades, delivering five more pennants and two World Series titles, but the first-kiss experience of '66, when success wasn't expected or taken for granted, was always the best.

When it comes as it did then, as it has now, nothing is rote or disappointing. There are no knowing smiles, no nods at the memory of how it was before. There is only the present, the moment, nothing of the past. And nothing about the future, either.

Before the Ravens eliminated the Broncos three weeks ago, Denver coach Mike Shanahan spoke of life after winning the Super Bowl, which his team did twice.

"Things get more complicated after the climb" to the top, Shanahan said. "You start having to make a lot of tough decisions because of the salary cap, letting good players go, even though you want to keep them all. [The Ravens] are going to go through that with all the good, young players they have. That'll be tough."

It's just life in today's NFL. There is free agency and a salary cap and personnel on the move, and things never stay the same for long. You grab what you can, because it's often gone in a hurry. Marvin Lewis, architect of the Ravens' brilliant defense, probably is headed elsewhere. Some players will leave, too. The blueprint will change. So will the expectations.

The St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl out of nowhere last season and got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round this season. The Titans won the AFC title last season and lost to the Ravens in the playoffs this season. They looked across the line of scrimmage and saw themselves.

"We were the hunters a year ago, and then we won and became the hunted, and that's never as easy," Titans offensive tackle Brad Hopkins said after the loss to the Ravens. "I saw ourselves in the Ravens, the confidence they played with, the feeling of having nothing to lose."

It comes only once, never when you expect it. The first time. Always the best.

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