10 reasons why the Ravens turned around

Defying the skeptics, team finds itself tied for first despite loss of several veteran players, 0-2 start

Surprise! Ravens are tied for first

Ravens

October 24, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Gut a team of a dozen stars and replace them with untested talent.

Build the offense around a quarterback who has thrown only three NFL passes and a running back who has one healthy leg. Rip apart a record-setting defense, change its philosophy and promote the receivers coach to defensive coordinator.

That's the head-scratcher of a formula devised by the Ravens, the unlikeliest comeback story in the NFL.

Written off as one of the league's worst teams after an 0-2 start, the Ravens transformed growing pains into growing confidence by overcoming a rough start, the national spotlight and the loss of star linebacker Ray Lewis.

Now, nearly halfway in the unpredictable NFL season, the Ravens (3-3) are no longer battling the skeptics. Instead, they're battling the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) for first place in the AFC North.

"Nobody knew what this team was going to be like. Not even us," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "We knew we had talent on the field but didn't know how far talent alone could take us. Now, we kind of know."

The Ravens' turnaround can't be explained by dollars or football sense.

The salary-cap strapped Ravens have a working payroll of $47 million, the third-lowest in the league. They are ranked in the bottom third of the 32-team NFL in both offense (30th) and defense (24th).

"You can't measure passion on paper," outside linebacker Peter Boulware said.

The Ravens' quick change from castoff to contender is the result of these 10 factors:

1. Power of R. Lewis

Before their coming-out party on Monday Night Football, the Ravens discovered their mantra and unquestioned leader.

Standing in the middle of the locker room, Lewis gave an emotional pre-game speech in which he told his teammates to "match my passion." The Ravens went on to upset the Denver Broncos, 34-23, on Sept. 30 and the league's youngest team gained confidence it could compete against an elite team.

"I replay his words in my mind every time I get on the field," said nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu, one of 16 rookies on the Ravens' roster. "I believe that was the turning point."

Lewis' impact extends beyond words. In the Ravens' first two victories, he set the tone with his relentless play and appeared headed for another NFL Defensive Player of the Year award before injuring his shoulder on Oct. 6 against Cleveland.

"We felt that Ray could lead this team. He has been able to do that," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations. "They have been able to feed off of him."

2. Recovery of J. Lewis

In a span of four months, Ravens running back Jamal Lewis went from limping to leaping. Coming off a knee injury that sidelined him all of last year, Lewis has reverted back to the same form that powered the Ravens' Super Bowl championship run.

Whether it's hurdling tacklers or running over them, he has become the most consistent offensive threat, accounting for 47 percent of the team's total yards.

"Jamal Lewis has answered the question that he is back," Newsome said. "That was a big question mark. And how could you know? We knew the person. But obviously, you can't evaluate someone until you see them."

3. Mental toughness

Despite their average player being 25 years old, the Ravens have been able to sidestep the psychological pitfalls.

Heading into a bye week after a shutout loss, the Ravens rebounded against the Broncos before a national audience. After a controversial finish at Indianapolis, they came back to defeat Jacksonville.

The biggest surprise is how the Ravens have refused to flop since Ray Lewis went down, going 1-1 over the past two weeks.

"This team is showing some resiliency that a veteran team would be prepared for," Newsome said.

Said veteran defensive end Adalius Thomas: "Sometimes, it seems like we're following a couple of those young guys."

4. Marvin who?

The only defensive coordinator in franchise history, Marvin Lewis, bolted to the Washington Redskins for more money. The heir apparent, Jack Del Rio, had already taken the same position with the Carolina Panthers.

That left Mike Nolan, the Ravens' receivers coach who had a roller-coaster career as defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, Redskins and New York Jets.

Having inherited only four starters (Lewis, McAlister, Boulware and defensive end Michael McCrary), Nolan has kept offenses off-balance by moving players around and disguising blitzes in the team's new 3-4 defensive scheme. Although the defense is allowing nearly 350 yards per game, it has held teams to one or no touchdowns in four of six games.

In explaining Nolan's challenge, Billick said, "Here's what you're going to do. You're going to take the best single-season defense in the history of the NFL and replace a coach [Marvin Lewis] that's well-liked. We're going to gut that defense, and now you're going to do better. That's a lot to step into, but he wasn't going to blink. That's why Mike has the job."

5. Emergence of Heap

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