Team builds identity in win over Chargers

October 02, 2006|By RICK MAESE

The day before the Ravens set foot in M&T Bank Stadium for the biggest game of their young season, Frank Gansz Jr. gathered his special teams unit together and showed it eight minutes of unforgettable film. Then later Saturday evening, he made sure that the entire team had seen the same footage.

The first-year assistant coach intended the video - the classic Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns boxing match - to be inspiring. But as we learned from the Ravens' back-from-the-dead 16-13 win over the San Diego Chargers yesterday, it could ultimately stand as much more.

The early part of an NFL schedule is all about establishing an identity, each week's game serving as little more than another body part that you plug into a Mr. Potato Head. We know these Ravens now. They hinted at it in a road win a week earlier in Cleveland, understood it while watching that 21-year-old fight footage and confirmed it yesterday.

The whole team gathered in the early evening Saturday and watched blood flow from Hagler's head like water from a broken faucet. He didn't stop. His punches only got harder and faster.

"Once I see blood, I turn to bull," Hagler said after the 1985 fight. "I get serious."

Just 2:01 into the third round, a bloodied Hagler put Hearns on the mat, ending what's still regarded as the most exciting three rounds in boxing. The symbolism wasn't lost on the Ravens.

"[When] he tasted his own blood, he knew he had to turn it up a notch," said linebacker Bart Scott. "We got hit in our mouth [yesterday], tasted our blood, but we stuck together."

Not only that, but they got stronger. Other NFL teams won't look at Ravens' game tapes and succumb to any fear. Their 4-0 record won't necessarily scare opponents, and their offensive weapons are about as imposing as plastic toy guns. But the way the Ravens have responded to adverse situations these past two weeks is more impressive than any statistic, any single player or any highlight-reel catch.

"We turn it up when the pressure's on. That's the mark of a champion," Scott said. "You can be beat up all day and come back and fight when it counts the most."

It wasn't a pretty win yesterday. In fact, Hagler's bloodied mug would've been a flattering comparison. But there are no style points in the NFL, and topping San Diego, a team oddsmakers favored to win, legitimizes the Ravens as a team to beat.

They're now one of just three undefeated teams remaining in the league and off to their best start in franchise history. A 4-0 record guarantees little (recently, the 2003 Minnesota Vikings, 2000 New York Jets and 1999 New England Patriots all began the season 4-0 and missed the playoffs), but it's a start. The confidence built in the fourth-quarter rallies can't be measured in numbers. It's just something you feel.

"I've been a part of those teams where the confidence level raises every time that happens," said defensive end Trevor Pryce. "And it also becomes like second nature - `OK, here we go again. This is what's going to happen.' That's the mark of a good team."

For 55 minutes yesterday, the Ravens looked like anything but a good team. Quarterback Steve McNair wore no superhero cape, the offense was driving with its emergency brake on, and it sure felt like an overrated team was being exposed.

"We kept beating ourselves," McNair said later.

Despite that, thanks to some conservative play-calling by Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer and some good fortune from who-knows-where, the Ravens were still in position to win.

For most of the fourth quarter, the fans showed more energy than either the Ravens' offense or defense. Crowd noise helped cause two Chargers false starts deep in their own territory, and four plays later, the Ravens netted a safety. The momentum was passed from the stands to the defense to the offense.

It doesn't matter how mortal McNair looks through the first three quarters (10-of-19 for 89 passing yards yesterday); he assumes a completely different identity when the game is on the line.

"He comes in, and he always has that air about him," said tight end Daniel Wilcox, "and a smile on his face."

In a game that could've teetered on a number of plays, the only ones that mattered were the six that McNair strung together in the final three minutes. He was 4-for-5 for 43 yards on the game-winning drive. He scrambled once for 12 yards. His touchdown pass hit Todd Heap in the chest, and the bulky tight end dug his way through a couple of Chargers defenders to cross the goal line.

"[McNair] doesn't panic. That's huge," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "His confidence spread through everyone else."

And after two weeks of doing it, every player on the offense has gained some experience of his own, the type that defines a team and builds identity.

They gathered together and watched that fight one night earlier, oohing and aahing the whole way through. In Hagler, a bloodied fighter who never stopped punching, they saw something.

"Attitude," said cornerback Samari Rolle. "You gotta keep bringing it."

There is a lot of room for improvement, and the Ravens are hardly a dominant team right now. But first things first. Maybe the rest of the league is still trying to figure them out, but after just four weeks, these Ravens know who they are now.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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