Ravens' turnaround started at top

December 24, 2008|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,RICK.MAESE@BALTSUN.COM

Credit is being spread wide, though not necessarily thin. It has been bestowed upon many deserving men in purple - except perhaps the one most responsible for the Ravens' current promising position.

This is no knock on any of the following:

The rookie quarterback who plays above his age and experience level.

The first-year head coach whose name belongs in any discussions of the year's top NFL coaches - not to mention his coordinators and assistants.

The veteran wide receiver who wears his heart on his sleeve, even if he can't move the arm encased in said sleeve.

The entire defense, from the injury-riddled secondary to the lead-by-example linebacker corps to menacing linemen.

But to really dole out proper credit, you have to trace the timeline back; you have to find the first domino that was tipped, the one that started the chain of events that suddenly has the Ravens just one win away from a return to the playoffs. As important as Joe Flacco, John Harbaugh, Derrick Mason and Ray Lewis have been this season, it was owner Steve Bisciotti who positioned his team for the postseason.

If you think back to one year ago, the Ravens were coming off their 11th loss of the season, a 27-6 lackluster performance on Dec. 23 at Seattle. It was their ninth straight loss. By many measures, it was a low point for the franchise. Certainly, it was the low point for Bisciotti's tenure holding the keys.

It didn't have to be a crossroads moment, though. The easy thing to do, in fact, would have been to continue business as usual. They might be hard to find now, but many fans felt reluctant about a coaching change, many members of the media stood behind the team's beleaguered coach and certainly there were members of the team's brain trust who resisted a change.

For his part, Bisciotti was conflicted - at least until the Ravens lost against the previously winless Miami Dolphins. Then he seemed to accept that a change was needed. It was a gutsy move. A high-risk move. And though not everyone was as convinced last December, time has proved that it was a necessary move.

The intent here isn't to splash dirt on someone's coaching grave. Needless to say, anyone watching the Ravens' win over the Cowboys last weekend had to have been struck - once, twice, probably a dozen times - by the glaring truth that Brian Billick wouldn't have fared so well in Dallas. The game was a mere microcosm. Let's finally say out loud what we've suspected since the early days of this season: Harbaugh is winning where Billick would have struggled.

The examples are numerous, but let's just take one moment from the Cowboys game. In a game separated by just two points, a game in which field position was a priceless commodity, Harbaugh sent Matt Stover onto the field for a 39-yard field-goal attempt in the third quarter. Three easy points was certainly the safe choice, but was it the best one?

On fourth-and-six, punter Sam Koch, charged with holding for Stover, took the snap and sprinted for a first down, making bluebonnets wilt all across the Lone Star State. Just two plays later, Flacco hit Mason for a 13-yard touchdown, giving the Ravens a 16-7 lead.

It was the kind of play that most coaches wouldn't even consider, not in this copycat league where everyone plays it safe.

Nothing about Harbaugh's decision was safe. Just as nothing about Bisciotti's decision in January was safe.

Bisciotti might not acknowledge this, but he was rolling the dice by choosing a career assistant to lead this team. The decision was one that would rest solely on Bisciotti's shoulders. When he took over majority ownership in 2004, he inherited everything - from Billick to Lewis to Ozzie Newsome.

Hiring Harbaugh was the first big opportunity for Bisciotti to publicly put his fingerprints on the Ravens. For him, there was more to lose than there was to gain.

In an alternate reality, Ravens fans are preparing for the final week of the regular season, watching a team hovering around .500, a head coach completing his 10th season, an offense that sputters and a rookie quarterback who could have used some guidance.

Instead, Bisciotti made what he called the toughest decision he had ever made. He canned Billick and brought in a coach who managed to change the culture surrounding the team almost instantly. Harbaugh persuaded Rex Ryan to stay. And he brought in Cam Cameron to run an offense that had been a league-wide punch line, Hue Jackson to mentor a rookie quarterback and John Matsko to get more out of the offensive linemen than anyone had before him.

But it all started with Bisciotti grudgingly tipping over that first domino.

As a fan, you want an owner who knows when to stay in the background and when to step to the fore and make the tough decision. He can make or break a franchise.

For the Ravens, it's a fundamental reason that last season's 5-11 record is a distant memory. Just a year later, we're talking about a team - a group of players that's distinctly Harbaugh's and a franchise that's now distinctly Bisciotti's - that's just one domino away from the postseason.

JAGUARS (5-10) @ RAVENS (10-5)

Sunday, 4:15 p.m. TV: Ch. 13 Line: Ravens by 12 1/2

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