Right where he belongs

Ravens' Cameron says life off sidelines not part of game plan

January 03, 2009|By Rick Maese | Rick Maese,rick.maese@baltsun.com

Exactly one year ago today, Cam Cameron was relieved of his duties as coach of the Miami Dolphins. Many fired coaches are comfortable spending a year or two on a fishing boat or in a golf cart, content to allow their former employers to pad their bank accounts rather than make an immediate return to the sidelines and forfeit guaranteed money.

"[My wife] Missy would tell you, I'm a football coach. There was never a thought in my mind that I'd sit out football for a couple of years and collect on a contract," Cameron says. "I was going to get right back in it."

And he did, joining the Ravens coaching staff as offensive coordinator, his enthusiasm hardly tarnished from the wear and tear of that single disastrous season with the Dolphins - one win, 15 losses. Tomorrow, he and the Ravens return to Miami to open the postseason against Cameron's former team.

While the arrival of a new head coach and rookie quarterback has garnered more attention, the addition of Cameron was among the most important moves of the offseason. Less than a year later, the Ravens, long feared for their tenacious defense, suddenly have an offense that can move the ball downfield, that doesn't treat the first-down marker like a land mine and doesn't need a GPS unit to find the end zone.

"He has taken this offense where it couldn't take itself," says John Matsko, offensive line coach. "He had a vision for this offense, and he's turned this offense into that vision."

Asked about returning to Miami this weekend, Cameron shrugs his shoulder and says it's just another game. Because that's what coaches say. And Cameron has always been a coach.

He says he knew when he was 14 years old. Cameron's stepfather, Tom Harp, was head coach at Indiana State University.

"He was always a perfectionist," says Harp, who also coached at Cornell and Duke. "One day we were watching North Carolina play basketball, and Phil Ford does this 360-degree dunk. Suddenly, Cam puts on his sweat shirt, goes outside in 20-degree weather. He comes in an hour later and says, 'I can do it.' 'Do what?' 'A 360 layup.' "

Cameron was a two-sport star at South Vigo High School in Terre Haute, Ind., recruited to play quarterback at Indiana University by Lee Corso. After two seasons, though, the school's basketball coach, Bobby Knight, asked Corso if Cameron could play on the basketball team, too.

"I brought Cameron in and said, 'You want to be a coach, don't you?' " Corso remembers. "He said, 'Yeah.' 'Well, I'm going to give you the opportunity to work with one of the best coaches of all time. And it ain't me.' "

Cameron juggled the responsibilities of both teams, even when Corso was fired and replaced by Sam Wyche, who would quickly establish himself as one of the game's most innovative offensive minds. As quarterback, Cameron always had an intimate understanding of the offense, but his interest went beyond that. Playing under Wyche, Indiana was experimenting with a no-huddle offense, tinkering with snap counts and setting trends that are still around 25 years later.

"I'm not sure I can put my finger on what you see, but you sense the way a player pays attention, the way a player picks up not just the play, but the whole concept, the philosophy, all the subtleties of the play," Wyche says. "He had all of that."

When Cameron completed his business degree, Knight, as irrepressible as he was successful, told him he was too smart for coaching and encouraged him to enter law school. So Cameron took the LSAT and visited with law school professors. But it didn't feel right.

"I went back and told him, 'I just want to coach,' " Cameron, 47, recalled. "In looking back, it was smart what he did. He wanted to make sure coaching was what I really wanted to do. Coach Knight always wants to push you to something bigger and better, and it made me explore some things. But deep down in my heart, I knew this is what I wanted to do."

So Knight helped arrange a job for Cameron on the staff of Bo Schembechler, the legendary coach at Michigan. Nearly 25 years and six jobs later, Cameron is among the most respected offensive minds in the game.

For all the success he had in ensuing jobs with the Redskins and the Chargers, what he's done in a relatively short period with the Ravens could forever be highlighted on his resume. This year's team improved a full touchdown over last season's, averaging 24.1 points per game, the second-most in team history.

Cameron has spent years tweaking his system, but in simple terms, it's run out of an I-formation and noted for its numbered pass routes - many aimed downfield - plus quick throws to tailbacks and a power running game. In addition, Cameron has consistently mixed in more trick plays this season than with his recent teams.

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