Once a model franchise, Ravens now an example of what's wrong in NFL

  • Ravens head coach John Harbaugh listens as team owner Steve Bisciotti answers a question at the team's season-in-review news conference in January.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh listens as team owner Steve… (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore…)
September 21, 2014|Peter Schmuck

The thousands of Ravens fans who lined up along the lower concourse at M&T Bank Stadium the past two days came to exchange their Ray Rice jerseys, but what they got, in a sense, was a face-to-face apology from a team that still has some explaining to do.

Which should remind us of an old saying that seems particularly apropos at this embarrassing moment in the history of what had been a model sports franchise: Every 24 hours, the world turns over on somebody who was sitting on top of it.

It took a little longer than that this time. It was almost 20 months ago that the Ravens paraded through Baltimore with the Lombardi Trophy after defeating the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, but it must seem like an eternity.

So much has happened since then, so little of it good, that the organization will have to do a lot more than hand out expensive new jerseys to rebuild its tarnished image. There have been so many stumbles since coming up short of the playoffs in December that they're still figuring out what it will take for the organization to stand upright again.

The offseason went so awry that it's tempting to wax nostalgic about that halcyon day in January when owner Steve Bisciotti called out his head coach and front office for the Ravens' unpardonable crime last season of winning the same number of games as they lost.

The fallout from Ray Rice's domestic-abuse incident has all but pushed some of the team's lesser problems from the collective memory of the media and the fans, but Rice was one of five Ravens to get into trouble between the end of last season and the start of training camp in July.

It started with Rice punching then-fiancee Janay Palmer in the elevator of a now-defunct Atlantic City, N.J., casino in mid-February. The following week, receiver Deonte Thompson was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia; the charges were later dropped. The following month, offensive lineman Jah Reid was arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery and later accepted into a pretrial diversion program. In May, rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro was arrested and charged with destruction of property and being drunk in public. Those charges were also dropped. And in July, cornerback Jimmy Smith was arrested and charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

Of course, all of those troubling incidents pale in comparison to the Rice scandal, but they all fed the narrative that the once-proud Ravens organization had lost its way. A model franchise had become a model of all that is believed to be wrong with the NFL.

Meanwhile, there were other cracks forming in the team's usually unified public facade. There was the perception that a division had developed inside the front office during the search for a new offensive coordinator, though head coach John Harbaugh disputed a Baltimore Sun report that Gary Kubiak was not his first choice to replace Jim Caldwell.

An ESPN report Friday on the investigation into Rice's incident quoted unnamed sources claiming that Harbaugh also differed with upper management on how to deal with the running back and a couple of other misbehaving players last spring, even advocating that Rice, Reid and Thompson be released. The team is expected to deny those claims when it addresses the ESPN report soon after the Ravens get back from Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns.

They say the first thing you need to do when you're in a hole is to stop digging, and the Ravens will try to do that over the next few weeks, but this isn't just an image problem. The inside-the-elevator video of Rice and Palmer set off a media feeding frenzy that exposed a flawed institutional philosophy that permeates the Under Armour Performance Center and a lot of other professional sports franchises.

The Ravens aren't the first team to be blinded by their desire to minimize bad publicity and close ranks around a popular misbehaving athlete, but they have become the poster team for what can happen when you try to do that in the TMZ era and get caught with your real priorities showing.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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