OWINGS MILLS — From the prime vantage points of his stadium luxury box and the Baltimore Ravens’ sideline, team owner Steve Bisciotti was able to smoke a cigar or two this season and witness the emergence of two critical benchmarks for his football team.
In hard-nosed, resourceful rookie coach John Harbaugh, the resurgent Ravens installed a strong leader one year after Bisciotti fired Brian Billick.
In strong-armed, stoic rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens appear to finally be set at that pivotal position for the next decade.
"When this season started, I said to John, ‘If we win six games and I’ve got my coach and quarterback of the future, I’ll be happy," Bisciotti said Wednesday at the Ravens’ training complex. "He said, ‘I won’t.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care. I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about me.’
"As an owner, you want a coach and quarterback you feel can be in your organization for 10 years. I’m very hopeful and confident that we’ve got that."
One year removed from a 5-11 disaster that prompted Bisciotti to jettison Billick after nine seasons and one Super Bowl title, the Ravens advanced to the AFC title game and they were one step away from going to the Super Bowl before losing to the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers for the third time this season.
The Ravens emerged as a surprise contender, winning 13 games despite having 19 players on injured reserve and playing 18 weeks in a row without a bye in the wake of a more demanding training camp regimen under Harbaugh. Half of the Ravens’ six losses were to the Steelers, who are heavy favorites to win the Super Bowl over the upstart Arizona Cardinals.
"You look back with some pride on what was accomplished," Harbaugh said. "We’ve become a football team. Our guys have established an identity. We’re a rough, tough, disciplined, hard-working, blue-collar kind of football team, and that’s what we wanted to be. We’re content with where we are, but we’re not satisfied."
The Ravens initially offered the job last year to Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, but he turned them down. Now, his star is falling amidst the Texas-sized drama that always seems to swirl around America’s Team.
Bisciotti joked that the Ravens would have gone 5-11 if Garrett had accepted the job.
"I’m teasing," he said. "I have no idea how that would have gone."
The Ravens are glad they never had to find out as Harbaugh guided the team to two playoff victories, including a 13-10 win over the top-seeded Tennessee Titans. It marked the Ravens’ first playoff wins since January 2002.
Despite the adversity of injuries, including quarterbacks Kyle Boller and Troy Smith suffering a season-ending shoulder injury and a severe tonsil infection, respectively, and having Harbaugh having to win over a veteran-laden locker room, the Ravens engineered a dramatic turnaround under new leadership.
"I think he’s done a great job," Bisciotti said. "John is such a wonderful communication. He’s a very considerate person. I’m very happy to know the Harbaugh family. It’s the way he was raised. It’s the way he was taught to treat people, and I think the Ravens are going to benefit from that upbringing."
After years of struggles under center, the Ravens finally have achieved the comfort level of a viable quarterback on the roster after tabbing Flacco in the first round out of Delaware.
Flacco rebounded from a rocky start to become the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games, not committing a turnover or being sacked in the postseason until throwing three interceptions and being sacked three times in a 23-14 loss to the Steelers. He completed 60 percent of his throws for 2,971 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for an 80.3 quarterback rating.
Nonetheless, the Ravens are thrilled with Flacco’s uncommon composure, big arm, intelligence and work ethic.
Harbaugh said it’s safe to assume that Flacco won’t be competing for the job next season.
"He’s our quarterback," Harbaugh said.
Bisciotti has been involved in the Ravens for several years, watching the constant quarterback carousel that has been dotted with so much failure and turnover.
Now, the Ravens appear to have a quarterback they can count on.
"There’s just something about him that you just get the feeling that there’s no setbacks on the horizon," Bisciotti said. "There are a lot of quarterbacks out there that are called the chosen one, and then three years later they’re a backup somewhere else. So, I’m not going to say that he’s the quarterback of the next 12 years. I think you know that after three years.
"The thing is Joe feels that way, too. I don’t think he feels like he passed the test. I think he feels like he passed a test. As it’s been reported to me, he works harder than anybody in the building. He comes in on his day off on Tuesdays and works eight hours."
Flacco’s low-key personality and gym rat nature, constantly studying film and taking work home to his nearby residence in Owings Mills, has continually impressed the Ravens’ brass. The lack of a big ego has been described as a major plus about the small-town New Jersey native.
"There’s something about him that just seems that he doesn’t get too high or too low on anything, and I don’t think he’s impressed with himself," Bisciotti said. "I think he’s going to go home and I think he’s going to spend the whole offseason thinking about the things he did wrong, not about the things he did right.
"For that, I’m pleased. We also know he’s a man of great character. He’s not going to be out late at night. So, I think the sky is the limit for him."
As the Ravens head into the offseason, though they face several pressing questions.
They have to replace swaggering defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, the New York Jets’ new head coach. They are planning to promote from within, choosing from assistants Vic Fangio, Greg Mattison, Chuck Pagano or Clarence Brooks.
And the Ravens have important contract decisions to make on impending free agents, including linebackers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott, center Jason Brown, kicker Matt Stover and strong safety Jim Leonhard, as well as pondering whether they should hold onto cornerback Chris McAlister and other veterans.
What the Ravens don’t have concerns about, though, anymore are the significant building blocks of a head coach and a quarterback.
"We were five minutes away from the Super Bowl and who knows what would have happened," Bisciotti said. "The higher you go, the farther you fall, but the quicker you regroup because you know that you’ve got a lot of questions answered. One I’ve got answered is I’ve got a quarterback and a coach that going forward I think are going to do great things together."