THE GRAPEVINE: The latest buzz from One Winning Drive

Lombardi's Way THE GRAPEVINE: The latest buzz from One Winning Drive

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Now that the Ravens regular season has ended, many in the area are looking back and debating the merits of certain players who might deserve the tag of Ravens MVP.  Joe Flacco, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis and Derrick Mason are among the most popular choices and justifiably so.  Yet there is a player who flies a bit under the radar, who is also worthy of consideration.


His name is Jared Gaither.


One of the biggest questions the Ravens were forced to address entering the ’08 season was the offensive line.  After the team broke camp and just before the conclusion of the preseason, few if any thought the Ravens had done anything to improve in that area.  The truth be told the O-Line actually looked worse.


To add insult to injury the Ravens quarterback situation looked a bit frightening since the team was forced to start a rookie behind such a questionable line. Thoughts of Kyle Boller’s rookie season danced through our heads as gracefully as Jonathan Ogden dances in Gebco commercials. Mix in the retirement of JO and a banged up corps of running backs and it was difficult to forecast anything but gloom and doom for the Ravens ’08 campaign.


Gaither had at best an uneven training camp, missing a significant portion of it due to an ankle injury.  He and book end tackle Adam Terry both spent more time with trainer Bill Tessendorf than they did with offensive line coach John Matsko during those summer days in Westminster.  Making matters worse, Gaither didn’t appear to be in the best shape and he was called to the carpet on more than one occasion by Ozzie Newsome because of a questionable work ethic.


How could Gaither possibly make folks forget about Jonathan Ogden?  Why did the Ravens commit the left tackle position to him so early in camp?  And what would they do to protect a rookie quarterback’s blind side?


These were daunting questions with few answers.


Yet somehow, the light went on for Gaither.  Somewhere, somehow, someone got to him and gave his maturation curve an EZ Pass and put him on the fast track.  Not only did he dedicate himself to his craft, he played and continues to play with pain – another measure of maturity, selflessness and dedication to team.


What if Gaither didn’t come around?  Would Adam Terry give the old matador’s effort and wave the proverbial red cape at speed rushers as they passed him by unabated to the quarterback?  Would Joe Flacco have survived the season?  And if he didn’t well there goes some of the gadget wizardry from Cam Cameron when Flacco is coupled with Troy Smith.


And without an offense, would the defense have caved like they did in ’07?  Would they have all bought into the Harbaugh way if they were once again asked to carry a wretched offense?


I doubt it!


Gaither has been so good this season that he’s made us all forget about Ogden’s retirement.  He has helped to keep Joe Flacco clean for the most part despite with teams that can really get after the quarterback: Pittsburgh, New York, Dallas and Philadelphia.  Flacco has started and finished each game healthy over the course of a full season, something that has only been done twice before by a Ravens’ QB (Vinny Testaverde, ’96, Boller, ’04).


So if your criteria in choosing a Ravens’ MVP are tied to whether that player is replaceable or not clearly Reed, Flacco, Lewis and Mason loom large.


But then again so does that large man wearing No. 71.


Speaking of numbers, those of Mark Clayton are clearly on the rise (18 for 384, 1 TD over the last 5 games).  Not too long ago a source close to the Ravens described how happy he was to see both Clayton and Mason emerge in the passing game for the Ravens and be given opportunities to go vertical.  He likened their play in the Cam Cameron offense to being out on parole after being sentenced to the offense of Brian Billick.


As time goes by and as the Ravens continue to play well as a team, it’s difficult not to compare John Harbaugh to Billick.  Billick was a task master with high end organizational skills.  But given some of the recent comments made by current Ravens who played for Billick, the level of respect for the former skipper certainly looks shaky.


The Ravens success might also cast a shadow upon Billick’s ability to coach again in the NFL. There will probably be another team at some point willing to give Billick a shot somewhere down the road but a lingering question that Billick will have to answer is, “Why has the same team without the likes of Steve McNair, Boller, Ogden and to a large extent Willis McGahee improved by 6 games without you?”


Some will point to Billick’s Super Bowl ring and say that therein lies the answer for those who question Billick’s coaching acumen. I suppose such an argument is relevant to those who believe that Trent Dilfer was a good quarterback. The truth is both rode the coattails of an amazing 2000 Ravens defense and neither Billick nor Dilfer are all that good.


While we’re on the subject of the 2000 season, many here in the Land of Pleasant Living recall that winning vibe and they are comparing it to 2008.  But these two versions of the Baltimore Ravens are very different.  The current model has far more talent on offense and less talent on defense.  Where the two teams compare favorably is that both are overachieving teams.  The seasons do compare in that the Promised Land resides in Tampa, Florida.


Successful teams experience losses in the offseason.  Free agents will command more money on the heels of a winning campaign and they will oftentimes parlay such winnings into a lucrative contract.  The same is true of assistant coaches.


Undoubtedly Rex Ryan will be in the mix of candidates being considered for coaching vacancies.  Just as certainly, Ryan will have to address a lingering question that hangs over his head like a dark cloud: “Why did the team with which you’ve had so much success and a team that knows you best, pass on you as a head coach?”


Ryan obtaining one of those vacancies will hinge on his ability to convincingly address that question. If he doesn’t, he may be on the Ravens’ sideline for quite some time.  If he does, there’s a very good chance that the Ravens will hand Ryan’s job over to Linebackers Coach Greg Mattison.


Attrition doesn’t just affect the coaches’ and players’ ranks.  It might also extend to the front office.  General Managers have also taken tumbles in ’08 with current vacancies in Cleveland, Kansas City, Jacksonville and Detroit.  Owners of those clubs will probably have Eric DeCosta’s number in their cell phone book soon if not already.


Some believe that DeCosta has the inside track to be the heir apparent to Ozzie Newsome. The question is does DeCosta have the patience to wait? Now that it appears that the Ravens have finally found a franchise quarterback, it could keep Newsome around much longer than expected and that could make overtures from other teams more appealing to DeCosta.  Here’s another related thought to ponder…DeCosta is from the Boston area and given the recent rumors tying the Patriots’ GM Scott Pioli to Cleveland, might that open up the New England gig for DeCosta?  It could but then again if the job were all that, why would Pioli bail to the Staph Infection capital of the world? Is working for Bill Belichick that unappealing?


As you know Cleveland just let Phil Savage go and quietly that has to provide some relief to Ozzie Newsome.  Savage would certainly have to consider Rex Ryan to replace Romeo “Where art thou” Crennel. And is there any doubt that if nothing else Savage would drive up the prices to keep Ravens’ free agent LB’s Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs? 


You may recall that Scott was heavily courted three years ago by the Browns and ultimately took less to stay with the Ravens.  Scott once told me that he really never seriously considered Cleveland saying, “I just went up there for a free steak.”


That was certainly an interesting play call from Cam Cameron at the 0:47 mark of the fourth quarter while leading the Jaguars 27-7.  Troy Smith hit TE Edgar Jones on a 25 yard strike to the Jacksonville 11 yard line.  On the surface it looked like a bit of piling on by the Ravens but clearly the call was a slight retaliation for Jack Del Rio calling a timeout just 48 seconds earlier while the Ravens were trying to run out the clock with recently acquired RB Jalen Parmele.  Hey Cam, if you really want to rub it in, try the fake kneel down/pass that Dan Marino perfected all those years ago.


Around the league…Let me get this straight, Eric Mangini gets whacked by the Jets after a 9-7 season yet Wade Phillips keeps his job in Dallas with the same record.  Excuse me, weren’t the Jets 4-12 last year? Mangini can thank Favre for his paid vacation…Speaking of which, here we go again, As the Favre Turns, The Young & The Favre-less, pick a soap opera. Please let Favre’s MRI show no signs of shoulder damage suggesting that he just doesn’t have it any more. What a drama queen! Thankfully Ozzie didn’t give in to even a passing interest in Favre this past offseason.  Sometimes the best choices are those you don’t make.  You know, like Jason Garrett’s choice to say no to the Ravens, use them as leverage for personal gain and then have T.O. and Roy Williams screaming in your face.  Thanks Jason!…And speaking of Roy Williams and choices that you don’t make, it’s still a bit soon to fully evaluate but thankfully the Ravens didn’t give up the farm like the Cowboys to land Williams.  Opposite Terrell Owens, Williams hauled in a paltry 19 passes for 198 yards and 1 score in the nine games he played for the Cowboys.  Dallas coughed up a first-round pick in 2009, plus a third- and sixth-rounder that year for Williams and a seventh-round pick in ’10.  Oh and let’s not forget the five-year contract extension worth $45 million, including more than $20 million guaranteed.  So far it looks like the Lions’ front office duped Jerry Jones. Duped by the Lions…now that’s some funny stuff right there, I don’t care who you are!

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Tony Lombardi

About Tony Lombardi

Tony is 24x7 Networks, LLC's founder (the parent of and His work has been featured on various sports websites and he is a regular guest on 105.7 The Fan and he hosts "The Fanimal" also heard on 105.7 The Fan, Saturdays from 8-9AM. Among his favorite things in life are his wife, kids, family, friends, The Beatles, Breaking Bad, Gladiator, The Godfather, Guinness, orange crushes, meatballs and Key West, not necessarily in that order. Follow Tony on Twitter @RSRLombardi. More from Tony Lombardi


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