There have been several defining moments in Baltimore’s rich football history, most of which happened on the field. All Baltimoreans know about the Colts overtime victory over the Giants in Yankee Stadium during an epic battle in 1958 commonly labeled “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
In what was hardly a great game, the Ravens’ crowning achievement occurred in Tampa where they dominated the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
Neither of these moments would have taken place though if not for certain subtle personnel moves.
One such move, while subtle at the time will live in infamy. Back in 1955 the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted hometown quarterback John Unitas with 102nd pick of the NFL Draft – round 9 back then. Unitas never made it into one preseason game and was released.
No one ever accused owner Art Rooney of being a very good judge of football talent. One year later, Colts General Manager Don Kellett made the famous eighty cent phone call to Unitas and invited him to the Colts training camp in 1956.
The rest is history.
Unitas as it has been well documented put Baltimore of the football map.
The same could be said of Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens defense.
It is safe to say that the 2000 Ravens while dominating on defense at almost every position and collectively the best run defense in NFL history would not have accomplished any of these feats without Ray Lewis. Lewis was and is the face of the Ravens. He became the team’s second first round choice in the 1996 draft, a fact most fans are very much aware of.
Yet the story behind how the Ravens obtained the 26th pick in the 1996 NFL Draft played out like a fortunate twist of fate and clearly was not scripted. The truth be told, how that pick fell into the lap of the team formerly known as the Cleveland Browns was for all intents and purposes a mistake.
The Cleveland Browns hired Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick to become their 10th head coach in franchise history for the 1991 season. He had just led his Giant defense to a stunning upset win over the favored Bills in Super Bowl XXV. The Bills high powered offense was held to 19 points, and lost the game on a missed Scott Norwood field goal.
The 38 year old Belichick took over a team that was 3-13 in 1990. The Browns improved but not by much as Belichick went 20-28 his first three seasons.
Frustration settled in with Browns’ owner Art Modell, not only with the team’s record but also with Belichick’s decision making. When he was hired, Belichick insisted on having a say, and sometimes a final say on personnel moves. He wanted the same type of control as his mentor, Bill Parcells.
His drafts were not the best. In 1992 he selected running back Tommy Vardell from Stanford with their first round pick. “Touchdown Tommy”, would score just three touchdowns in his 4 years as a Brown.
Perhaps the Belichick move that incensed Modell the most was the release of quarterback Bernie Kosar while back up Vinny Testeverde was injured. Kosar, a popular local product, did not see eye to eye with Belichick. Despite his angst, Modell supported his coach’s decision. Kosar moved on to backup Troy Aikman and win a Super Bowl ring in Dallas.
The Browns missed the playoffs again in 1993. In 1994 with Testeverde quarterbacking the Browns made it to the playoffs as a Wild Card and they beat Parcell’s Patriots in the first round before falling hard to the Steelers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
The 1995 NFL Draft, April 22-23 1995
In 1994, Belichick felt that the Browns needed improvement at the tight end position. Brian Kinchen who caught just 24 passes with one score was the best tight end the team could field. Belichick also believed that Kinchen was at best an average blocker. He desperately wanted an upgrade at the position and Penn State’s Kyle Brady looked like the perfect fit.
Brady was a solid blocker with speed, good hands, and was very coachable. He would be Belichick’s man with the 10th pick in the 1995 draft.
Mock drafts regularly suggested that Brady would be available at 10 for the Browns. They had traded to get that pick a year earlier with the Falcons. In fact, Belichick who still had final say on draft picks had not researched many early picks besides Brady. He was locked in on the Nittany Lion. Brady to the Browns was as sure as a fastball on a 3-0 count.
But then the New York Jets threw Belichick a nasty curveball.
Picking from the nine slot, the Jets scooped up Brady one pick in front of Belichick. The Jets gave no hint – not one single indication to anyone that they wanted the tight end. Belichick was in shock. With one completely unexpected move by the Jets, he was blindsided and left with no definitive Plan B.
As the minutes ticked away while on the clock Belichick had the Browns painted into a corner. Luckily the Super Bowl Champion 49ers came calling.
The Niners sought youth and depth for their talented corps of wide receivers. Both Jerry Rice and John Taylor were 32 and they wanted a younger receiver to groom as an eventual replacement for one of them. Their targeted player was UCLA’s JJ Stokes. But the 49ers were concerned that Stokes would be gone by the time they sent their pick to the podium with the 30th overall selection.
The Browns had their trading partner as the clubs swapped first round picks. To make the deal work the 49ers gave the Browns their first round selection in the 1996 draft.
Stokes went to San Francisco while Belichick scrambled and chose Ohio State linebacker Craig Powell with the 30th choice in ‘95. Powell would play in just three games for the Browns that year, a first round bust. He would move to Baltimore with the Browns, and played in nine games in 1996 before being released.
Stokes had a better than average career, catching 340 passes and scoring 30 touchdowns in 8 seasons in San Francisco. However he never did replace Rice or Taylor as the 49ers had envisioned.
The remainder of Belichick’s 1995 draft brought 2 other players who would play some for the Browns and Ravens, quarterback Eric Zeier and defensive end Mike Frederick.
To say the least Modell was furious over Belichick’s handling of the ’95 draft. The team started 3-1 but faded, especially after Modell announced that he was moving to Baltimore. The Browns finished 5-11 and Modell wanting a fresh start in Baltimore, fired Belichick in February 1996 and replaced him with Ted Marchibroda. Marchibroda by coincidence had hired Belichick, giving him his first coaching job in 1975 with the Colts.
1996 NFL Draft April 20-21, 1996
The Ravens with the 4th overall selection chose future Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden. A little later that round, the Ravens with the 26th overall picked obtained from the 49ers on draft day 1995, selected another future Hall of Famer, Ray Lewis.
Those 2 choices got the Ravens off to a great start. Winning Super Bowl XXXV was made possible by that draft. Ogden and Lewis combined for twenty one Pro Bowls and between them they were first team All Pro choices in ten seasons. Still the best ever first round by the Ravens and arguably the best in the draft’s history, all made possible by Bill Belichick’s lack of preparation in 1995.
Both Belichick and the Ravens’ franchise have separately come a long way.
Yet they will forever be connected by the hasty trade Belichick was forced to make on April 22, 1995.