A New “Wizard” in Town photo: Baltimore Ravens

Street Talk A New “Wizard” in Town

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End-of-Season Plaudits highlight Newsome’s Parting Gifts – and Herald the arrival of a new Wizard  

Heading into the 2018 NFL Draft, Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome was feeling the heat. The Hall of Fame tight end made a name for himself as an executive by selecting left tackle Jonathan Ogden and middle linebacker Ray Lewis – both of whom would go on to follow in Newsome’s footsteps by earning gold jackets of their own – as twin cornerstones in the first round of the Ravens’ inaugural draft. Over two decades of success followed as Newsome, who inspired the popular mantra “In Ozzie we trust” helped load the roster for two Super Bowl Champions.

As his final draft at the helm – and a passing of the torch to his longtime protégé Eric DeCosta – approached, however, the man affectionately known as the Wizard of Oz was feeling the heat. On the heels of three straight non-playoff seasons – a streak Ravens fans hadn’t endured since the Y2K frenzy – Newsome took responsibility for the team’s shortcomings during a pre-draft press conference:

“I need to take all the blame,” he said. “And it falls right on me. So yes, (Head Coach) John (Harbaugh) and his staff do an unbelievable job, but we have to do a better job of bringing in players. Whether that’s through the draft, through free agency or through trade, we have to do better, and that will help them to do better.”

Sitting alongside his mentor, DeCosta echoed Newsome’s conviction, declaring “We believe in what we do, we want to be good, and we want to build a team that you guys are proud of.”

While that team fell short of its ultimate goal, they did make it back to the postseason after three straight years missing, losing in the Wild Card round to the San Diego Chargers. That was a harbinger of things to come, as the Ravens took another big step in 2019. Despite the disappointing playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, after a record-breaking 14-2 season, there are plenty of reasons for Ravens fans to feel proud of the team Newsome and DeCosta combined to assemble.

Several such reasons can be found in the annual end-of-season honors, which rolled in for a host of players and coaches brought to Baltimore by the pair. Quarterback Lamar Jackson – drafted seventeen days after the aforementioned press conference – earned Most Valuable Player, following in the footsteps of newly-crowned Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes to win the award in his first full season as a starter. While many pundits and executives doubted Jackson’s ability to play quarterback at the pro level, Newsome and DeCosta completed an evening of wheeling and dealing by trading back into the first round to select the signal-caller with the 32nd pick. In just his second season, Jackson took the league by storm, shattering perceived limitations of the “dual threat” quarterback at the pro level en route to a new record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback and the league lead in touchdown passes. “Not bad for a running back,” Jackson quipped in a nod to his critics after dissecting the Miami Dolphins for five touchdown passes in the season opener.

The unanimous MVP was far from the only purple and black standout to garner rave reviews for his efforts this season, however.  After steering his squad from 2-2 to 14-2 during the best regular season in franchise history, John Harbaugh was selected as Coach of the Year. Newsome and Owner Steve Bisciotti plucked the young coach from the relative obscurity of a Special Teams Coordinator role in 2008 and they ignored the calls for Harbaugh’s head a decade later, perhaps influencing Newsome’s vocal assumption of responsibility for the team’s struggles. Two years later, their faith has been rewarded by Harbaugh and the staff he has assembled.

One of the main arguments for Harbaugh as Coach of the Year rested on his success in empowering his top two deputies to run their respective units, and as the NFL’s annual head coaching carousel spun at the end of the season, the achievements of Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman and Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale caught the eyes of organizations looking to fill their own vacancies. Roman – promoted from Tight Ends Coach under DeCosta – provided the palette upon which Jackson has painted his masterpiece season, tailoring an innovative offense to suit the quarterback’s strengths en route to a series of franchise and league records, earning Assistant Coach of the Year along the way. His counterpart Martindale – promoted from Linebacker’s Coach under Newsome – wove a more circuitous route to success, rebuilding the defense on the fly as a series of high-profile offseason departures left the once-famed defense a shell of its former self. By season’s end the unit, on the strength of contributions from high-profile stars and castoffs alike had allowed the third-fewest points in the league.

Ravens selected Lamar Jackson

Roman’s and Martindale’s respective schemes, however, served only as the frameworks for a roster filled with talented players to execute – and Jackson was far from the only Raven to excel. He was joined on the first team All-Pro roster by left tackle Ronnie Stanley, as well as cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, representing Baltimore at three of the most valuable positions in the game. Newsome raised a few eyebrows when selecting Stanley out of Notre Dame with the sixth pick of the 2016 draft, particularly with Ole Miss standout Laremy Tunsil still on the board. Since then, the Notre Dame alumnus has developed into the finest tackle the Ravens have had since Ogden, paving the way for Baltimore’s irresistible rushing offense while adeptly protecting Jackson’s blind side. The year after bringing Stanley to Baltimore, Newsome went back to the well of talent springing from his alma mater Alabama to strengthen the opposite side of the ball. By selecting Humphrey, however, the GM drew the ire of many Ravens fans who’d preferred Humphrey’s Crimson Tide teammate, linebacker Rueben Foster. While Foster has struggled with off-field incidents, which contributed to his release from the 49ers less than two years after being drafted, Humphrey has developed into a lockdown corner and a clutch performer who has played his best football when the game is on the line.

Rounding out the Ravens’ six All-Pro selections, kicker Justin Tucker (first team) and guard Marshal Yanda (second) were also recognized as the best in the league. The selection of Yanda, a tough but seemingly limited athlete out of Iowa, in the 3rd round of the 2007 draft didn’t garner much attention at the time. Eight Pro Bowl selections later, Yanda is rightly seen as one of the finest guards of his generation – and as the leader of the line that was so instrumental in Baltimore’s offensive explosion this season. Tucker, signed as an undrafted free agent in 2012, found himself kicking many more extra points than field goals for the first time in his career, but he remains the league’s best and one of the greatest kickers of all time.

While five of the Ravens’ All-Pro honorees were acquired during Newsome’s regime, Peters represents the first Ravens All-Pro acquired under DeCosta. Originally eyed by the Ravens ahead of the 2015 draft, Peters developed a reputation as an exceedingly talented gambler capable of both making and surrendering big plays over his first four and a half seasons, leading both the Kansas City Chiefs and then the Los Angeles Rams to trade the defensive back for lesser packages than you might expect for a Pro Bowl corner. The Rams’ loss proved to be the Ravens’ gain as Peters, acquired during Martindale’s midseason defensive makeover, hit the ground running and quickly earned himself a lucrative extension – one of many that will surely be agreed upon between DeCosta and his high-performing players.

Peters and his fellow All-Pros were joined on the Pro Bowl roster by running back Mark Ingram, tight end Mark Andrews, offensive tackle Orlando Brown, Jr., outside linebacker Matthew Judon, free safety Earl Thomas, fullback Patrick Ricard and long snapper Morgan Cox, highlighting the breadth of talent brought in under the executive dynamic duo. Thomas and Ingram, like Peters, were acquired as established veterans after DeCosta took the reins as GM. Like his mentor, however, DeCosta understands full well that the draft, which brought Yanda, Judon, Humphrey, Jackson, Brown and Andrews to Baltimore, is the foundation of the Ravens’ personnel success.

Based on his first outing without Newsome calling the shots – which brought instant contributions from wide receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin, edge rusher Jaylon Ferguson and running back Justice Hill – DeCosta is well on his way toward emulating his mentor’s April successes. As his second offseason at the controls approaches, DeCosta’s top priority will be to strengthen the Ravens’ lackluster pass rush – with or without free agent Judon, who is sure to cash in on his first Pro Bowl nod with a premium contract. In addition, the GM will seek to inject additional playmaking potential into the receiver corps while strengthening the team at linebacker and interior offensive line. The latter task will get much more difficult if Yanda, who is currently contemplating retirement, hangs up his cleats rather than lace them up in pursuit of another Super Bowl. Regardless of Yanda’s decision, however, the team’s ultimate goal will be to capture the Lombardi Trophy that eluded them this season.

Thanks to Newsome, DeCosta and the players and staff assembled by the two executives, the Ravens as well-positioned to do just that – and if they do, Baltimore may soon declare that there’s a new wizard in town.   

submitted by Joel Tracy (@RambleOnReds)

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