Joy to the world… It's the holiday season.
Let's ring the bells and give a cheer – the Ravens are in the playoff hunt.
How about that?
It's not easy to get where the Ravens are today. Ask Sunday's opponent, the Bears. Or, ask the Lions, the team we beat last Sunday. Their fans haven't seen a serious playoff team for a decade. Think of those fans in Oakland, Kansas City, Cleveland and Buffalo… How about Washington, St. Louis and Tampa Bay? There's not the same excitement in many places. Being legitimately in the chase is fun.
And who better than Ray Lewis to remind all of us to soak this in and enjoy the run. He did just that with the head coach and his teammates a week ago.
John Harbaugh brought a group of our veteran players – his "30-and-over club, plus Joe (Flacco)" – into a meeting for a discussion on a variety of subjects, including the upcoming games, practices, etc. During that meeting, Lewis talked about how excited he is to once again be playing meaningful games in December. Ray described that he has vivid memories of playing in and winning games in the 12th month that put the Ravens in the playoffs. He said that these were some of his football memories. He said he had few recollections about late seasons when the Ravens weren't in the playoff mix.
Coach Harbaugh was so impressed with Ray's message that he shared it with the whole team. I saw a reflection of it when Ray Rice met last Friday with the FOX-TV crew broadcasting our game against the Lions. Analyst Tim Ryan, the former Bears' and Southern Cal standout defensive lineman, asked Rice about the pressure of having to win every game to get to the playoffs. Rice responded: "It's not pressure. It's fun. Ray Lewis told us that these are the games we'll remember the rest of our lives, and we should enjoy them. Ray said we've earned the right to play in big games like these."
Fortunately for us and our fans, we've had a pretty good run of "fun" games in December this decade. But, we have to keep winning to keep them memorable.
Competition Tougher, Players Better
I was reminded how tough it is to win earlier this week when a good friend, Marty Schottenheimer, called to see how I was doing. Marty has the distinction of being the winningest coach in NFL history not to win a Super Bowl. In fact, I believe, if one of Marty's teams had won a Super Bowl, he would be a Hall of Fame coach.
(Schottenheimer had some of the worst luck I've ever seen. He was the head coach of the Browns when they lost the famous "Elway Drive" and "Byner Fumble" postseason games to the Broncos. At his last head coaching spot, in San Diego, he was let go after producing a 14-2 team in 2006 and an 11-5 squad in '07. In both of those seasons, the Chargers were bounced out of the playoffs by the Patriots. The 24-21 loss to New England after the '06 regular season was especially painful for Marty. The Chargers had the Patriots beat, leading by 8 points late in the 4th quarter. San Diego intercepted Tom Brady, and for a split second, the game was over. Unfortunately, the player who intercepted, fumbled on his return. Pats got the ball back… Brady led them to a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to tie the game… The NE defense produced a 3-and-out… The Patriots won on a field goal at the end. Poor Chargers, poor Marty.)
When Marty asked how the Ravens were doing, I said we were hanging in there, and we have to win all of our games and that still didn't guarantee us a playoff spot. Schottenheimer then said: "Kevin, you're there. It's hard to get where you guys are. In fact, it's harder to win than ever before. You know how it works."
Yes, I do. What the NFL wants is to get all teams to 8-8. That's the ideal. That way, every team would still be in the playoff hunt until the last week of the season. It's a great system that has made the NFL the most popular show in American culture. The more you win, the harder your schedule and the lower your draft picks. On any given Sunday, a team not expected to win does. Last week, it was the one-win Browns beating the Steelers. Who will it be this week?
Marty and I also talked about how every team has good players and playmakers. "Kevin, not only is it harder to win than ever before, because, like you said, everyone has good players. But, the players are better than ever before," Schottenheimer said.
I then told Marty that he hit on one of my pet peeves: People who say the NFL is watered down and the competition isn't what it used to be. "People who say that don't know what they are talking about. Players are bigger, faster, better coached, better conditioned and able to come back from injury faster than ever before… And, they will keep getting better," Schottenheimer explained. "There are a million more kids playing the game today. They're coached and conditioned earlier. The game's got a great future."
Not only because he agrees with me, but Marty is right. And, he's a person with the authority and credentials to say it. Schottenheimer played 6 seasons in the AFL, where he was an All-Star linebacker. He coached in the NFL for 30 years. Marty has told me before: "I couldn't play now. I'd be too slow. They have to run at me for me to get a tackle."
Terry Bradshaw Story
For Marty's 1st game as a head coach – with the Browns in 1984 – his team played the New Orleans Saints. Doing the telecast of that game were Vern Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw. I told Marty that as part of his new duties as a head coach, he would have to meet with this TV crew on Friday afternoon. "Great," Marty said. "I was a teammate of Terry Bradshaw's my last year of pro football."
I brought Terry and Vern to Coach Schottenheimer's office for the meeting. I did hear Terry say to Marty: "Nice to meet you." Before Terry or Vern could ask a question, Marty started telling a story about the Steelers' training camp: "First time I saw you Terry, I thought you were one of the linebackers. You were big." Marty then recalled a lecture about tackling Pittsburgh head coach Chuck Noll gave to the whole team. Schottenheimer concluded by saying: "Remember that training camp and that lecture, Terry?"
In what has become typical of Bradshaw through the years, he gave an honest answer with unabashed enthusiasm: "Marty, I don't remember that lecture at all. And, you know what, I don't remember you at all." (Marty, humbled then, laughs about that story today.)
Well, let's make this last home game of 2009 memorable on Sunday. Let's beat those Bears.
Talk with you next week.
Kevin Byrne is in his 31st NFL season and is the Ravens' senior vice president of public and community relations. He has worked in the NFL since 1977, when he was the then-youngest public relations director in the league (for the then-St. Louis Cardinals), except for the two years he was the Director of Public Affairs for TWA (Trans World Airlines). He has been with the Ravens since they began, and before that was a vice president with the Cleveland Browns. He has won a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Ravens and an NCAA basketball championship with Al McGuire's Marquette team in '77. He was on the losing end of historic games known for the "Drive" and the "Fumble." He has worked closely and is friends with some of the best in the game: Ozzie Newsome, Brian Billick, Ray Lewis , Bill Cowher, Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Marty Schottenheimer and Shannon Sharpe to name a few.