The Ravens crashed headlong into several thousand reporters Tuesday as Super Bowl Media Day unfurled at the Superdome. It was a lighthearted hour. There were lots of yuks and very few furrowed brows.
It was impossible not to think back to when the Ravens experienced Media Day for the first time, before they walloped the New York Giants in Tampa a dozen years ago. That was not such a lighthearted affair. I was there. Ray Lewis was less than a year removed from his Atlanta trial and uninterested in reviewing the events. Brian Billick was taking on the press, trying to take the heat for Lewis.
Between that uneasy day and the rugged play of Lewis and the rest of the defense, the Ravens came away from their Super experience with a distinctive image to go with the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Sports Illustrated called them "Baltimore Bullies."
Somewhere between then and now, that image vanished. The Ravens won't be called bullies if they defeat the San Francisco 49ers Sunday night. That is by design. The organization has gone to lengths in recent years to change how it is perceived.
"We made a conscious effort to try to present our players in a different way," Ravens President Dick Cass said Tuesday on the floor of the Superdome.
Oh, sure, the Ravens still rank among the NFL's more physically punishing teams, which sustains their old image in some eyes. So does Lewis' presence on their roster, as some fans, fairly or not, only see him through the lens of what happened 13 years ago.
But beyond those similarities, the Ravens are being viewed quite differently on the high occasion of their second trip to the Super Bowl. They're talking about their faith and the power of higher forces. A Los Angeles Times columnist portrayed them as lovable eccentrics. Saturday Night Live parodied Lewis, but in a genial way, only mocking his tearfulness. It would have been worse years ago.
It becomes clear at such a moment that the Ravens have undergone a fairly profound change. One explanation is they're no longer just defensive-minded "bullies," as liable to beat you up as outscore you. They're here in large part because they now also have a high-flying offense led by young stars such as quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and receiver Torrey Smith, all of whom are known more for their talent than any hits they might dole out.
"Offensive stars have a different image. That makes a difference," Cass said.
The organization has also avoided the kind of high-profile legal trouble for its players that seemed so prevalent a decade ago and certainly contributed to the team's image perhaps becoming less seemly than desired.
"We had the Ray Lewis incident. We had the Jamal Lewis incident. We had some others like that," Cass said. "Knock on wood, we haven't had an incident like that in many years."
But no force has ushered in change more than the arrival of Head Coach John Harbaugh in 2008.
"I think he saw us from afar, so he was the new guy coming in saying, 'You have this image. But I know your players, our players, and it's not a fair presentation of what we are.' So he made a conscious effort (to change it). We all did," Cass said.
From the outset, Harbaugh has stressed playing hard but fair, by the rules, not cheaply. The Ravens still talk trash, just not as much. In this era of flags and fines for certain hits, they practice where and how to hit legally.
When lapses have occurred, Harbaugh has pointed out that it's selfish for any player to put his own issues and interests ahead of the team's, which tends to cut down on repeat behavior.
Understandably, Harbaugh isn't anxious to delve into the delicate subject of image changes this week, but on Monday he did lay out what amounted to a mission statement for how wants people to view the Ravens circa 2013.
"Our guys are class guys. We'll play with character, we'll play with class," he said. "We'll be a tough, hard-nosed football team. That's the way we'll play. Before the game, after the game."
Read those words carefully. They speak volumes.