No matter what the Ravens do in their preseason road game against the Dallas Cowboys Saturday night, their performance will take second billing. The Cowboys will dominate any national accounting of the game.
I don't care if Joe Flacco levitates in the first half – takes a snap, rises from the field like a helicopter, hovers over scrimmage like a butterfly and tosses a touchdown pass.
I don't care if Ray Lewis comes out of retirement, announces Last Ride II and reappears in the middle of the Ravens defense.
OK, that latter scenario surely would steal headlines. But absent outrageous drama along those lines, the national coverage of the game will revolve around Dallas quarterback Tony Romo getting his first game action since undergoing back surgery after last season.
The Cowboys are NFL royalty in many respects. They're worth the most money: $2.3 billion, according to Forbes. They play in the most jaw-dropping stadium, the spaceship widely known as "Jerry's World." They have so many fans that anything that happens is big news. And anything involving Romo, their endlessly-debated quarterback, is especially big news.
Their history is the primary source of their eminence. They've won five Super Bowls and played in three others. When you play in Dallas, you're taking the big stage. The Ravens have only done it once, coming away with an epic regular-season win in 2008. This weekend's trip is just their second ever to Dallas.
But while the Ravens are consigned to playing second fiddle to their hosts this weekend, the tale of these two teams is not as it appears.
The Cowboys' history is a legendary tale that has spawned movies and books (two written by me, full disclosure), but more recently, the Ravens' history is decidedly more enviable.
By coincidence, just when the Cowboys were winning their fifth Super Bowl, in January 1996, Art Modell was moving his franchise from Cleveland. Baltimore's new team hadn't participated in a draft and didn't even have a name. ("Ravens" was announced in March of that year.)
No one would have dared predict Modell's team would fare better than the lordly Cowboys going forward. But the Ravens opened their first draft by taking Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis in the first round. That was a sign of things to come. They won their first Super Bowl five years later
In the 18 years since the Ravens moved to Baltimore and the Cowboys last won a Super Bowl, the Ravens lead the Cowboys in regular-season wins (158-144), playoff wins (14-2) and Super Bowl triumphs (2-0). They've had four head-to-head meetings. The Ravens won all four.
The arc of that narrative isn't changing, either. As the start of the 2014 season nears, the Ravens are viewed as AFC playoff contenders while few analysts are expecting much from the Cowboys.
It's not hard to discern why one team has fared better than the other. The Ravens have drafted better than most teams, managed their salary cap adroitly. Most Dallas fans will tell you their owner, Jerry Jones, is overly involved in the football operation. It's not that simple, but their star did shine brightest most recently during the four years when Bill Parcells was left alone to run things.
Meanwhile, in Baltimore, ownership (Modell and then Steve Bisciotti) has strictly adhered to a traditional chain of command, leaving GM Ozzie Newsome alone to pick the players and head coaches Brian Billick and John Harbaugh alone to run the team.
Thanks to their success, the Ravens have built a history, a sizable constituency and a thriving business. Forbes recently judged them as the 19th most valuable sports franchise in the world, a Herculean feat considering where they were 18 years ago.
The Cowboys still have it over them – over all teams, for that matter – when it comes to generating a national buzz, for better or worse. They continue to attract fans and sell out their stadium. There's a joke that the NFL Network was created strictly to cover them.
They haven't exactly gone in the tank on the field. They've finished 8-8 for four straight years, leading to one of the funniest things I've seen on the Internet recently – a commemoration of August 8 as Official Dallas Cowboy Day.
When the Ravens also finished 8-8 last year, they were furious about it, considered it beneath them. Most experts expect them to do better in 2014. They probably will. Things do change over time, don't they?