Once upon a time, I worked alongside a bear of a man who had played major college football. He had hung up his pads and now wrote about hunting and fishing for a newspaper, but he retained what I thought was keen insight into his former sport.
"It's simple, really," he said. "There's a guy across the line of scrimmage from you. If you knock him on his butt, you win. If he knocks you on your can, he wins. Everything else you can pretty much toss out."
For years, I faithfully recalled that simple philosophy when watching and analyzing pro football. Yes, X's and O's were important, even crucial, but most games came down to who is toughest, nothing more than that.
I even tried out the idea on some players in the Ravens' locker room, wondering if they agreed. Most did.
But I'm starting to wonder if that philosophy still holds true.
The NFL of 2012 is vastly different from the rugged, old-school league it once was. Oh, it's still rugged; anyone who had spent a Sunday afternoon on a sideline can vouch for the sheer violence that unfolds. But now the game is as much about speed and agility as toughness; about tricking and out-scheming the other guys rather than just running over them.
It could be the Ravens are dealing with the effects of the game's sweeping transformation as they try to get their defense going in 2012.
Few teams, if any, have embodied old-school, tough-guy football more than the Ravens. Their record of defensive dominance stretches back more than a decade. And they're still playing the same way.
"We're built to hit with the best of them; built to run with the best of them," safety Bernard Pollard said earlier this week.
But the Ravens' best asset – their toughness - isn't necessarily giving them the edge it once did.
Last week, they played the Philadelphia Eagles, who let Michael Vick scramble around and deliver the ball to an array of nimble playmakers. The Ravens gave up almost 500 yards of offense and succumbed in the end. Now, here come the New England Patriots with Tom Brady operating a carefully choreographed air game composed of low-risk, high-reward dinks and dunks rather than downfield strikes.
It's a different era, a different game. Hard hits are subject to penalties and fines, not ooohs and ahhhs. The game is legislated with player safety as a priority. It's also legislated with offenses in mind. Seeing how often pass interference is called, I know I would be throwing the ball up for grabs, sitting back and waiting for flags to fly.
Toughness still matters, but you need to have other things going for you. Why do you think Ray Lewis dropped 30 pounds to get ready for this season?
Three years ago in Week 2, Lewis made a dramatic stop on a fourth-down running play to win a game in San Diego. Three years later in Week 2, he spent last Sunday dropping into coverage and chasing around a receiver. With the game on the line, the Eagles drove to a touchdown almost entirely through the air, leaving Lewis no chance to make a game-saving run stop.
Lewis' job description has changed, and the Ravens are ranked 27th in the NFL in defense entering Sunday night's game.
Sure, changes in personnel probably have as much to do with that as anything – Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said this week the Ravens are experiencing "big" turnover on defense – but the Ravens are also adjusting to changes in the sport itself.
"The NFL has changed a lot," said Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, a 13-year veteran. "When I came in, the old saying was defense wins championships. Now it's a quarterback's league ... I'm not saying tough guys aren't there. It's just a different game now. It's not four yards and a cloud of dust. It's, 'Let's get a chunk play, rip off 50 yards, get to the red zone and maybe run the ball.'
"Before, teams were run first, then pass. Now it's pass first, just a different mentality. The league is smarter, faster. Everyone is still as tough. It's not like there are less tough guys. Maybe more of the tough guys are at home because they can't play in the NFL anymore."