It's amazing how much can change in a year. Just think, last December at this very time…
- John Harbaugh was coaching the Philadelphia Eagles' secondary. Philly, who had slumped to its third consecutive loss (a tight 16-13 defeat to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Giants), was sitting at 5-8 on the season…
- Cam Cameron was head coach of the Miami Dolphins, who at 0-13, were the NFL's only winless team. Little did Cameron know, but in his next game, the 'Fins would notch their lone victory of the season in an overtime bout against Baltimore…
- Rex Ryan , manning Baltimore's fifth-ranked defense, was doing everything in his power to end the Ravens' seven-game skid. Coming off a major thumping courtesy of the Colts, Baltimore was banged up, particularly in an injury-ravaged secondary…
- Current Ravens quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson was offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, who had just watched their head coach walk out the door. After only 13 games in the NFL, Bobby Petrino resigned to take a job at Arkansas, leaving Jackson and the maligned Falcons with a 3-10 record…
- Current Baltimore linebackers coach Greg Mattison was the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida. Mattison and the Gators were preparing for a New Years Day showdown with Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. Having just witnessed star quarterback Tim Tebow capture the Heisman Trophy, the 12th-ranked Gators sported high hopes and a 9-3 record…
- Current Ravens offensive assistant Craig Ver Steeg was prepping the Rutgers' running backs for a bowl game. Ver Steeg, the coach of explosive game-breaker Ray Rice, would soon witness his junior tailback cap the '07 campaign with 2,012 rushing yards and 24 TDs…
- Eric DeCosta , the Ravens' director of college scouting, was in the midst of the team's initial player prospect meetings. "All of our scouts gathered together, and each guy presented his top 30 players," DeCosta told me this week. "That was the early stage, when we were setting the skeleton of our draft board. We really began to hash out the quarterback position, going over Matt Ryan, Brian Brohm and Chad Henne. Those were the guys we focused on. But, there was also a sleeper candidate from Delaware who we thought had been flying under the radar."…
- Willie Anderson was a Cincinnati Bengal. Having missed eight games in a row with a knee injury, he was fighting to get back on the field, and the Bengals were struggling at 5-8…
- Brendon Ayanbadejo was a Chicago Bear enjoying a career year. With one Pro Bowl already under his belt, he was about to earn another and enhance his reputation as the NFC's top overall special teams player…
- Ray Lewis had registered a team-best 178 tackles for the NFL's No. 5 defense, yet, like the rest of the Ravens, was fighting to halt a seven-game losing streak that would eventually end at nine. "I think the game coming up this week [at Miami] is going to be what it is – it's another game, bottom line," he told the media. "No matter who it is, no matter if you're undefeated or haven't won a game, the bottom line is you've just got to go play football. … We've just got to come out and play better, and hopefully get a win on the road this week."…
- Le'Ron McClain , a rookie, was cracking open holes for Willis McGahee, who had just eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier on the season. McClain, however, had only totaled 14 rushing yards on six carries, as Baltimore's offense ranked a sluggish 25th in the NFL.
- Samari Rolle had just sustained a shoulder injury. He would be inactive for the Dec. 16 game against Miami and then placed on Injured Reserve the following week. It had already been a trying year for Rolle, as earlier in the season he was diagnosed with Epilepsy. After suffering intense seizures and battling to find a proper medication balance, he returned to action in Week 12 and 13, but ultimately, the shoulder ailment derailed his courageous comeback.
- Joe Flacco, then starting at quarterback for the University of Delaware, was just days away from leading his team into the FBS (I-AA) National Championship game against Appalachian State. Having racked up an 11-3 record, Flacco and the Blue Hens would eventually fall to the Mountaineers, 49-21.
OK, think about the individual situations I've listed, all of which were occurring one year ago. A few good and a few bad. Some seeking rejuvenation, others continuing to thrive. Some sprinkled with certainty, others laced with suspicion. But, of all the different stories here, each has one thing in common: Every person involved was working to take that pivotal next step. It was a step to another level, where you somehow make your situation better than the day before.
That mentality is vividly apparent in all great competitors, especially those who excel in the NFL. It's the mentality that makes our league so amazing. It's a big reason why the NFL is America's most popular sport. Each season, because of this mentality and the desire it breeds, every team has a chance. Amazingly, you can go from worst to first. Conversely, if that desire slips away, you can fall quickly.
We've heard Coach Harbaugh preach his "W.I.N." philosophy since Day One. "W.I.N." stands for "What's Important Now?" a question that's become a constant motto around our training facility in 2008. So, what is important now? This week, it's the Steelers. It's making sure we do everything possible to play our best on Sunday.
It's taking that next step.
"What have we done?" Coach Harbaugh resolutely asked at his Monday press conference this week. "We've earned the right to play one more meaningful game in December. That's all we've done. But that's a lot, and that's something to be proud of."
"It's interesting how everything unfolds," Flacco has stated. "Do you know what's going to happen exactly? No, not really. Did we think we'd be successful this season? Yes, because that's confidence you must have and something we believed. But you're always working to get better. That's the common goal."
Go back to the individual situations listed above. Are they important now? No, not really – except maybe for the fact that they helped lay a foundation for what the Ravens are building this season.
And that's exactly why you have to love team sports, especially the NFL. What's better than watching individuals rally, rise up together – be it from good or from bad – and capture a shot at something special?
It's amazing, because really, nobody could have predicted what would be happening this season.
What a difference a year can make.
CAN'T MISS THIS
James Walker, who covers the AFC North beat for juggernaut ESPN.com, is here in Baltimore this week prepping for Sunday's showdown with the Steelers. James was at our training facility Wednesday, and before he began interviewing players I asked him what he was writing about for the day. "You really want to know?" he quipped. "Well, it's about the NFL's most underrated rivalry. And in my opinion, the best rivalry this decade is between you guys and Pittsburgh."
I couldn't agree more. That being said, view the article here to read what James writes many people around the country – of course, Ravens and Steelers fans excluded – might be overlooking.
NOTE THE QUOTE
Ravens QB Troy Smith on who got his Heisman Trophy vote:"I'm going with Sam Bradford."
Insight:A lot of fans might not know that Troy, the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner, is allowed to cast a ballot in every Heisman race for the rest of his life. Every former winner of college football's most prestigious award (54 presently) and 850 media members throughout the country, submitted their ballots this week. (The winner will be announced Saturday.)
Troy entered his ballot on Wednesday over the Internet after the Heisman committee issued him a secure login ID and password. Originally, a member of the committee called me to help facilitate the process and ensure Troy was given the proper information on how to cast his vote.
Prior to the voting, I asked Troy who he thought should win and why. He responded: "I'm going with Sam Bradford. All along, I thought Oklahoma was the top team in the country. Bradford is the reason why. He's been incredible."
STAT OF THE WEEK
The Steelers have one helluva defense. They boast a unit that currently ranks first in the NFL in every major category. Hey, but not to be overlooked is our "D," which stands close behind at No. 2 in just about every way possible. And guess what, Ravens fans? Here's something we do better than any other team… And quite honestly, you are a big reason why:
Baltimore's defense has suffocated opponents at M&T Bank Stadium this season. In fact, the Ravens rank No. 1 – by a long shot – in every major defensive category among all home teams in 2008. As Terrell Suggs said, "Now it's time for them to visit our backyard."
RAVENS / NFL DEFENSIVE RANKINGS AT HOME (2008 Season)