ARE WE BETTER THAN WE WERE A YEAR AGO ON THIS DATE?
Think about it.
A year ago today, we didn't know who our starting quarterback would be. In fact, Kyle Boller and Troy Smith were clearly ahead of then-rookie Joe Flacco. John Harbaugh, who had never been a head coach at any level, was running his first training camp as an NFL boss. Veteran players were testing our new mentor, and "Harbs" wasn't backing down.
Media were questioning the physicality of the practices, while writing about the lack of talent on the offensive line and questioning a defense many felt was too old to play at a high level.
It was "Camp Consternation."
Harbaugh and his staff kept plowing ahead, promising players that the system would work and that the Ravens would be a good team in 2008. Some privately questioned those assertions. Some fans and media scoffed.
The season turned out pretty well. The Ravens finished with an 11-5 mark. In the playoffs, Baltimore went on the road and suffocated the Dolphins and stopped the Titans before losing an AFC Championship thriller at Pittsburgh. Harbaugh and Flacco set an NFL record for the most victories ever by a team with a rookie head coach and rookie starting quarterback.
All of that leads to the natural question from reporters and, honestly, from members in the organization: "Hey Coach, you guys are a lot better off than you were a year ago this time, right?"
The head coach doesn't give the answer everyone expects.
"That's not the way we look at it," Harbaugh has said. "This is a new season. There are new challenges. We take nothing for granted. Anyone we play isn't going to say, 'Hey, they were pretty good last year. We're in trouble.' And, we're not the same team. And, the emphasis is always about getting better today. That's what we are about. You see the 'W.I.N.' signs around here. You know what they stand for."
Yes, Coach, we do. What's Important Now.
I won't ask any more.
Almost everyone at the Ravens' training camp has a roommate, even the head coach. On the bed next to Coach Harbaugh is his father, Jack. Jack is a 41-year coaching veteran who was the head coach at Western Kentucky when it won the 2002 NCAA Division 1-AA football championship. Dad will spend two weeks with the Ravens and then head to California to be with his son Jim, who is the head coach at Stanford.
WELCOME BACK MASE
We're all excited with the return of Derrick Mason, who had decided to retire and now is back. Ozzie Newsome and the coaches believe that Mason can play a few more seasons at a very high level. That message was delivered to Derrick by many of us, and that includes teammates like Mark Clayton, Joe Flacco and, surprisingly, Jared Gaither. Mason was impressed with Gaither's phone call. "The big guy surprised me. His call meant a lot. He's a young guy just making his mark, but he took the time to reach out," Mason said.
Coach Harbaugh not only called Derrick, he visited him at his home. But, one of the persons who is close to Derrick and stayed in touch with him during the brief retirement is Chad Steele, our director of media relations. Chad and Derrick are friends who constantly bicker about NBA players – Mason is a Kobe Bryant guy; Steele is LeBron James. Steele called Mason almost daily telling 'Mase' that we would have a huge press conference if Derrick would come out of retirement. "Derrick, we'd lower you from a helicopter and have a big band playing for you. But, you have to give me notice – have to order the chopper and get the band."
Mason would tell Steele: "That's nice, but I've made up my mind." Still, Chad would repeat his offer regularly to Derrick. When Mason did have his "return" press conference last Sunday (8/2) morning, Mason called over to Steele: "Hey, where's my helicopter and band?" Chad just laughed and said: "You didn't give us enough time, plus it's raining, and there are storms in the area."
I saw Mason pass Steele in the hallway today. Derrick said: "Hey, you owe me a helicopter ride and a band." The two then laughed.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated/NBC-TV and Adam Schefter, now of ESPN and formerly of the NFL Network, were here last Friday (7/31). Both complimented how well orchestrated our training camp is for fans. Schefter even said that our players sign more autographs than any other team. Nice compliments, and we appreciate those.
We still get complaints from fans about not getting a certain player's autograph. Fans should know that after each morning practice, a third of the players have to go inside to lift weights. Another third are required to do core exercises, which are done on the field. At least 10 to 15 players will have interviews with reporters. Obviously, this limits the number who can sign on any morning. But, our players, in general, are great. Some even come back out after they finish with their lifting, exercises or interviews.
(By the way, players with any type of injuries have to go to the training room for treatment immediately after practices.)
I saw two very nice efforts by Mason and Flacco last Sunday afternoon (8/2). It was Derrick's first day back, and he couldn't sign in the morning because of a weight-lifting session. As he ran past fans yelling his name in the morning, he said: "Come back this afternoon, and I'll sign." Mason was out there signing for an hour after the p.m. practice session.
While Joe was signing Sunday afternoon, he kept gazing around the crowd, obviously looking for someone. When asked if he needed help, Joe said: "I promised this girl who was wearing my jersey that I'd sign for her after practice." Joe found her a short while later, and with tears in her eyes, the youngster turned to her mother and said: "He remembered me. He was looking for me. He signed. Look!"
Way to go Derrick and Joe.
Talk with you next week.
Kevin Byrne is in his 30th 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.