Those of us who are fortunate enough to work in the NFL are just like you fans when it comes to worrying about whether we can win the next game. Just like when you're asking your buddy: "Do you think the Ravens will win this Sunday?" We're doing the same thing here.
The NFL is a league designed to get every team to 8-8. The worse your record the previous season, the higher your draft choice. Supposedly, you get an easier schedule if you have a bad season. (That is, unless your schedule cycle happens to include games against the teams from the AFC South and NFC East this season.)
This zest to keep all teams even pretty much means that we can all beat each other. It means that "on any given Sunday," any team can beat the other. It means that all those fans who told me last week that we would beat the Raiders, it didn't help me sleep. I am a worrier when it comes to my team, the Ravens. I may put on a good front to media, players and coaches. But inside, I'm a wreck about the upcoming game.
What I usually fail to do in my weekly assessment is remind myself that, historically, we're pretty good at what we do at the Ravens. I mean we have an owner, Steve Bisciotti, who gives us the resources and support to win; we have Ozzie Newsome and his staff picking the players; we have a dynamic new head coach with an outstanding staff; we have Pro Bowl-type players like Ray, Ed, Suggs, Bart, Haloti, Todd, Willis, Mason, Stover and on and on.
And, what do I think of many times during the week: how good the other team is. Take the Browns, this Sunday's opponent. Here's my wacky stream of football consciousness this week: "Know the game is going to be close. One big play could make the difference. They have that giant, big-armed quarterback (Derek Anderson) who loves to throw down field. They have those two big monsters – Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow – who can go up and get any jump ball. And, they've done it against us in the past. There's Jamal Lewis, who would love to be the 1st back to get 100 yards against us in almost 2 seasons worth of games. The Browns' O-line is good, and their left tackle, Joe Thomas, is special.
"How can we run against these guys? Jacksonville couldn't last week, and the Jaguars were the home team. And special teams – don't get me started. Their return guy, Joshua Cribbs, is close to the best in the league. They have a clutch kicker, and their punter controls field position, just like he did when he was a Raven. They're playing at home. This is the game that could put them in the thick of the playoff race."
So, I don't sleep.
But, I do try to gain confidence during the week, because, guess what, I have access to the people who know. I have our coaches and personnel experts who know everything about the next opponent, while having complete knowledge of my team, the Ravens. Who better to ask than our players? They're preparing to win. They have to know how to beat the next team.
This is what I do. I go to all these experts during the week. And, to be honest, they don't help me rest comfortably. I'll usually start out with the head coach on Monday night: "Hey John, how do those Browns look?" Here's what coach Harbaugh said this week: "They're healthier than when we beat them a few weeks ago. That's a big one they got yesterday in Jacksonville. They're playing with confidence. We have to stop their run and can't let them have the big play down field. Teams are having trouble scoring on them. That Cribbs is very good."
Yikes! That kept me up Monday night.
On Tuesday, I stopped Vic Fangio in the hallways. Vic is our special assistant to the head coach/defense and is recognized in the NFL as one of the best in the business. He always gives me truthful answers. That's good, because he works one week ahead of the other coaches and knew the Browns inside and out last week. He presented his assessment to our coaches on Monday night.
First words out of Vic's mouth: "They're playing better than when we beat them. They're healthier. Shaun Rogers (defensive tackle) is playing better than I've ever seen him."
So, Vic, we'll beat them, right?
"It will be a good game. They are explosive with that offense, and Cribbs is dangerous. Teams aren't scoring a lot of points against them."
And…we'll beat them, right?
"We can. I hope we do," Fangio said.
That wrecked Tuesday night.
On Wednesday morning, the players get the full game plan from the coaches. It's the blueprint to victory. That's when I started looking to players for reassurance.
Now, two guys I ask often about how we'll do that week are Ray Lewis and Jason Brown. Unfortunately, they have no credibility, because they say the same thing for every opponent. Ray always says that we'll stop the other team. Jason's mantra is that we'll knock the other team off the ball and run all day.
Ran into offensive line coach John Matsko. "Coach, what do you think this week?" John's response: "They're pretty stout. Jaguars couldn't run against them. They're healthier. Be a good match for us. We'll be ready."
"We'll be ready." That's the best I got from anyone on Wednesday. Thursday wasn't any more encouraging. Does anyone care that I'm not sleeping well?
Which brings me to Ozzie Newsome. I swear he delights in tormenting me. He knows I'm going to ask about the upcoming game and usually stops me before I ask the question. "Too early Kevin, too early. Have to watch our practices and study the Browns some more," Newsome will say.
On Fridays, Newsome still offers no encouragement. "One more practice to watch." That makes for a restless Friday night.
This is what will happen today (Saturday) when I get to my seat for our charter to Cleveland. For years, Ozzie and I have sat together. I'll ask him about who Alabama is playing today and probably rib him about the Tide's easy schedule. (I do this even when Alabama is playing a top 10 team.) I'll look at him and say: "Tomorrow?" He'll smile and say something like: "They're pretty good."
Then Ozzie will say: "But, we're pretty good, too."
That's the best insight I get from hanging with all these informed pro football experts. No wonder I have these deep bags under my eyes during the season.
REASSURED ONE TIME
It's strange, but the most confident about winning I have been was prior to the Ravens' Super Bowl XXXV victory over the Giants. On the bus on the way back from our Wednesday practice that week, I sat with then-head coach Brian Billick. We were reviewing the media requirements for the next day. When we finished that part of the conversation, I asked him: "Can we win this game?"
His reply stunned me: "You kidding? We will kick their ass. We're better than they are."
"How can you be so confident?" I asked.
"Look," Billick said, "would you rather play at home against the Broncos, on the road at Tennessee, at Oakland or the Giants on a neutral field?"
I stammered: "Yeah, but the Giants just beat the Vikings 41-0 in the NFC Championship."
Brian continued: "Those teams would not have made the playoffs if they played in the AFC. We're going to beat the Giants. Our guys are ready."
Have to admit that Brian's confidence didn't convince me. After all, it was the Super Bowl. But, he was right. We did smack the Giants, winning 34-7. It should have been a shutout – New York's lone touchdown came on a kickoff return.
GET SOME SLEEP
I hope you sleep well tonight. I won't. I'll be worried about Edwards and Rogers, Anderson and Winslow. Jamal and Cribbs will creep into my thinking. But, instead of counting sheep, I'll focus on Ozzie's line: "We're good, too." Then I'll doze off reminding myself that we have Ray and Ed, Derrick and Haloti, Suggs and Stover, McGahee and Ray Rice, Jason and Willie on the O-line, Harbs and Cam and Rex on the sideline. And, on and on…It's better than counting sheep.
Get some rest. Big game in Cleveland tomorrow. Talk to you next week.
Kevin Byrne is the Ravens' Senior Vice President – 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.