Had the chance to be at John Harbaugh's team meeting last Monday. It is at this weekly meeting that "Harbs" reviews the previous game and gives a motivational message or theme for the following game. After the head coach did a quick review of the goals achieved and not reached from the victory over the Redskins, John switched to this Sunday's showdown against the Steelers. Here is what he said:
"Hey, do we even have to talk about Sunday's game? We all know what this is about. You don't need any speeches.
"Rex," Harbaugh continued while looking at assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, "what did we talk about walking off the field at their place on that Monday night? What did we say to each other? We said that when they came to our place, first place would be on the line for the division. That's what has happened. We want to win the division championship. We talked about this back in training camp.
"Then let's win Sunday. We all know what we have to do to get ready for this. Let's do it. We start today."
That was it. And coach Harbaugh is right. Everyone here realizes the magnitude of the game. No dramatic speeches were necessary on Monday, nor will they be needed tonight at the team meeting, or tomorrow before kickoff. How good is this? The Ravens and Steelers in a showdown game. At our place, in front of our fans, with much of the nation watching on CBS-TV. We're good. They're good. Let's get ready to rumble!
No Mention of Steelers
I found it interesting that coach Harbaugh never mentioned the word "Steelers" in his brief Monday presentation. Not sure what it means, but I liked that. It follows a message that the head coach has preached since the season began. The message is: "It's not about them, it's about us. We can't do anything about who we play and when we play. The NFL lets us know. We can do everything about the way we prepare for games."
Along with that, our players have been direct with media about this game. Reporters are just doing their job when they've asked our players this week about bounties, dislike for Hines Ward, Rashard Mendenhall's fractured shoulder, Big Ben and on and on. Our players have stayed above the fray. They have answered that they can't wait to play on Sunday.
That hasn't made for the greatest pre-game stories, but, I think, it does reflect a resolve by our players to focus on the preparation for and to play the game.
One former Raven who loved to publicly bait the opponent is Shannon Sharpe, who was here Thursday to interview Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs for this Sunday's CBS-TV's NFL Today (Noon) show. I remember before a Steelers' game in 2001, Shannon, who was our starting tight end, referred to then-Pittsburgh receiver Plaxico Burress as "Plexiglass." When a reporter tried to correct Sharpe, Shannon answered: "You heard me, I called him 'Plexiglass' because he's so fragile."
By the way, CBS and Shannon wanted to interview our players one at a time. Going along with our "team" concept that is so much a part of what we are right now, the trio insisted on being interviewed together…and they did just that. It will be interesting to see how CBS edits the piece, because they interviewed Steeler defensive players separately.
A Teary Shannon Sharpe
Shannon has been here before representing CBS-TV. The first time he came to our new facility in Owings Mills, I showed him a giant oil painting of him that we have displayed in the building. The piece of art shows Shannon scoring the winning touchdown in the AFC Championship game at Oakland in our Super Bowl XXXV championship season. When he looked at the painting, which is one of the best sports oils I've ever seen, he got tears in his eyes.
"I played two seasons for you guys and 12 in Denver," Sharpe said at the time. "I don't think they even have a black and white photo of me at the Broncos' facility, and I have an oil painting here. I'm touched. I'm really touched."
Sharpe looks like he can still play. When he was playing for us, Shannon once told me that he read somewhere that the average person gains a pound a year after the 30th birthday. So in Shannon's last few seasons, he always came into training camp one pound lighter than the previous season. And Shannon was very particular about maintaining that weight.
At our old facility in Owings Mills, we had a caterer bring lunch for our players every day. Shannon would not eat that food. He brought a square Tupperware container with the same things in it every day: a piece of baked chicken, a little bit of white rice and some peas…every day. He would then splurge late Friday afternoon when he would go to the movies, often seeing two shows on each visit, and eat a bucket of popcorn.
Ray Lewis does something similar now. Ray is very strict with his diet, but I heard him say to Lorenzo Neal in our cafeteria a few weeks ago: "'Lo,' don't take that. We'll get our reward at the end of the week. Mama will have a special dessert for us."
In tomorrow's game program, senior director of publishing Francine Lubera put together a story featuring the Ravens' "unsung heroes" – players who are doing big-time jobs without much media notoriety. Francine talked with a number of coaches when she compiled her list. Here are some of the players the coaches saluted:
- Center Jason Brown
Watch Jason sprint to his position when the team breaks the huddle. It shows his enthusiasm for the next play. Jason has become the leader on the O-line. He loves to play. He's smart, tough and will knock opponents around until he hears the whistle.
- Quarterback Troy Smith
Another player who brings great enthusiasm to practice and games, Troy could be pouting about the way he lost the starting quarterback spot – he got sick. But, he doesn't. He has plowed ahead and made himself even more valuable with his execution of our "2 QBs" offense. (That's the offense everyone calls "The Suggs Package." When Cam Cameron calls the plays, it's called "2 QBs.")
- Fullback Lorenzo Neal
The man has few stats, but he has been vital to our success on and off the field. As the lead fullback, he pounds opponents who then have to deal with Le'Ron McClain running a few steps behind. Off the field, "Lo" is a big-time leader who gets everyone's attention when he speaks. After we lost the heartbreaker to the Titans at home earlier this season, Neal gave an impassioned post-game lecture that had every player and coach standing taller. His basic message was: "Playing good teams close is not good enough. Don't get used to it, or we'll be losers." I think his teammates paid attention.
- Defensive Tackle Justin Bannan & Cornerback Fabian Washington* *I put these 2 players together, because they both fall into the "Where Would We Be Without Them" category. Justin has replaced what many NFL personnel experts believe is the best nose tackle in the league, Kelly Gregg. To be trite, Justin "is a man's man." He asks no quarter and gives none. He takes every play personally. He wills himself to be the best every time the ball is snapped. He's tough, rough and has been vital in our defense's success. And, oh my, Rex Ryan stops Ozzie Newsome regularly and thanks him for the draft weekend trade for Fabian. Fabian's man-to-man coverage skills have allowed us to attack offenses the way Rex loves to do it. Newsome traded our 4th-round pick to the Raiders for Washington. It's another one of the outstanding personnel maneuvers accomplished by the "Wizard of Oz" and his staff. Fabian replaced the injured Chris McAlister and has shown he could be a staple for our defense for years to come.
- Outside Linebacker Jarret Johnson
The only 2-time captain in the great history of Alabama football, "Double J" does the dirty work for the Ravens' defense. "We try to give everyone a chance to make big plays with our defense. That's part of the fun of playing with us," OLB coach Mike Pettine explained. "But, we don't give 'Double J' many of those chances. He's too vital doing the tough, dirty work to make everything else go." And, how about the evolution of Johnson? He was a defensive tackle for the Tide, and he played some of that as a rookie with us. Actually, Rex Ryan still slides him in there every now and then. Tomorrow, take one defensive play and just watch Johnson. You'll see what we mean by taking on tough, nasty and demanding assignments.
- Long Snapper Matt Katula
You don't hear his name. Why? He doesn't make mistakes. Every punt, every point after touchdown and every field goal, starts with Matt's snap. He's perfect this season, plus he's big and physical covering punts down field.
- Punter Sam Koch
We'll see if the rest of the AFC coaches and players respect the job Sam does as much as we do when the Pro Bowl team is announced on Tuesday. Under special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, Sam changed some of the things he does as our punter, including developing a new Australian point-of-the-ball-down kick that has pinned teams inside the 20-yard line all season.
We have others who deserve this "unsung hero" tag, including some staff members. But, this is a pretty good group. All part of the "team, team, team" coach Harbaugh preaches about regularly.
At last Monday's team meeting, Matt Stover hobbled in with a machine attached to his injured ankle. The device basically freezes the ankle area, reducing and preventing swelling.
After Matt was seated, and with most of the team already in place for the start of the meeting, long snapper Matt Katula walked in with a cane, which he then presented to Stover. That got a good laugh.
I walked into the locker room on Thursday and saw a huge crowd around Terrell Suggs' locker, which has a small TV and DVD player in it. There were players and members of the media watching the TV, which was showing highlights of a 13-year-old running back from Florida. This player was spectacular, making long run after long run, breaking tackles, knocking people over – just dominating.
Then I heard Ray Lewis' voice, who was seated on a stool in the front of the group. "Oh my, makes a Dad proud," Lewis said. It was video of his son Ray Lewis III, who was recently the 1st player selected for a national junior high school all-star game and was also featured in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" section a few weeks ago.
Hey, this is why we work so hard, including the fans – for games like tomorrow. It's the Ravens and Steelers with lots on the line. I won't sleep well tonight. Too excited. Can't wait. Let's rock and fire and beat those guys.
Talk with 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.