Last season was enjoyable and amazing. It was thoroughly enjoyable to Ravens fans because of the team’s success and amazing to the entire league because of what the team had to overcome. Ravens fans would say that they never lost faith in the team and that they knew the team had the talent, but there were still many questions. The team was only one season removed from the retirement of perennial Pro Bowler Jonathan Ogden. At the time, no one knew how Jared Gaither would fill in, and since the Ravens did not draft a left tackle, the only option was to start Gaither.
Of course, there was also the quarterback position, the most important in football. Steve McNair’s retirement was not a big surprise, but the Ravens did not have many options. Kyle Boller had never shown the ability to lead and the team did not seem to have faith in him. Troy Smith had been solid in two previous starts, but his technique and size left the coaches worried. Joe Flacco was the rookie, and rookie quarterbacks have very rarely been successful in the NFL. Because of injuries and illness, Flacco was forced into the starting lineup. We now know that this was good fortune, but at the time, it was a very big concern.
The Ravens came out of the gate strong and won their first two games against the Bengals and the Browns. However, the Ravens struggled over their next three games and lost to the Steelers, the Titans and the Colts. The three game losing streak reminded the team of the 2007 season when the they lost nine games in a row. Because of their stellar defense, the Ravens managed to pull off victories against the Dolphins and the Raiders, but everyone in the locker room felt like the team was on the brink. Joe Flacco was throwing interceptions that were costing games. Much like 2007, the defense was wearing thin, and injuries, particularly in the secondary, began to pile up.
Going into Cleveland on November 2nd, the Ravens were 4-3. The Browns were 3-4 and had shocked the undefeated New York Giants two weeks before. There was a feeling that the Ravens and Browns were fighting for the same place in the division. The Ravens had the better record, but they also had the easier schedule. The Browns believe that they were going to take the Raven’s place in the division. This game proved to be a season-breaker for the Browns and a season-maker for the Ravens. The Ravens pulled together during this game, and everyone could feel the team coming together. Most surprising of all, Joe Flacco led the team, down by 14 points, to a victory. When asked about "the moment" where he saw the team come together and Flacco emerge, John Harbaugh said the following:
"Looking back on [Joe Flacco’s season], the moment where everybody knew that he could win a game for us, really on his own, was the Browns Game. We go down, all of the sudden, 27-13. In the middle of the third quarter, they score fast, and we are on the verge of getting blow out. [Flacco] takes us down the field twice. The next time you see the scoreboard, were right back up to 27. [Flacco] took the ball down and scored. We got a turnover, and he took it right back down and scored again. It was really just him throwing the ball down the field."
"This guy can take over a game! That’s what the players look for in a quarterback."
In reality, the Browns game did not make the team last season. The team had been carefully crafted by the Ravens front office and their owner, Steve Bisciotti. It all started with the firing of Brian Billick. The Ravens needed a new coach. They needed a motivator, and Bisciotti understood this. There were many speculated candidates. Marty Schottenheimer, Jason Garrett and Bill Cowher were all considered. Then the dark horse candidate appeared, John Harbaugh. Young, inexperienced and full of fire, Harbaugh was exactly what Bisciotti was looking for.
"Do I like a guy that has to earn his resume? Yeah. I kind of made a living on hiring people with thin resumes and it's worked out pretty well for me in the last 25 years," Bisciotti said. "I think that works to John's advantage. I said three weeks ago you have to take chances to be successful. You have to be willing to do things that the masses wouldn't do, or I don't think you will be able to separate yourself from the masses."
John Harbaugh immediately began to assemble one of the best coaching staffs in the NFL. The two biggest moves were hiring Cam Cameron as the offensive coordinator and keeping Rex Ryan as the defensive coordinator. As the off-season progressed, the new coaches and the front office started to gel. Harbaugh seemed to know how to make it work. He was born to be a head-coach.
"When you grow up in that [football family] environment, the thing you learn is that there are three important things [to] putting together a football team," said John Harbaugh "Number one is the team. The second most important thing is the team, and the third most important thing is the team. We'll stick with that through and through, beginning to end. That's what it's all about."
It became quickly apparent to everyone that the 2008 NFL draft was going to determine the Ravens immediate and long-term success. Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta did not take the task lightly.
"This is probably the most critical draft we've ever had, based on our needs on this team, based on the future, our record last year and where we want to get to," said Eric DeCosta, Baltimore's director of college scouting. "I'm very excited. We've all talked, the three of us, about sleepless nights and waking up in the middle of the night."
"The wounds from last season are still fresh. That was a very trying season for me, personally. This draft is very strong in comparison to last year's draft. We've got nine picks, we hope to have some more at some point possibly, and I think we can really legitimize the roster for the next four, five, six years with an excellent draft this year."
Ultimately, the Ravens came out of the draft with Joe Flacco and Ray Rice. Both played an instrumental role in the victory over Cleveland, but even more than that, their ability to contribute in their first year shows the value of the Ravens front office. They understood the needs of the team and were able to select players that would help them win immediately while building for the future.
When asked if he was surprised by the performances of rookies Ray Rice and Joe Flacco in Cleveland, Harbaugh responded, "When they get drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, we expect them to play like that. Are we surprised? No."
The performance against Cleveland displayed a balanced team. It was a team win. The Ravens began to win games by any means necessary. If the defense needs a stop, they did their best to make it happen. If the offense needs to score, they did their best to make it happen.
"You’ve got to tip your hat to the offense," Terrell Suggs stated. "Amazing what they did. They put up 14 points fast when we were down 27-13. They scored twice, and you could feel the sense of team being formed, what we’ve been searching for all year."
"I couldn’t be more proud to be the coach of the Baltimore Ravens," Harbaugh said. "We talk about character and integrity and doing what’s right – to overcome the adversity that they did in the second half speaks about how big their hearts are."
It all goes back to what Harbaugh said the day he was hired. "The most important thing is the team." In the Raven’s system, no one player or coach is solely responsible for the team’s success or failure. The Raven’s success goes beyond the stats, the coaches or the players. It is a team effort, through and through.
"We're going to be a dynasty," John Harbaugh said boldly. "If you're not willing to say it out loud, how do you expect to get there?"
We all know the final outcome. Jared Gaither filled in remarkably for Jonathan Ogden and looked like a future Pro Bowler. Joe Flacco started the entire season and did what no other rookie quarterback has ever done. He won two playoff games. John Harbaugh took the team and starting in training camp, gave it a “hard-nosed” mentality. In his first season, he took the team to the AFC Championship game and came within minutes of the Super Bowl. Ravens fans could not have hoped for much better, and the rest of the league can hardly believe it. The future looks bright, and I will always remember the 2008 season as special. In particular, I will remember the game against the Browns where the team came together, and Flacco won his first come-back victory.