"Where else would you rather be?"
It's a line that Raven fans are incredibly familiar with. But it's more than simply a catchphrase. It's a mindset. And it's the reason for the success of one of the best current franchises in the NFL.
A silly (and certainly bold) statement, this is something I truly believe. The Baltimore Ravens are an organization that has, since the hiring of head coach John Harbaugh, found a way to win in every way imaginable. Ozzie/DeCosta have been impressive at evaluating talent and Steve Bisciotti is a fantastically confident owner, but it's up to the head coach to give the team an identity. And Coach Harbaugh has delivered brilliantly.
Stats from Football Outsiders, a website that injects a unique set of statistics into their rankings. See this link if you are not familiar with their system.
Baltimore Ravens rankings from 2007-2012
Overall: 19, 2, 1, 5, 7, 8
Defense: 5, 2, 4, 6, 1, 19
Offense: 25, 19, 9, 12, 13, 13
Sp Teams: 13, 16, 8, 4, 30, 1
About what you'd expect. Nothing but top-10s beginning in 2008 when Harbaugh took over. Mediocre offense, improving Special Teams, and top-six defenses each year until last year (the one outlier is the 30th ranked Special Teams in 2011 which I seem to remember Harbaugh being quite upset about).
The Baltimore tradition has always been elite defense. However, when all else failed, they found a new way to win last year: relentless mental toughness and elite Special Teams. So elite in fact, it was the third-highest ranked unit ever recorded by Football Outsiders. If you look at the top of the Special Teams rankings from 2012, you'll see overachieving teams (Baltimore, Seattle, Minnesota, Cincinatti), a perennially great team (New England), and teams trying desperately to improve (Cleveland, Chicago). San Francisco was ranked number two in their breakout 2010 season. Special Teams, while not proportionally indicative of success, is a fantastic indicator of a mentally tough and well-coached football team.
Many Ravens fans believe the defense could return to glory this year. And it makes sense. We're talking about a unit with perhaps the best dual-threat (suggs/dumervil) pass-rush in the NFL. The Ravens have a ton of confidence in their front seven. But what if the defense remains mediocre as they were last year? Can the offense step up? Possibly. But will Joe Flacco try too hard to live up to his contract and ultimately hurt the team? No, because the team (including Flacco) knows its identity. They are a well-oiled machine that will grind out games and find a way to win at all costs.
Here's the point I'm trying to make. John Harbaugh understands something that much of his competition does not. It's difficult to put into words. Bill Simmons calls it "The Secret." Harbaugh expresses it through the quote I referenced above. It originates from Marv Levy, who actually wrote a book entitled, "Where Else Would You Rather Be." If you play for Coach Harbaugh, it's because you want to be there. It's because you want the glory as much as he does. You are willing to sacrifice everything to make an impact in any way necessary. It's the same mentality of Bill Belichick, Gregg Popovich, Bill Russell and all of the great champions in sports.
For many of the fringe players fighting for their chance, it's going to be Special Teams or nothing. And there's no one more aware of this than John Harbaugh. He was unknown when the Ravens hired him and got his start coaching Special Teams (much like Bill Belichick). In fact, it was Belichick himself who recommended Harbaugh for the job. Both men have elevated the importance of Special Teams and their players have responded. I believe they are the unquestioned best two coaches in football. There may be better x-and-o guys, better public speakers, etc. But I challenge you to find two men who are more in control, more confident, and who couldn't give less of a damn what anyone thinks of them.
Speaking amongst co-workers, they can't understand my abundance of confidence in this team. I'm completely aware that every good thing must come to an end. It's possible this could be the year they miss the playoffs. However, I also know what I've seen over the last five years. I told my Dallas Cowboy fan co-workers the Ravens are a team that wins games they're supposed to lose, while the Cowboys lose games they're supposed to win. An argument they hated, but agreed with. The perfect storm collided last season when the two teams played. The Cowboys dominated every statistical category but still managed to lose the game. Ironically, the game's most crucial momentum-shifting play was a Jacoby Jones kickoff return (Special Teams!).
The Ravens organization, in a way, is addicted to success. In fact, if this stretch turns into a dynasty (as Steve Bisciotti hopes it does) and someone writes a book about his team, "Addicted to Success" would be a perfect title. Same goes for the Pats when Belichick/Brady retire. Until then, I suggest that we simply enjoy the ride. It's a great time to be a Ravens fan.