The Ravens are the only team to reach the postseason each time in the past five years.
There's a level of consistency within the organization, beginning from the top with general manager Ozzie Newsome, which trickles down to coach John Harbaugh and his players. Since the Ravens hired Harbaugh, the organization has reached three AFC Championship games and won a Super Bowl title.
It hasn't always been pretty, though. In the NFL culture, where it's "what have you done for me lately," or "win now or get out," the Ravens won without the kind of flare that comes expected with high-powered offenses that have the so-called elite quarterbacks.
But it's hard to argue with winning. And there hasn't been team better at that simple concept than Baltimore, since 2008, when it matters.
I had the pleasure of speaking to former Broncos general manager Ted Sunquist a couple of days ago. We spoke about the nuances that go into being a general manager in the NFL, and the balance needed to succeed within the varied pressures. Sundquist, author of the book Taking Your Team to the Top: How to Build and Manage Great Teams like the Pros, also placed that theme within the context of the 2013 Ravens, and how they can overcome losing eight starters from a championship team.
Baltimore Beatdown: When you're in the role of general manager, how difficult is it to manage the win-now expectations while simultaneously preparing for the long-term?
Ted Sundquist: That's the great thing about a general manager being the head of a club, to be honest with you. I think it's a responsibility of the general manager to look out for the long term health of the organization. What the problem is, is it runs head-on with the pressure the head coach has to win now. Somehow, you have to find a balance between doing what's right and maintaining stability and being a competitor now and years into the future, and giving your head coach the resources and the support he feels he needs right now to address that ever-present win now or else that comes from fans and the media and the game in general.
The great thing is the teams that really set forth their own identity, and there only a handful in the NFL I believe that have done that. That regardless of what happens or who's coaching them, who's quarterbacking them, players come and go, but they have a corporate culture and identity. Those teams are able to withstand change. Baltimore's going through some of that after winning a Super Bowl, so there are some questions — OK, can they keep that excitement and everything we just had from winning a Super Bowl or are they going to hit one of those dips? And I think Ozzie Newsome has done exactly that.
The Ravens know who they are as an organization. They have an identity. They can look in the mirror and say these are the types of players, coaches and scouts that we want in Baltimore. I think they can withstand losing some of the players — Ray being gone, Ed being gone, Anquan being gone. There are a lot of big things, productive names and leadership going on there, but they're one of the few clubs in the league that can withstand that.
BB: When you look at the personnel changes themselves, as you were mentioning, especially on the defensive side of the ball, given that Baltimore uncharacteristically finished 17th in total defense, whereas in Harbaugh's first four years they were No. 3 each year; does it look like they made the necessary improvements on that side of the ball to where, yeah, they won the Super Bowl as the NFL's top team, but they still recognized the need for improvement?
TS: I think what happens is when you got a veteran defense, a lot of times those guys — because we [in Denver] got that way. If you get a little bit long in the tooth in regards to the players and they lose a little bit of their ability, they're not the guys they once were. Ray, Ed, some of the guys that have been over there as they're getting older, it just happens. It's part of the game. Yet sometimes their reputation precedes themselves and they go into a game garnering attention from the opponent that might be based upon past production vs. present production. That's not a bad thing, that's a good thing. If you go in to fight an old Muhammad Ali, you're going to think of a young one as well.
BB: In your days as a GM, did you see that happen quite a bit, where there would be guys that were aging and coaches would still be in that same mold and make that mistake?
TS: Oh yeah, sometimes you keep them a little bit too long. Based upon what they meant to your club in the past and based upon what they meant from a leadership aspect. You'd keep them a little bit too long. You would end up seeing it on the field. You would end up seeing a No. 1 or a No. 2 unit slip to 12 or 15. It didn't take very long after watching the film to figure out why. But a lot of those types of players, they've gained so much respect and meant so much to your organization. It begins difficult from a coaching perspective and sometimes from a personnel perspective, for people to lay the cards out on the table and say, ‘Hey, you're not the player you used to be.' Then you've got to decide is there the right mix of youth and veterans to still have a productive unit.
I think there are times you can hold onto a guy who might not be the same player he used to be, but what he brings from a locker room presence and leadership on the field you can make up for it with youthful skills in other areas on the field. We did run into that, believe me. I ran into that and sometimes coaches are protective of their players, and you're trying to say from an evaluative standpoint let me tell you, no, he's not a top 10 player. No, we should not extend him to the degree we're talking about. The situation in Denver, the problem was the head coach [Mike Shanahan] was also the executive vice president of football operations.
So, I, as a general manager was sandwiched between a head coach with two titles. Going back to the long term health of the club, that's where Ozzie sets the tone. They made the right moves to move on, however they decided to do it, letting Ed go to Houston and Ray deciding to retire. I'm sure he sat down and talked to Ozzie about it, I would assume. But I think there are enough guys that they've got over there that kind of know the Raven way. When I was talking about having that culture, you can bring players in from the outside and the interesting thing is, I will say this: Chris Canty's here now and he comes from the Giants. In my opinion, the Giants are one of those teams that know who they are. So he's learned, and he's been around for a while, he's a veteran that just came from New York and he has a certain way of doing things.
A player like that, a player like Elvis [Dumervil], who I drafted — at one point in time Denver was one of those teams, I'm not so sure now to be honest with you — but he knows how to go about his business and they know how to acclimate to a culture that's already set there. I think that's why [Bill] Belichick has so much success in New England with bringing guys in from the outside. There's the Patriot Way of doing things and it's kind of a cliche but those guys fit in quickly.
BB: How tough is it, whether it's scouting, whether it's guys in the league or on practice squads, and in the college draft, to find those kind of guys that not only are talented but fit in with what you're trying to do or trying to build? It's like what [Ravens assistant GM] Eric DeCosta has said before, most of the draft is luck. You're going to hit on some players, miss on some players. You're just going to need some breaks to fall your way. So how tough is it with those factors, to build a team to be one of those where no matter the change, it can be successful?
TS: I don't think it's as tough as you have to put it at the forefront of what you're doing. I think some teams get enamored with highway speed and this and that. Character is an overused term but they tend to put it on the back burner. They tell you character is the first and foremost thing but then you see some of the issues you have in the league, both on and off the field.
And it does affect your organization on a day-to-day basis. It goes back to exactly what I was saying: those clubs with an identity — I think Green Bay is one of those teams. It doesn't matter who the coach is, who the general manager is, Green Bay knows who they are. Pittsburgh is one of those teams. The Giants are one of those teams. And I think Baltimore has quietly become one of those teams. They know who they are and it doesn't matter who the coach is or who the quarterback is, the focal point type people.
They're going to be successful, they're going to have a way about doing their business and that starts with the leadership. Ozzie is certainly at the top of that. He knows what he wants to build there. He knows the type of people and stressed that.
BB: You and Ozzie became GMs within the same year. Being able to reflect now on your career and being able to be an observer, what is it about him that's allowed him to separate himself from some of his peers around the league?
TS: I think from an evaluative standpoint, they're very thorough and very detailed. Their guys are always being talked about for general manager positions. A lot of that comes with success. Phil [Savage's] name was brought up time after time after time after time. Eric's name has come up a lot of times. With the success they've had, it's reflective of them knowing the types of players they want to have in their organization and going out and being able to acquire those guys.
That takes great communication skills, sitting down and making sure everyone's on the same page. That tells me their meetings, in free agency, draft, salary cap and those types of things, are well thought out. They're willing to make dynamic moves with regard to trades. If they need to make a move that's a benefit to the club, he's not afraid to do that. But I think he's got a core philosophy and he's stuck with that. That's a hard thing to do. There are so many ways to being pushed and pulled and pressured into doing the current trend or fad or what someone else thinks you should do.
And he doesn't do that. He quietly does his business. He could easily be a vocal, out in the front kind of executive. He doesn't do that. He does what's best for the Ravens. I think he looks at the league and what's going on it as what's best for the Ravens. I think that's what you have to do. I don't want to say you circle the wagons because your club is one of 32 teams but your responsibility is for the long term health of the Baltimore Ravens in his case.
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