Joe Cool: Ravens second-year QB Joe Flacco
Heading into the new season Sunday versus a struggling, red-meat Kansas City Chiefs, the Ravens are looking like a team out to show -- again -- that imperfection can win a Super Bowl.
The 2009 version of the Ravens is relying on a familiar formula -- a Ray Lewis-led, shut-down defense, a solid running game and stout line play on both sides of the ball. If they can beat AFC North nemesis Pittsburgh after three losses last season (23-20, 13-9, 23-14) to the Super Bowl champion, the stars could align their way.
After the surprise of last season, reaching the AFC title game with first-year head coach John Harbaugh and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens are being touted as one of the league’s elite teams along with the Steelers, Eagles, Patriots, Giants, Titans, Chargers and Vikings. There is every reason to believe that the unflappable and strong-armed Flacco will be even better going into his sophomore season.
A Sporting News list of the 100 greatest players in the NFL today listed five Ravens, safety Ed Reed at No. 7, middle backer Lewis (11), center Matt Birk (40), linebacker Terrell Suggs (45) and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (92). Only the Steelers, Vikings, Chargers and Colts had more players on the list than the Ravens.
All spring and summer, most Ravens talk involved the wide receiver position and whether to mortgage draft picks and salary cap for an Anquan Boldin of Arizona or a Brandon Marshall of Denver. GM Ozzie Newsome opted for pulling the trigger on neither. Instead, the Ravens did what the good teams do – fortify the O-line and defense with fresh talent. First-round pick Michael Oher from Mississippi just might help keep Steeler blitzers off Flacco’s right flank.
In 1996, Newsome made the right move when he selected future Hall of Famer and character-guy Jonathan Ogden out of UCLA over the alluring but troubled all-world Nebraska back Lawrence Phillips.
After NFL cut-down day last Friday to the 53-man roster, the Ravens were content to enter the season with just four wide receivers. Derrick Mason along with Mark Clayton, Kelley Washington and Demetrius Williams may not stack up to Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Chad Ochocinco or Terrell Owens on the outside, but if the line holds up, Flacco is poised to get the ball up field. Ray Rice wrestled the starting tailback position from Willis McGahee during the offseason and figures to catch a lot of balls out of the backfield, and tight end Todd Heap is promising a return to his All-Pro form. A David Tyree or Bobby Wade, late of the Giants and Vikings, respectively, might be a last-minute addition to the roster to bolster the passing game.
Imperfect, yes, but Super Bowl serviceable.
Same on the corners and in the kicking game. In the secondary, Fabian Washington and Domonique Foxworth, may not be as good as Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle at their best, but they are fast and have the ultimate hedge – Reed at free safety. Another question mark? Whether Steve Hauschka can hit field goals consistently after the team jettisoned the aging great kicker Matt Stover.
Capturing the franchise’s only championship after the 2000 season, that Ravens Super Bowl team also had its share of holes – with no proven commodity in a Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning under center, just the dink-and-dunk leadership of Trent Dilfer. But they took it to the house anyway, imperfections and all.