NEW ORLEANS – The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are mentioned most often when discussing the contemporary standard of NFL excellence.
The Baltimore Ravens belong in that conversation.
“This is as good as it gets,” said Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, a free agent who has played for the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans. “Baltimore has been really freaking good to me.”
The man most responsible for establishing the Ravens’ winning culture is General Manager and Executive Vice President Ozzie Newsome, who has overseen the team since it ceased being the Cleveland Browns in 1996.
Newsome is an NFL oddity, a legendary player who has thrived as an executive. He’s in the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is one game away from his second Lombardi Trophy as the Ravens’ top personnel man.
If the Ravens can defeat the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, then Newsome will have won Super Bowls 12 years apart with different owners, different head coaches, different quarterbacks and a single player – linebacker Ray Lewis – on both rosters.
“What makes Ozzie Newsome such a great general manager?” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday at Super Bowl XLVII media day. “Can I name the ways? How long would it take? It would be a long list.”
Since 2000, the Ravens have reached the playoffs nine times with five starting quarterbacks. They’ve notched double-digit victories eight times. They’ve had only three losing seasons.
“I can’t imagine a coach having a better GM to work with than Ozzie in terms of the day-to-day demeanor, the steadiness,” said Phil Savage, a veteran executive who has worked with and against Newsome. “He’s the guy that has provided the steady hand to the rudder for all these years. There’s no disputing that.”
The key to Newsome’s longevity, he claimed, was communication.
“I think it’s having the right relationship with the coach, the owner and the president,” Newsome said. “I try to make myself available. I try to be honest with any and everything that I try to tell them.”
Newsome made a daring hire when he named Harbaugh head coach in 2008. Harbaugh was an off-the-radar defensive backs coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. The Ravens had fired Brian Billick, who guided them to their first Super Bowl victory.
The Ravens have been phenomenal in the draft despite frequently picking in the 20s. The average draft position of their past 10 selections is 21.5. The team also excels at developing talent and at signing free agents.
The Ravens’ 17 first-round draft choices under Newsome have gone to 50 Pro Bowls, with Lewis, tackle Jonathan Ogden, safety Ed Reed and linebacker Terrell Suggs leading the way.
Their quarterback, Joe Flacco, hasn’t been to a Pro Bowl but has been in the postseason every year since he was taken 18th overall in 2008 and has been fantastic in propelling the Ravens to Super Bowl XLVII.
“He has a clear picture of what type of player he wants, what type of player fits into the scheme of what they’re trying to do, the personality of his football team,” said Ravens center Matt Birk, a 2009 free-agent signee. “Ozzie and his staff seem to do a great job of evaluating talent and getting pieces that fit.”
Said Newsome: “It goes with the quarterback. If Joe Flacco wasn’t a very good quarterback right now, I’d probably be golfing down in Alabama somewhere.”
The Ravens’ top free-agent signings have included quarterback Steve McNair, tight end Shannon Sharpe, receiver Derrick Mason, defensive end Michael McCrary, defensive tackle Sam Adams and safety Rod Woodson.
“The times that I have dealt with him, you never walk away not knowing where he’s coming from,” said NFL player agent Joe Linta, who represents Flacco and Birk. “You may not agree with what he says, but you know where he’s coming from. He goes through the front door.”
Newsome apparently is a master at all forms of player acquisition.
“He’s tough in trade negotiations,” former New York Jets General Manager Mike Tannenbaum said. “He is hard. He drives a tough bargain, a fair bargain. You’ve got to be prepared. We’ve proposed some things in the past, and he’s a formidable adversary when it comes to doing deals.”
Savage explained how Newsome is adept at re-signing players at what they called “a Ravens price.” Newsome, known for being a straight shooter, would encourage players to test free agency before renegotiating deals with the Ravens.
“He’s been successful at that because I think players believe what he tells them,” said Savage, who was Newsome’s college-scouting director for six years and pro-personnel director for two years before the Cleveland Browns named Savage their GM. “There’s a trustworthiness there because he’s a former player himself.
“He was one of them, and even though he’s been on the management side for longer than he actually played, which is phenomenal in itself, I think he has a credibility with the players that a lot of other GMs simply can’t bring to the table because most of the rest of us never played a minute in the NFL.”
Newsome had a Hall of Fame career with the Browns. He retired after the 1990 season with 662 receptions for 7,980 yards and 47 touchdowns and took a “special assignment” job in the Browns’ scouting department the same year Bill Belichick became head coach.
On the surface, it seemed like a token front-office gig for a player out to pasture.
“You hang out in those jobs,” Sam Rutigliano, Newsome’s coach with the Browns, said with a laugh. “They’re very easy. But every opportunity Ozzie got, he took tremendous advantage of it.
“It’s rare when you see great players who want to spend the time to do what it takes to coach or scout. But the rest is history.”
Newsome eventually became the Browns’ assistant to the head coach, with input on the offense and player personnel. He became pro personnel director in 1994, and when Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore, he asked Newsome to be the Ravens’ vice president of player personnel.
In 2002, Newsome became the NFL’s first African-American general manager.
“He has a great feel for the game and a real knack for evaluating players,” said Tannenbaum, who started out in the Browns’ scouting department when Newsome was there.
“He’s a natural. I admire him deeply.”