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Purple Reign 1: Chapter 7 “The Greatest Defense in The History of The Game”

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Nestor Aparicio
Nestor Aparicio
Baltimore Positive is the vision and the creative extension of four decades of sharing the love of local sports for this Dundalk native and University of Baltimore grad, who began his career as a sportswriter and music critic at The News American and The Baltimore Sun in the mid-1980s. Launched radio career in December 1991 with Kenny Albert after covering the AHL Skipjacks. Bought WNST-AM 1570 in July 1998, created WNST.net in 2007 and began diversifying conversations on radio, podcast and social media as Baltimore Positive in 2016. nes@baltimorepositive.com

“Basically, we all help each other out and we are all the same way. We love to kill quarterbacks.”

– Sam Adams, Oct. 23, 2000, Coors Light Monday Night Live show from The Barn as heard on WNST-AM on Oct. 23, 2000

TIMES WEREN’T ALWAYS SO GOOD.

While the 2000 Baltimore Ravens will always receive credit from fans and foes alike for being the team that allowed the fewest points in NFL history – and punctuated that task with a defensive unit shutout in Super Bowl XXXV – only four men can properly put into perspective the pain, the growth and the joy of a group that ultimately captured greatness.

Director of Pro Personnel Ozzie Newsome and defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, along with linebacker Ray Lewis and defensive end Rob Burnett, were there for the entire, sometimes, gory ride. And there were many more bad times than good, more ugly third-down completions allowed than turnovers forced or three-and-outs en route to the title of “Greatest Defense in The History of the Game.”

Take season one, a late game at Jacksonville in Week 10 on November 10, 1996.

The Ravens, with a brilliant offensive attack led by Vinny Testaverde and Michael Jackson, had put 20 or more points on the board for five consecutive weeks only to be 1-4 in that stretch. Now, facing an emerging offensive force in the Jaguars and upstart quarterback Mark Brunell, the team would send out onto the grass at Alltel Stadium an undersized linebacker named Sedric Clark as a defensive end on left tackle Tony Boselli’s side to rush the signal caller.

“We have no chance at all of making a play,” a dejected Newsome told his staff in the press box once the game commenced. “We’re gonna get killed.”

“At least he’s fast and athletic,” came one quip from the press box about the 230-pound Clark, as much a fun dig at Newsome’s drafting philosophy as it was at Clark, who was just trying to stay in the league.

Despite no pressure at all on Brunell, the Ravens clung to a 27-16 lead with four minutes remaining in the game, only to have Brunell and the Jags rip their heart out with two late touchdown drives of 90 and 66 yards to win 30-27.

“It became pretty obvious to anyone who watched us that we couldn’t rush the quarterback at all,” said Marvin Lewis. “And if you can’t rush the quarterback in this league, you cannot win. It’s very simple. The receivers will eventually get open and any starting quarterback will make a play or just run for the first down.”

Part of the problem early was the expectation level combined with the limited financial resources of a team that had just landed in Baltimore swimming in its own debt. The new NFL salary cap requirements also took the team by surprise and had put it in a bind.

“People in Baltimore thought they were getting a pretty good team because it was a year removed from the playoffs,” Marvin Lewis said. “Nobody understood the cap problems. There were good players who were supposed to be coming from Cleveland that never made it onto the field. And it hurt us.”

Indeed, defensive back Don Griffin and linebacker Pepper Johnson from the defense, and wide receiver Andre Rison from the offense, would be at the team’s first mini-camp but wouldn’t make it to Westminster for training camp in July. All cap casualties.

Of the players who did make the squad coming over from Cleveland, there was a serious morale problem, especially among the veterans. Many of the players who had established themselves with the Browns had purchased homes in Cleveland and were as rankled as the fans of the Dawgs that the team was moved to Baltimore. The front office had so much turmoil in just getting the franchise physically moved – most of those folks and their families were feeling the same way – that some of the players felt mistreated and confused about everything from the move to the new coaching staff, which was completely overhauled once Bill Belichick was fired. It was hard on their wives, their families and their kids.

More than anything, the players just stunk. Point blank.

“We really underestimated the ability of our corners to cover,” Marvin Lewis said. “Particularly if you can’t rush the passer. We had a complete inability to make a play. It wasn’t any one single thing. It was everything.”

The Ravens surrendered 441 points in the 1996 season, including a whopping 130 fourth quarter points. Despite an offense that mustered 20 to 30 points consistently, the Ravens went 4-12 that season, blowing seven third-quarter leads along the way.

With pain comes change. It’s inevitable in life and in the NFL.

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