Purple Reign 1: Chapter 9 “‘O’ as in Offensive – The Dust Bowl Comes East”

Chapter 9 cover
Chapter 9 cover
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“This isn’t a crisis. A crisis is what they have in the Middle East.”

Ravens head coach Brian Billick, Oct. 29, 2000 after losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 9-6, at PSI Net Stadium, capping five consecutive games without scoring a touchdown.

When the ominous storm clouds started rolling in on an otherwise lovely day in South Florida – nearly three hours prior to game time – it should have been a sign.

The Ravens came to Miami on Sept. 17, 2000, for the first time in their five-year existence and the fans from Baltimore were out in force. It was the first time a Baltimore football franchise had played in South Florida since Dan Marino’s rookie season. A lot had changed from that day in 1983. The Fish had moved out of the Orange Bowl, 15 miles north into Broward County. They were two coaches removed from the legend of Don Shula. And more than anything, the guys wearing Baltimore on their jerseys had a fighting chance, unlike many of the old Baltimore Colts’ journeys into the abyss that was Miami.

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For the Ravens, optimism had never been higher. The team had never been 2-0 and was about to embark on its first of four games on the road in five weeks, a treacherous stretch even for a veteran team.

Many of the younger players on the squad would get a lesson not just in history that night at Pro Player Stadium – as Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino’s jersey would be retired at halftime in front of a soggy and less than packed stands – but also in humility.

The elements were about as unfriendly as you could imagine. Hurricane Gordon had been bouncing about in the Gulf of Mexico for a few days prior to game time and the forecast was for plenty of rain beginning as early as Saturday afternoon.

The strangest irony is that if the game would have been scheduled for a normal 1 p.m. Sunday kickoff, it would have been played in ideal conditions – 82 degrees, sunny, not a cloud in the sky. Instead, it was an ESPN Sunday Night special, slated for an 8 p.m. start.

Around 4 p.m., when the game would have been ending, the sky grew dark and foreboding.

The rain rolled in with an immediate flash downpour around 5:15 – as only a tropical storm can – dampening not only our massive parking lot tailgate, but forcing both teams from the field quite early and leaving very little footing or margin for error at the line of scrimmage.

Sloppy would be an understatement.

Football wisdom would dictate that for a defensive-based team with a propensity to stop the run like no other team in the history of the game, the elements were on the Ravens’ side. Wisdom also said that passing the football on a night like this was foolhardy.

“We just couldn’t run,” Ravens’ head coach Brian Billick would later say.

The Ravens moved the ball well enough to win that night. On four different occasions they moved into the red zone. They came away with just a pair of field goals, of 27 and 33 yards, from Matt Stover in a 19-6 loss.

Despite slipping all over the field in the early part of the game, the Ravens were behind just 6-0 nearing halftime when Ravens rookie running back Jamal Lewis busted the first big run of his NFL career, a 45-yard jaunt taking the Ravens down to the 13-yard line. Stover’s attempt to half the lead with a 30-yard field-goal attempt was blocked at the line of scrimmage on the baseball infield end of the field. Kicking from around shortstop on the diamond, the conditions on that west side of the stadium were deplorable.

After the game I walked through that area of the field, and the mud seemed to be six inches deep and had the consistency of ice cream that had sat on the counter an hour too long.

The Dolphins scored the first of two touchdowns on their first possession of the second half, scoring on a 7-yard run by Lamar Smith, capping a five-play, 61-yard drive.

Down 13-0, the Ravens committed their first of many fatal flaws on offense early in the season. Quarterback Tony Banks drove the team again toward the muddy side of the stadium, this time landing on the 1-yard line with four plays to get into the end zone. Instead of running the ball up the gut – something Billick deemed improbable – Banks faded back to pass and lost his footing. After yet another sack, the Ravens settled for another field goal attempt, this time a successful boot from Stover to put the Ravens on the board. But their spirit was broken in the only game during their Super Bowl season in which they would be manhandled,

“We got our ass kicked,” Billick would say immediately after the game.

Billick defended that night – and still defends – his decision to attempt to pass the ball amidst sloppy conditions at the muddy third base area of Pro Player Stadium.

“There are less than a dozen plays a year that any team will run in a goal line situation,” Billick said. “There’s just not a whole lot of tape available, so you can’t see what anybody’s package is. I’ll guarantee you one thing – if you go run, run, pass every time you’re down there you’ll lose more than you’ll win. You can’t be predictable there.”

Billick even admitted that sometimes it is paralysis by analysis.

“What is play action designed for?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s about faking the run to get the linebacker and safeties to bite forward. That’s what the play is designed to do. They’re supposed to think we’re running the football, but we’re not.”

The play might have indeed worked had the offensive line not gotten pushed completely off the line and Banks not tripped over himself.

Billick even broke into a Pattonesque soliloquy saying: “Those who think that is bad play calling don’t know anymore about football than they do about fornicating.

“We just got beat, plain and simple.”

By all accounts the practices that week were strong and the team was confident, but most in the clubhouse would later admit that a certain killer instinct was lacking in the monsoon that night.

“They just physically beat us, to be honest with you,” safety Kim Herring would tell me at The Barn the following night. “The didn’t do any trick plays. They didn’t do any reverses …We didn’t take into account the weather. I think they played better to the weather than we did. I don’t think there’s any way you can say the weather was not a factor in the game. I mean, it was on both sides of the ball and they just handled it better.”

On a night when Banks was slipping all over the field, Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler barely got dirty. Banks was sacked six times by the tenacious Dolphins defense and the Ravens put the ball on the ground three times but never lost possession.

“With that kind of weather you really can’t over-pursue (and gang tackle) because if you all slide to one side, the back has an opportunity to cut back,” Herring said.

For Billick the answer was much simpler.

“I’ve said from Day One that we need passion and accountability to win,” he said. “That night taught me that we couldn’t play without focus and passion and win. We didn’t bring our passion and we didn’t win. It was not a fun night.”

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