Six weeks after 'The Wire's last episode aired, the Ravens held the #18 pick in the 2008 Draft. They chose Joe Flacco, a Division 1-AA transfer with a big arm but no real proof of being able to play well on a big stage. Five years later, the spotlight is finally squarely on Baltimore, but this journey started later in 2008, when the Ravens got their wings, when a young QB got thrown to the Lions, and a 17-year old (me) learned to understand and love the more primal aspect of football, its beautiful and endearing physicality.
There may be no greater fit for team and city as there is in Baltimore and the Ravens, and there may be no greater example of a company vision, a company structure as those same Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens are Baltimore, a hard-hitting, tough, resilient team that has carried it's rules of the game (defense) for a long, long time. The Ravens, much like the city, has become a testament to the timelessness of old-fashioned ways in an increasingly modern world. If anyone saw the Wire, especially when the show examined the fall of blue-collar America in Season 2, knows that Baltimore as a city is stuck with 20th Century businesses in a 21st Century world, and for the past twelve years, the Ravens have tried to win with 20th Century football values (defense, running game, QBs with big arms that can throw deep) in a 21st Century football world (passing, 5-wide, slot receivers and slot corners). For the past five years they've refined this archaic football value system into a machine, and they finally broke through. Though I wasn't a true Ravens fan, it was exhilarating being along for the ride.
My real soft spot for the Ravens goes back two years before Joe Flacco came aboard, to the 2006 season, probably the first season I followed earnestly week-to-week. The Baltimore Ravens in 2006 had the 2nd best defense since realignment in 2002 (only the 2002 Bucs were better). Every member of that defense's starting 11 made a pro-bowl in their career, and they were mostly in their primes at that point. It was then-rookie Haloti Ngata, Trevor Pryce and Kelly Gregg at D-Line, Adalius Thomas (before he became a bust in New England), Bart Scott (before he became a overrated voicebox in New York), Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis at linebacker and finally Chris McAlister, Samari Rolle, Dawan Landry, and a totally-in-his-prime Ed Reed at D-Back. They were scary good. 60 sacks that season, numerous memorable highlights. That team gave up just 201 points. That defense was truly terrific, and combined with an offense that rarely turned it over, they flew to 13-3 and the #2 seed. In the playoffs, they hosted the Colts in the divisional round, and in one of the most impressive 'chess-match' football games, that Ravens defense kept the Colts (that year's 2nd best offense and eventual Super Bowl Champion) to 15 points and no TDs. They lost, but they won me over.
Two years later that defense wasn't as special. Adalius Thomas had gone, Trevor Pryce had gone and the two corners (Rolle and McAlister) had gone as well. Joe Flacco was in at QB, and Willis McGahee had replaced Jamal Lewis. But Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were still there, that idealistic way of great, physical but still mental defense was still there, and with Flacco, they had finally found a long-term answer at QB. Everything was set for the Ravens, but few knew it as the 2008 season started, especially me.
I don't know where it came from, but around 2008 I became quite obsessed with defense, with schemes, with the passion and the challenge of a team imposing its will on another teams offense. And furthermore, I'm not sure why I took to the Ravens brand of defense more than their divisional rivals, the Steelers, who in 2008 had a defense that rivaled that Ravens unit from 2006 (not to mention the 2008 Titans, who had a pretty damn good defense themselves), but I did. I connected to that purple-clad unit. I connected to a team that really seemed to feed off intensity, of spirituality. All that rah-rah pep-talk bullshit actually seemed to be not so bullshit when it came to the Ravens. In 2008, under the lead of coordinator Rex Ryan (remember him?), the Ravens defense called themselves "organized chaos", a term coined by Ryan talking about the random but calculated way they lined up and played defense. And even for a team that didn't get nearly as many sacks as the talent dictated they should have, it seemed to make sense.
I've long shared my belief that M&T Bank Stadium is a gem of a stadium, one of the best outdoor stadiums in the league. I did a stadium ranking about three years ago and had M&T at #3 (behind only The Linc and Lambeau Field), and I can't remember any more special atmosphere in the NFL than M&T Bank when the Ravens defense is at their most bad self, especially when they dig out those black uniforms. That's football, that's what the game is all about. Inflicting your will, firing up your crowd, and making the other team hate the idea of coming into your building, your cavernous, raucous building, and fighting it out. The Ravens fed off that crowd in a way I haven't seen any team ever, just plowing teams at home in 2008 (and most years since), and I may not have witnessed a more powerful, energized regular season game in my life than in Week 15 in 2008, when the 10-3 Steelers came into town to play the 9-4 Ravens. A rivalry was truly born that day, and so was a man's strange love for a hard-hitting team. My favorite part about that game (other than it being just 13-9 and still wildly entertaining) was that the Ravens recorded two sacks; one by Ray Lewis, and one by Ed Reed.
The 2008 Ravens ended up losing to the Steelers (again) in the AFC Championship Game after two defense-heavy road playoff wins in Miami and Tennessee, and I wasn't too upset about it. I don't have the lasting emotional attachment to the Ravens that I have to the Colts or Raiders. Playoff losses for the Ravens don't really crush me (other than a certain one I'll talk about soon), so I was able to just sit back and draw back on the great memories. On Ed Reed's 11 interceptions that season, including the record 108-yard INT return against the Eagles, or the punt-return like INT return against the Dolphins, set up by brilliant blocks by Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. After '08 I was on board, but I didn't get really hooked until 2011.
The 2009 and 2010 Ravens were good teams (a better-than-their-record 9-7 in 2009, and worse-than-their-record 12-4 in 2010), and both times they beat down worse teams in the Wild Card round and lost to better teams in the Divisional Round. The '09 Ravens were memorable because they gave me one of my greatest schadenfreude-ian sports moments when that Ravens team went into Gillette Stadium and just embarrassed them, picking off Brady twice in the 1st Quarter, and piling up a 24-0 lead before the 1st quarter was over. They were also memorable because my team beat them, again, in the Divisional Round 20-3. The 2010 Ravens were memorable for me solely because Ed Reed played just 10 games, but led the league in INTs with 8. It wasn't until 2011 that the Ravens became one of my teams again. The 2011 Ravens were very good defensively, and we all knew how their season ended, with them playing the Patriots toe-to-toe, but were felled by their #3 WR and their kicker. This year's team wasn't quite as good but even more resourcful in the playoffs, beating my team, then my QB, but then redeeming themselves in my eyes by beating my enemy. But this year's playoffs is destiny fulfilled for the Ravens and for their fans. For me, destiny was fulfilled when I watched Ed Reed dominate a playoff game six years ago, and it has just been one enjoyable ride ever since.
It really all comes back to Reed. Ed Reed is a special player, a fact obvious to all. He is a Hall of Famer if he retired three years ago. He is one of the best safeties to ever play the game, and is the best safety that I have ever seen. But to me, he is so much more than just another great player. I have an emotional connection with Ed Reed (a connection he has no knowledge of, obviously). I've lived games, moments, plays and lived defensive football through Ed Reed. Little has been as exciting as watching Reed break on a ball, watching the way he slowly but surely goes about his interception returns, watching that bearded goofball talk to the media, watching him draw the respect of every person in the NFL. I love Ed Reed the player, the ultimate safety, the definition of what a safety is and what it could and should be.
Ray Lewis started this whole thing, and he set the tone. He was the one who made Baltimore into a defensive football town, the one who made M&T Bank love and feed into defense more than offense. He was the guy who led the team that brought a Super Bowl to Baltimore, but it was the Reed/Suggs/Thomas/Ngata/McAlister/Lewis group that brought Baltimore to its feet. Lewis is Avon, the emotional leader. Reed is Stringer, calculating, smart and savvy. Suggs is Wee-Bey, full of excitement but dangerous when it comes to business, and I guess Haloti Ngata (one of my favorite football names to just say) can be Prop Joe, a fat lovable slob. The Wire taught us all about Baltimore, but the Ravens taught me more. Even the name, which evokes Baltimore's greatest literary treasure (no, not David Simon) Edgar Allen Poe. Few names are so perfectly entrenched in their city's culture in such a nuanced way. The Ravens, a team who's beliefs are as archaic as the man who they are named after. The Ravens, a team who beliefs in the values that football was founded on, physicality, defense and hitting, being worshiped in a city which believes in the values that America was founded on, hard work and desire. The Ravens, a team that inspired me to love football more deeply and more passionately than I did before. The Ravens, a team that taught me the beauty of games that ended 15-6 or 13-9. The Ravens, a perfect team for me, just as they are a perfect team for their city. Baltimore should feel proud that even if the institutions that were part of the bedrock of the city go, the Ravens will always be there.