5 Observations from Last Night’s Training Camp Practice

Steve Smith in the end zone. Photo by Rob Duckwall

Steve Smith in the end zone. Photo by Rob Duckwall

The Ravens practiced before 28,000 fans last night. Never Easy, Never Pretty was there to capture the festivities. Practice included 14 components such as “mock situations” and “battles” and proceeded at a rapid pace. Gerry Sandusky provided context and explanation along with his colleagues Qadry Ismael and Stan White. Ray Lewis made an appearance, saying to the crowd, “I gave everything I had to the city of Baltimore.” A new Lewis statue will accompany Johnny Unitas at the end of Ravenswalk.

Practice sched. Photo by Rob Duckwall

Practice Sched. Photo by Rob Duckwall

1. The running backs performed well

“He could have a breakout year,” said Wayne Groff of Hanover, PA after Ray Rice broke free into the secondary before being run out of bounds. A trimmed down Rice looked agile and fast in simulated game situations last night. The crowd cheered when he appeared on the Jumbotron and as he headed into the Russell Street end zone. Bernard Pierce ran very well last night and looks like the favorite to start during the Rice suspension. He roared through openings. Justin Forsett also showed bursts of speed and elusive cuts. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro ran with power on several plays. Fitzgerald Toussaint is my favorite name from this group.

2. The defensive line packs a wallop and the linebackers are athletic

DeAngelo Tyson and Tim Jernigan played last night like a pair of wrecking balls. They blasted into the backfield and crushed offensive linemen. Pernell McPhee also looked formidable. Haloti Ngata sports a leaner frame this year. We have depth in the defensive trenches. Suggs has been abusing offensive linemen and charged through the line for a sack last night. Courtney Upshaw is bigger and more imposing and the rookie C.J. Mosley made some athletic plays.

Smith Squared. Photo by Rob Duckwall

Smith Squared. Photo by Rob Duckwall

3. It will be tough to make this squad as a receiver

Based on last night’s practice, Steve Smith will be the Ravens #1 receiver. He caught almost every pass thrown to him – including many one-handed during drills. Asa Jackson couldn’t cover him. With Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, Marlon Brown and Steve Smith already in place, it will be tough to make this unit. LaQuan Williams made a spectacular catch last night. Another receiver, a tall and lanky Kamar Aiken showed flashes. If he makes the team, remember his name.

Rookie Michael Campanaro, the Wes Welker clone, almost caught a ball down the sideline that would have been the play of the night. Campanaro ran kickoffs back with a stealthy quickness. Deonte Thompson did not do much last night. The tight ends are impressive. Owen Daniels made some nice catches. Dennis Pitta and Crockett Gilmore also looked sharp.

Coach Kubiak was the center piece in the drills. Receivers were making cuts in front of him and he was watching every move. The offense is coming – with slants and quick hitters and passes to running backs in the mix much more than ever before. Flacco was sharp and seemed comfortable in the up tempo. Tyrod Taylor threw some nice deep balls and also looks well-adjusted to the new scheme.

 4. Secondary needs to be solidified

Overall, Asa Jackson looked pretty good last night except for a few snaps when he lined up opposite Steve Smith. Not as big as our other corners, he’s an aggressive ball hawk looking to cause fumbles and deflections and has an early edge to start it seems over Chykie Brown. Dominique Franks made some nice stops. Matt Elam had an interception. Jimmy Smith delivered some nice hits including a leveling of Steve Smith on one play. The defensive line and linebackers are the foundation of the defense. We need to shore up the secondary.

Asa Jackson breaks up play. Photo by Rob Duckwall.

Asa Jackson breaks up play. Photo by Rob Duckwall.

5. We have more weaponry than last year on both sides of the ball and…

on our kicking team. After missing from 64 yards, Justin Tucker nailed two 58 yarders and the last one would have been good from 70. Tucker is a rock star. He was amazing.

You look around and there is no Tandon Doss, Ed Dixon or Michael Oher. We have upgraded in their absence. On the defensive side of the ball, there are a number of guys who can make plays like Daryl Smith, Josh Bynes and Arthur Brown. There’s Lardarius Webb and Darian Stewart. On offense, you also have Kyle Juscyczk who looks like he will play some fullback and catch some passes a la Tom Rathman.

Overall, the defense still dominated the offense. They won the competition by getting more stops. After the offense made a big gain, the defense responded by stopping them in their tracks. The offensive line showed signs of improvement. There were no collapses in the middle of the line. On one play, Flacco had at least 5 seconds to find a receiver. He threw the ball away. He wasn’t used to having that much protection. On another play, Steve Smith was open on a post route. Flacco threw in the opposite direction and Smith was pissed.

Flacco looks downfield. Photo by Rob Duckwall

Flacco looks downfield. Photo by Rob Duckwall

The offense will have a swagger before it’s over.

Rice suspension presents early challenge

photo8It is disappointing that I will not be with my teammates for the first two games of the season…My goal is to earn back the trust of the people, especially the children, I let down because of this incident. I am a role model and I take that responsibility seriously. My actions going forward will show that.” – Ray Rice’s statement on the Baltimore Ravens website.

In the aftermath of Ray Rice’s two-game suspension for assaulting Janay Palmer, many believe that the running back got off easy. Others are outraged by what this lenient penalty means for victims of domestic violence.  Commentators like Jim Rome have excoriated the NFL and the Ravens. They have a point.

We don’t have all the facts, sure, but I can’t imagine the existing evidence suggests that his actions were in any way justifiable. And why didn’t he apologize to his wife during that horrific press conference? Rice’s previous track record as a positive influence off the field must have factored in Goodell’s decision.

He had been a model NFL citizen. Ray spoke out against bullies.He gave back to the community. As an eight year old, he worked in a barber shop to help his mother make ends meet in The Hollow – a project in New Rochelle. She called him “man of the house” and she meant it. He slashed and juked his way into our hearts.

Twenty minutes in a casino changed all that. He will miss games against the Bengals and the Steelers. He will lose $530,000 in paychecks.

In the process of publishing Never Easy, Never Pretty, I encountered football fans outside of Baltimore who have hated us since the 2000 season and the incident involving Ray Lewis. In Lewis, Rice has a model for how to move forward.

In a few weeks, he will show us what he can still do on the field. He will try to erase the image of what we saw on the hotel hallway video on the heels of his worst season ever.

On August 7th, against the 49ers in the first preseason game, he will take a handoff and run for daylight. The second half of his career will begin. Much of it will be spent working on his image—if it can be repaired—while on the field. Exhilarating runs and touchdowns will ease the pain, but he has a long road ahead.

His teammates and coaches are behind him.  He worked hard in the off-season and has returned in good shape to a game he first played on concrete.

His suspension has given training camp an urgency and focus right from the start.The rest of the team must shoulder the burden. Bernard Pierce needs to step up and has a chance to be the starting running back. Justin Forsett has an opportunity to shine. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, “the Chanticleer” from Coastal Carolina just moved up the depth chart.

The team has a rallying cry for those first two games–but it won’t be easy.  The Rice suspension also provides a harsh example to those players who are on the verge of making bad decisions. They will experience first-hand what Ray is going through and maybe avoid their own fines and suspensions.

Ray Rice needs to become the “man of the house” again on Russell Street. His suspension could be a unifying force for the 2014 Ravens.

Ten Reasons Ravens Will Make Playoffs

Ray Rice on 4th & 29. Photo by Phil Hoffmann

Ray Rice on 4th & 29.
Photo by Phil Hoffmann

There are less than ten days until training camp starts. Here are some reasons why we will return to the playoffs this year.

1. Coach Kubiak and Joe Flacco

Gary Kubiak transformed the Texans into a playoff team on the verge of making a Super Bowl run before their colossal meltdown. He generated more production out of Matt Schaub, a pocket passer with an average arm than I ever thought possible. I watched Matt’s entire college career at UVA and never thought he was capable of leading a team to a Super Bowl. Kubiak designed routes that maximized Schaub’s passing abilities. He will do the same for our quarterback. Kubiak will take Joe Flacco to new heights this season.

2. 8-8 is not acceptable

Steve Bisciotti has zero tolerance for mediocrity. He’s been incredibly successful in all that he does. He gave the team a pass last year but the stakes are high now. Mediocrity is not acceptable. His management team has responded to the Jupiter Summit by making his team better. The last time the Ravens finished 8-8, they won the Super Bowl the next year.

3. The defense has a great mix of veterans and young players

The defense played pretty well last year. Suggs, Ngata, Dumervil, Webb, Smith (Daryl), Smith (Jimmy), Bynes, McPhee and Upshaw bring leadership and proven talent. Timmy Jernigan, Kapron Lewis-Moore, C.J. Moseley, Matt Elam, Brandon Williams and Darian Stewart will provide speed, quickness, athleticism and youth. Ozzie has infused the defense with young talent – in just the same way he built his stifling defenses of the past.

4. Ray Rice is motivated to prove his critics wrong

This is a guy whose back is against the wall. His football career and long-term livelihood hinge on the next time he touches the ball. Anybody who can gain 30 yards on 4th & 29 is capable of extraordinary things. I’m not excusing his behavior off the field. He will need to repair his reputation from the ground up and one aspect of that will be his performance on the field. “He has changed his body and appears ready to return to Pro Bowl form,” wrote Ravens Senior Vice President of Public Relations Kevin Byrne.

5. Wide receiver Steve Smith makes our offense better

Smith brings an attitude and identity to an offense that was ineffective last year. The unit never recovered from the loss of Boldin and Pitta. Smith brings an approach to the game that makes him a “special competitor” according to Ozzie Newsome.

The offensive weaponry is now vast and potent. Talk has been focused on a receiving corps Steve Smith, Owen Daniels and Marlon Brown. What about Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Dennis Pitta? We have six receivers who can find the end zone. There’s also Ray Rice in the backfield. The running game may need an upgrade because of Rice’s impending suspension and Pierce’s shoulder surgery. Former Texan, Justin Forsett is expected to fill in for Rice as well as Lorenzo Taliaferro. Don’t be surprised by another addition into the backfield before the season starts.

6. Schedule not as tough as last year

With the Jaguars, Titans and Texans (+3Ws) on the docket, I can easily imagine a scenario where we have 10 wins. That said, the Ravens sometimes play down to the competition. Here is how we get to 10-6 which should be good enough for the playoffs. If we can handle the Chargers and Falcons at home (+2Ws) and beat the Browns twice (+2Ws), we are at 7 wins. Most likely we will split with the Steelers and Bengals (+2Ws) and that will give us 9 wins. We need to beat the Dolphins away as we did last year or the Panthers (+1) at home to win 10. The Saints, Colts and Buccaneers on the road will be difficult and we could get one out of that group. I like our chances of at least one win out of those 5 games. Ravens finish 10-6.

7. The offensive line will be better

Jeremy Zuttah, signed from Tampa Bay brings experience and depth at center. A healthy Osemele at right guard, a rejuvenated Marshall Yanda at left guard, a steady Eugene Monroe at left tackle and 2nd year player Ricky Wagner at right tackle should be an improvement over last year. The zone blocking scheme used last season also had its limitations. Teams overloaded weak spots in the zone allowing people like Jared Allen of the Vikings to be in Joe’s grill on every play during that amazing 4th quarter. Kubiak’s offense calls for a new blocking scheme.

8. The AFC is not that strong

The Broncos and the Patriots are still plenty good—but not invincible. The Colts will have Reggie Wayne back and the Steelers are supposedly the team to beat in the AFC North but that’s pretty much it. I don’t see Denver or the Patriots matching up with the beasts of the NFC West. It could be the 49ers turn to make return trip to Super Bowl “49.” They were a last second touchdown pass away from beating the Seahawks. Why did Jim Harbaugh try once again to win a big game with Michael Crabtree? This time he had Anquan Boldin on his team who had already caught two TDs in the game. Nobody really scares me in the AFC and the Ravens are built like the Seahawks and 49ers.

9. Ozzie has found guys who “play like Ravens”

From Steve Smith to Owen Daniels to Kyle Jusczcyk, Newsome has assembled a team of players who embody the Ravens mantra. To “play like a Raven” means to play championship football. I believe Ozzie has significantly improved this team over last year.

One area of concern: five players have been arrested in the offseason. Hopefully, all of these players will be fighting to change perceptions of them. This suggests that the loss of Reed, Lewis and other veteran players has caused a leadership vacuum. If we can stay healthy and avoid arrests, we will make the playoffs.

10. Coach Harbaugh has taken the 8-8 season personally

“Keep hammering us,” John Harbaugh told the media after receiving questions about not making the playoffs. You have to love a coach who is openly motivated to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Coach Harbaugh will do everything in his power to make sure the Ravens return to the playoffs. It’s almost like he is starting over as well. He came to us a defensive backs and special teams coach. He made it to the playoffs a record-breaking 5 straight times.  Ravens fans expect the team to be in the mix in January.  Harbaugh is a proven winner. His teams are mentally and physically tough. We will win games because he will outwork his opposing coaches. We will win games because he knows every player and what they can do. He’s seething over last year and he will deliver.  It may never be easy or pretty along the way, but we will be in the postseason tournament.

Thoughts from the Big Easy on Ravens Training Camp: The Webb-Smith Tussle, Joe Flacco and Lenny Moore

BrEY0U7CcAAbvxv.jpg largeI returned to the Big Easy this week for a publishing conference and rekindled memories of our Super Bowl XLVII victory. I came across a Ravens 2014 training camp hat at Meyer the Hatter, one of the oldest hat stores in the United States. Twenty years ago, I had purchased an Orioles cap there. I will say this lid, with its authentic NFL logo, fits better than any hat I have.  It almost makes me want to wear a whistle.

“Hey Baltimore,” Saints fans called out to me as I walked through town. “We’ll see you in November.”

As I retraced my steps to the Super Dome from Bourbon Street, I thought about the younger players like Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ryan Jensen, Darian Stewart and Kyle Jusczcyk—all of whom will surely see playing time. Guys like C.J. Moseley and Arthur Brown competing for spots. This is a younger team with a new offensive scheme.

I felt the motivation to want to destroy the Bengals in the first game of the season after they ended ours last year.

We also have a lot of veterans with bad tastes in their mouths after an 8-8 campaign in 2013. I like the continuity of keeping Jacoby Jones, Daryl Smith and Terrell Suggs.There’s also Jimmy Smith, Chris Canty, Haloti Ngata, Ray Rice, Dennis Pitta and Eugene Monroe. Talented vets on both sides of the ball.

The intensity reached a boiling point during mini-camp with Steve Smith and Lardarius Webb engaged in some extracurricular activity after a play was over. They shoved each other and cursed. It evaporated quickly from the news cycle after Smith brought a Dunkin’ Donuts peace offering the next day but I haven’t forgotten it.

It’s important because both of those players want to play in a Super Bowl again. Smith has never won a Super Bowl and he is prepared to do anything to get there. I will say that fighting with teammates is not the best formula for achieving that goal but it’s just the kind of explosion that’s needed to set the tone.

What was Smith really doing?

Are we going to see a Ravens offense with an attitude for the first time? Smith sent a message to a team and franchise that prides itself on defense that the Ravens offense is going to be a force this year. Dare I say it, he was acting like Hines Ward in that moment and I applaud it.

It’s been long overdue for a Ravens offense to stand up and demolish defenses. I’d love to see a big physical offensive line steamrolling their way down the field. Bring it on, Coach Kubiak.

Also, Webb has a Super Bowl ring but he didn’t get a chance to play on the field against the 49ers because he was injured. He would give anything to play in the big one—including jumping on Steve Smith’s back to deflect a pass.
They both want to get there enough to nearly come to blows. That’s what’s at stake. Every play, even in mini-camp matters. Nice work.

photo-3 (2)Regarding the controversy surrounding Joe Flacco and his receivers, I have mixed feelings about Joe working with his receivers in the offseason. On one hand, if Joe needs to learn a new offense then I am all for him not to work on pass routes that most definitely will change. I’d rather have him studying the new playbook and leading the unit than practicing something that could be irrelevant.

It was clear as early as the preseason last year that receivers were running everywhere except where they needed to be.

When I interviewed the great Lenny Moore for Never Easy, Never Pretty, he told me a story about doing extra work with Raymond Berry and Johnny Unitas in 1957.

“Raymond Berry came to me and said, “Lenny, I’ve been watching the films. We need more of you in our offense.”

Lenny was taken aback, “What in the hell is he talking about? That’s not my position.”

Berry told him that a guy with his speed could open up other areas on the field.

He also told him never to cut on his inside foot on a pass route.

“I didn’t know what foot I was cutting on,” said Moore.

Berry told him that Unitas knew about this idea but he wasn’t going to come ask him. Moore had to stay after practice on his own.

“The safety and the deep corner will have to pay attention to you and that will open up other areas for guys like Mutscheller,” said Berry.

“I started doing it and quickly saw the reality of what he was talking about.”

Moore caught 363 passes for 6039 yards and 48 touchdowns. After catching 10 passes in 1956, he caught 40 or more for the next five seasons. The Colts won two NFL championships.

In this case, it appears, the extra work paid off.

 

A one of a kind love affair

fatherson“We showed the NFL that football belongs in Baltimore,” said fired-up Ravens announcer Gerry Sandusky at the 50th anniversary meeting of the Colts Corrals turned Ravens Roosts in Ocean City two weekends ago. “We have the best fans, the best city and the best people.” I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise with tears in my throat. We also have the best play-by-play announcer in the NFL.

Former Colt linebacker Stan White, radio announcer Keith Mills and Sandusky were onstage introducing a group of Ravens headlined by defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore and fullback Kyle Jusczyck. They sang a karaoke version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” before several hundred spirited onlookers. They followed that number with a tone deaf version of Bon Jovi’s, “Livin on a Prayer” – all in good fun.

Stan White, Gerry Sandusky and Keith Mills

Stan White, Gerry Sandusky and Keith Mills

The annual event, held at the sprawling Castle in the Sand hotel on 37th street included beach volleyball, horseshoes, beach fireworks, a parade, a bull roast, bingo, hat contests, karaoke, a dunking booth and an ongoing three-day football party. Former running back Jamal Lewis made an appearance. Stan “The Fan” Charles and Ravens beat writer Joe Platania were there. Former Colt running back Tom Matte, a member of the Jacksonville Roost held court. “If you don’t have my autograph, it means you haven’t asked me for one,” he told me. Matte and Stan White walked among the crowd as though it was a family reunion.

Stan White with my son

Stan White with my son

 

My son Quinn and I sold copies of Football in Baltimore, Never Easy, Never Pretty and Colts’ Baltimore at the event. We heard stories about the Colts, the Stallions, the Stars and the Ravens.

Ruth Jester of Baltimore told us about how her father made a whole rockfish stuffed with crabmeat and would take it to Johnny Unitas at his Golden Arm restaurant. Art Donovan, Unitas and other players would snack on it at the bar. Sometimes she would go with her dad and watch the scene unfold.
“Years later, I went to a wedding at the Valley Country Club and Art was there,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I went up and told him that I was the daughter of the man who brought the stuffed rockfish and he remembered how big the platter was.”

The Ravens Roost party is the only one of its kind in the NFL kingdom. For 12 years, when the city didn’t have an NFL team, the exiled Colts Corrals gathered on the shores of the Atlantic and kept the dream alive. Sure, they supported the Stars and the Stallions—but they wanted an NFL team.

“Tagliabue told us to build a museum,” said Keith Mills. “This is the museum,” he said, pointing to the crowd.

deefenseFans were optimistic about the upcoming season. Superfan Captain Dee-Fense, dressed in full garb mingled with the crowd. He likes the addition of Steve Smith and believes Ray Rice will have a much better year in 2014. He also wants a chance to speak with the team about professionalism off the field. Dee-Fense has been spreading his positive message since the Ravens arrived in Baltimore and a little girl tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Are you the captain of the defense?”

The Roosts have generated more than $2 million for charity since 2008. Roost president Charlotte Krause and her colleagues Bill West, Sue Draper and Lynn White-Huggins, all “Play like Ravens” when it comes to handling a party of 1,500 attendees. Food lines served several hundred people in twenty minutes. At 2pm on Saturday afternoon, Charlotte was filling cups at the soft drink station. The Roost Team was as relentless in their pursuit of perfection as any Ravens defense.

hotel

It was a great weekend. I was able to pass on the legacy of Baltimore football, one that had been handed down to me, to my son. He really enjoyed seeing the Steelers fan topple into the frigid waters of the dunking booth.

Join a Roost today!

Ravens Preparing for Super Bowl Return

photo(37)I received a phone call Thursday night just before the Ravens made their first pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. I’d been watching the Orioles and flipping back and forth—caught up for the first time in draft frenzy. The caller asked with urgency, “Who is it going to be?” I felt the Ravens needed shoring up on the offensive line, in the defensive secondary and in the backfield. I first said Ha Ha Clinton Dix (safety) or Calvin Prior (safety), names that I’d been hearing over the last few days that weren’t yet listed with their new team. Eric Ebron (tight end), Zack Martin (tackle) and Mike Evans (receiver) were already gone.

And then I remembered something that Ravens writer Garrett Downing had said on 105.7 The Fan earlier in the day. Ozzie also likes inside linebacker C.J. Mosley from Alabama.

“It could also be C.J. Mosley,” I said to the caller. Roger Goodell called out Mosely’s name as the pick. Nineteen years ago, Ozzie selected what turned out to be a Hall of Fame inside linebacker from Miami who was fast, strong and a leader. Ray Lewis was fast from side-to-side like Mosley supposedly is but many thought Ray was too small to play the position. Mosley brings similar attributes of speed, athleticism and leadership but there are doubts about him too. After tackle Zack Martin went to the Cowboys, he fit perfectly into the Ravens’ strategy of taking best player available.

The Ravens continued bolstering the interior of the defense by picking athletic lineman Tim Jernigan, Jr. from Florida State. He was followed by another Seminole, safety Terrence Brooks. The best offense is a good defense – and with the loss of Arthur Jones and James Ihedigbo – the Ravens focused on what has been a franchise strength since inception.

Late Friday night, the Ravens selected Crockett Gilmore, a rangy tight end from Colorado State–and another weapon for Joe Flacco.

Saturday’s selections focused on the offense. After picking 6-7 defensive end Brent Urban from Virginia, the Ravens summoned a flurry of offensive players including local product Michael Campanaro, (wide receiver)  who attended River Hill and Wake Forest, Lorenzo Taliaferro (running back), Keith Wenning (quarterback) and John Urschel (guard-center).  Urschel is finishing a second masters degree in mathematics at Penn State and brings an academic pedigree similar to retired center Matt Birk. Campanaro is a Wes Welker-type receiver.

There’s more work to do before the season starts, but they are off to a great start. They’re selecting players with the intention of getting back to the Super Bowl and they don’t believe that they’re that far away. As for the draft, Assistant GM Eric DeCosta told 105.7 The Fan that the Ravens were “not interested in the Pro Bowl but the Super Bowl.”

Several weeks ago, John Harbaugh told reporters, “You guys know the direction we’re headed in.” The Ravens have their sights on Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale and are applying a familiar formula to get there. They are making more moves than a Jacoby Jones dance routine. Gary Kubiak is here to help us win another Super Bowl. They’ve signed Steve Smith just as they did Anquan Boldin and Derek Mason before him for one purpose—to make it to the Promised Land in Arizona. They inked Owen Daniels – a solid performer at tight end from the Texans. They resigned Dennis Pitta, Daryl Smith and Eugene Monroe.

With $25 million in salary cap space and a plan for addressing urgent needs at wide receiver and on the offensive line, Ozzie Newsome has proved he is a dangerous man. An 8-8 season left a bad taste within the organization and he and his staff are doing everything they can to erase any memory of mediocrity. The draft has added more exciting additions to the team.

There are also intangibles awaiting us next season. What does the future hold for Ray Rice after his worst season ever and an aggravated assault charge for allegedly striking his wife? The disturbing images we are left with show him dragging an unconscious woman off an elevator. I’ve thought a lot about Ray Rice in the offseason and hope he can move forward from what happened in the Atlantic City casino.

His career started veering off course when he turned up field in the Super Bowl and fumbled. Or was it when he slammed Bengal Vontaze Burfict to the ground after the play was over in the last game of the season in 2012? In 2013, he supposedly spat in a player’s face.  Does he have anger issues? For his entire career, he has made every effort to show us that he is not that kind of a person.

Rice has a lot to prove both off and on the field in 2014. He’s been given the gift of motivation and we’ll see what he does with it. I reread what I had written about him in Never Easy, Never Pretty:

“He had grown up in a project known as “The Hollow” in New Rochelle, New York, the TV hometown of Rob and Laura Petrie on the old Dick Van Dyke Show. But Rice’s life was no sitcom. Before Rice ever knew him, his father was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting that turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. All the running back possesses of his father is a snapshot that he carries with him. Raised by his mother and a cousin nicknamed S.U.P.E. who was an aspiring rap singer and who served as a role model before moving to Los Angeles and being killed in a car accident, Rice escaped his situation by playing sports. He learned to play football on a narrow rectangle of concrete adjacent to a playground that had at its end an asphalt section that served as the end zone. By the age of 8, he was working odd jobs and bringing home money as “the man of the house.”

What can we expect from Terrell Suggs and Jacoby Jones? As for team chemistry, Suggs and Jones are essential elements. I love Terrell Suggs – his spirit, his leadership and his sense of humor. He is the mayor of Never Easy, Never Pretty Land and his term just got renewed for another 4 years. He’s moving on to an advanced degree at Ball So Hard University. Sizzle me timbers, Terrell Suggs will be a Raven for life. Suggs had a respectable season last year – with 10 sacks – but not a great one. Defenses made adjustments to stop him in the second half—and at times he ran out of gas. But he still commanded their attention and got inside their heads. He’s also particularly good at rattling Ben Roethlisberger.

photo by Phil Hoffmann

Photo by Phil Hoffmann

Here is an excerpt from Never Easy, Never Pretty.

“It was a loose locker room in Baltimore. You had your preacher in Ray Lewis. There were thefootball geeks like Ed Reed with his playbook and pencil. Flacco and Pitta shared an old school bond like Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry. Suggs, or “Sizzle” as he liked to call himself, a self-professed graduate of the fictitious “Ball So Hard” University that he founded in 2009 as an alternative to the school of hard knocks, served as mayor of the Ravens’ ongoing freak show. “Ball So Hard” football tournaments are held in T-Sizzle’s honor for Baltimore youth in the fall. The 2012 Ravens were a wicked and ripe concoction of personalities who left it all—the good, the bad, and most definitely the ugly—on the field. Jacoby Jones had come home. With the Ravens, he could be himself and one day pursue his dream of showing the world his dance moves on the television show Dancing with the Stars.”

Jones adds an element of spontaneity to the locker room and to the game. He found himself in Baltimore. His expressions and offbeat outbursts are hilarious—and his most memorable plays are some of the greatest in team history.

I’m predicting big things from the Ravens next season and for the next few years. We will get back to the Super Bowl soon enough. I’m not saying we’ll win it. The NFL has changed and the balance of power has shifted to the NFC. The 49ers, Seahawks, Panthers and even the Eagles will have a say in who gets future Lombardi trophies.

In the AFC, the Broncos, Patriots and Colts play such weak division schedules that it will be difficult for them to match the intensity of anyone in the NFC. The Broncos couldn’t handle the physicality of the Seahawks in the Super Bowl and it is doubtful that they will be able to do so in 2014—even with their new players.

The Ravens are well-positioned to make another run. We pride ourselves on physicality and toughness. As Brady and Manning face retirement, Flacco is entering his prime. I reviewed the schedule and predicted an 11-5 record. However, I didn’t take into account the fact that Ray Rice might be suspended for two games. We face the Bengals and the Steelers in the first two weeks and it won’t be easy.

Judging by their efforts over the last four months, the Ravens organization has one goal in mind: a Super Bowl return. That is their expectation every year. We’re lucky to live in a city where the football team sets its sights on the Lombardi every season. It raises the bar and increases the pressure. It also makes for some good talk radio.

The Last War Dance

Ray's Last DanceAt a luncheon after last year’s Super Bowl victory, Ravens Senior VP of Public Relations Kevin Byrne said, “There will never be another Ray Lewis.”  There will also never be another photo taken like this one.

The incredible photos in Never Easy, Never Pretty were shot by Ravens photographer Phil Hoffmann. Phil has been shooting sporting events for 35 years. I was very lucky to meet him and to be able to feature his photos in the book.

Press Box photographer Sabina Moran’s work is on the cover.  Her stadium celebration photo — a great shot in its own right– is a replacement for her amazing cover of three Ravens tackling a Colt running back out of the frame. The NFL told my publisher that it revealed too much of the team logos. smith_cover2-150x150

Phil Hoffmann’s keen photographic eye captured every major moment in the season including one of Ray Rice with his helmet turned toward the first down marker after he’s tackled on 4th & 29. He also takes us deep into the stealthy gaze of Jacoby Jones just before he returns a kick-off for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Hoffmann told me that he approaches the job thinking like a defensive player and watches the movements of the left tackle for a hint as to where the play is going. His observations of the season are also featured in the book’s prose and offer a unique insider perspective of a professional football team.

In this stunning picture of Ray Lewis, his head thrown back and cawing to the sky during his final “squirrel dance” is something that should occupy the wall of a museum.  His face is unrecognizable and partially obscured in state of ecstasy. He resembles a Native American warrior as depicted in the paintings of George Catlin or the photos of Edward Curtis. Lewis is bracketed by fire with a chunk of sod behind him and wreathed in smoke. The dance symbolized the fury inside him.

Lewis has just stepped onto the field for his final introduction as a Baltimore Raven in M&T Bank Stadium.  He had announced his retirement on the Wednesday before the game calling it his “last ride” – an interesting choice of words in that it signaled a progression with no immediate ending point. It marked the first time he had been on the field since his triceps injury against the Cowboys in October of 2012. While his Indy teammates fawned over the spectacle, Colt wide receiver Reggie Wayne seethed.  They were trying to win a game that would never be theirs. It made me ask, “What would it take to get Lewis off the field for good?”

It was a defining moment for Lewis, his teammates, the fans, and the franchise. Here was perhaps the greatest Baltimore football player of all time – at least for a generation of fans – playing his last game in the city. It had come upon us so fast and yet the timeless brilliance of Hoffmann’s photo is everlasting. The last war dance signifies the beginning of a new season, the playoffs. It also punctuates the last seventeen years of the Ravens franchise with Lewis as its face.  As Lewis prepares to exit, the 2012 Ravens are suddenly reborn.

From Never Easy, Never Pretty:

The ominous pounding chords of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” launched the introductions, and the Ravens “red eyes” appeared on the Jumbotron. Announcer Bruce Cunningham belted out the names of the defensive unit. Ed Reed strolled onto the field before Lewis, shaking his head with a finger to his lips as the crowd thundered its customary “Reed!” for several seconds. Many in the capacity crowd pondered Reed’s future with the team. Staying in the moment, he pointed back to the smoking tunnel in an attempt to quiet the crowd and keep the focus on his good friend. Lewis had fallen to his knees in prayer before his name was called. Then he appeared, his eyes blackened like Marlon Brando’s Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. His famed “squirrel dance” had one more scheduled run for the hometown crowd. Dirt flew from a chunk of sod. He sashayed from side to side, thrust out his massive torso, and cawed like a Raven. The Blue Angels roared overhead at the end of the national anthem. He embraced NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on the Ravens’ sideline. We knew as Ravens fans that it would never be like this again. Then Lewis gathered his team around him for one last pregame war party, a ritual he popularized around the NFL. “What time is it? Game Time! What time is it? Game Time!”