Jim Mutscheller: An elegant warhorse

FB photo from Michael Mutscheller

FB photo from Michael Mutscheller

On April 10th, we lost more than a gridiron hero.

Baltimore Colt Jim Mutscheller personified Baltimore football. He was a hard-nosed ex-marine made of Western Pennsylvania scrap iron who obliterated anything in his path and snared many of the passes thrown in his direction. He was also a great father and family man who had an impeccable reputation in the community.

I interviewed him for my book, Never Easy, Never Pretty at his home in Timonium, MD in the Spring of 2013. I could have stayed with him all afternoon. His health was beginning to fail him then but his eyes were serious and penetrating.

“Johnny Unitas could feel things, he could sense things,” he told me. “He had an incredible ability to concentrate.” He had seen similar traits from Joe Flacco in the Super Bowl victory over the 49ers.

“Flacco proved himself,” the Colt great told me.

A scrappy and undersized tight end at six foot one and 200 pounds, Mutscheller played 8 professional seasons (1954-61) in Charm City. He caught 40 touchdown passes and was the best blocker on the team.

Coach Weeb Ewbank had Mutscheller demonstrate his blocking technique to the Colt rookies. During scrimmages in practice, he’d line up across from the menacing Gino Marchetti and Bill Pellington.

“Don’t worry Jimmy, I won’t hurt you,” Pellington told him.

He helped lead the Colts to the 1958 championship victory against the New York Giants. Quarterback Johnny Unitas surprised everyone by throwing a pass to Mutscheller from the 7 yard line in sudden death overtime.  The tight end caught the pass and slid out of bounds at the two. On the next play, his crushing block paved the way for Alan Ameche to score the touchdown.

Unitas told him, “I tried to make you the hero.”

“Did you see my block on the play?” he asked me.

Mutscheller and his wife Pert raised four sons in the Guilford neighborhood. One his favorite things to do was take Pert to a restaurant near Hopkins called Tambers.

When he finally moved to the county, his son Michael asked him, “What will you miss the most about the old neighborhood?”

“Tambers,” he said.

He loved the city and its fans.

“Baltimore was the ideal place to play football,” he told me. “It was a perfect time.”

2014 Ravens personify “never easy, never pretty”

photo-28 (2)“You guys just kept your heads down and your eyes forward,” John Harbaugh told his team after losing to the Patriots. He told them that they could not have played better.

Patriot safety Duron Harmon came across the end zone and made an over-the-top play on the pass to Torrey Smith—that was the difference.

The Ravens came within a touchdown of making it to the AFC Championship game. You can torture yourself with what the offense should have done on that final drive or you can tip your hat to a job well done and move on.

I’ll miss being in the swarm of purple on Russell Street, in the sports bar at the Philly airport during a flight delay watching them demolish the Dolphins in the second half or listening through the Pennsylvania mountains to Gerry Sandusky’s bone-chilling call of the Chargers game.

They had humbled and quieted me during the Patriots game—I was in awe as I watched this team push New England to the brink of defeat in one of the most tantalizing contests of the last ten years. I’ll have trouble watching the Patriots and the Blue Horseshoes—it will be difficult to pull for either team. You’ll find that story in the book.

But this Ravens team was special.

They were grinders. Justin Forsett was almost out of football before the Ravens and Gary Kubiak gave him another chance. Now he’s going to the Pro Bowl. Kamar Aiken battled his way into playing time from practice squads in 2013. Torrey Smith rose up in the 4th quarter against the Browns and caught a bomb and then a touchdown pass—and sealed the 6th playoff appearance of the last seven years. C. J. Mosley played with a ferocity rarely seen from rookies.  Field general Joe Flacco led the offense and had the most productive season of his careers. Terrell Suggs cemented his position as leader of the defense. Steve Smith Sr. defined what it means to “Play like a Raven.”

When the season began, the NFL nation wanted the Ravens to disappear. Negativity swirled around the franchise. Ray Rice jerseys were turned in. The old and tired “thug” label was reattached by haters from other teams. A player who had once made a major contribution to the purple and black was gone.

Three days after Rice was let go, the Ravens beat the Steelers on national television. Harbaugh kept the team moving forward.

Each season is a progression towards something bigger. In the years ahead, we will look back on this team. The run to the next Super Bowl began in Week 19 of the 2014 season against the Steelers. They got better every week—with losses and with ugly wins—they kept fighting. It all came together against Pittsburgh and it carried through most of the New England game.

The bitter taste of this defeat will lead to future victories. In Foxborough, the 2014 Ravens learned just how good they are when they execute.

Sometimes, it’s just not meant to be. I’m proud and lucky to be a Ravens fan.

10 keys to beating the Hoodie and the Brady Bunch

Photo by Phil Hoffman from "Never Easy, Never Pretty"

Photo by Phil Hoffman from “Never Easy, Never Pretty”

When the Ravens make the playoffs, throw out all of your preconceived notions. Anything can and will happen. The Ravens are tournament-tested and built for the postseason. It’s been a great season and we can prevail tomorrow. I’m tired of the Patriots, their coach, their quarterback and their self-righteous owner. As John Harbaugh told the referee last Saturday night in Pittsburgh, “We’re not going to let them push us around. We’re not.” Let’s send the Patriots home for the winter.

1.) Make Tommy Boy shiver in his Uggs

We need to knock his Bradyness down once early. Brady can’t run very well any more but he gets the ball out quickly. He will be throwing into our strength—the Ravens line-backing corps. More than the front four, the Ravens linebackers need to have their best game of the year.

2.) Take away their running game

Belichick couldn’t wait to get running back LaGarrette Blount back in a Patriots uniform. LB needs to be stopped for us to have a chance. He will be hard to handle in the cold. If we shut down their run, we will win the game. In last years’ 41-7 thrashing of the Ravens, Blount ran for 76 yards.

3.) Stop their Smurf receivers

Edelman and Amendola can be difference makers. We need to blanket them. They are often open when teams are distracted by Gronk. We can’t allow Brady to dink-and-dunk his way down the field.

4.) Keep the Patriots out of the end zone and turn it into a slugfest

Trust me on this one, the Patriots will want no part of a grind-it-out game with the Ravens. Over the last two years, New England has been rebuilt in the Ravens image. They’ve beefed up the defense–adding two punishing corners in Brandon Browner and Darelle Revis. If we can keep the game played between the 20 yard lines and turn it into a physical match-up—we’ve got a chance. We need to withstand their initial onslaught – make adjustments and dominate.

5.) Flacco must use all of his weapons

We need an element of surprise and a big effort from someone the Patriots haven’t scouted. I’m looking for Marlon Brown to have a big game. I’m looking for Kamar Aiken and Michael Campanaro to do big things as well. Jacoby Jones can also get behind a defense and run back kicks for touchdowns. “Wherefore art thou, Mr. Jones?”

6.) Feed off of last year’s 41-7 thrashing!

The Patriots embarrassed the Ravens last year in Baltimore, defeating them by a score of 41-7 and dominating all aspects of the game. The Ravens who played will use this as a rallying cry. We need to ruin their season just as they did ours last year. We had to win the last two games and couldn’t pull it off.

7.) Outsmart the Hoodie

Harbaugh, Kubiak, Pees and Spagnuolo have what it takes to outfox the master. We have the best coaches in the NFL. Whether it’s a new offensive scheme or a blitz package, we have the brain power to adjust to whatever he has planned. Trust the coaching.

8.) Establish a running game

We need a running game tomorrow to keep Brady off the field and control the clock. It will be a key success factor. Justin Forsett and Bernard Pierce need to have solid efforts.

9.) Torrey Smith must have a great game

He has come up big against the Patriots before and he did it against Denver in the Divisional round in the 2012 playoffs. His two catches propelled us past the Browns and he had a 3rd and 13 catch and a touchdown against the Steelers. With Smith Sr. grappling against Revis for much of the game, Torrey needs to beat Brauner deep a couple of times.

10.) Play relaxed and loose

The pressure is on New England. The Ravens can just play football. We don’t have a gaudy record and didn’t win a division. We can just play tournament football. We knocked out the Steelers by playing a great football game and we can do the same in the land of Miles Standish.

Ravens 27, Patriots 24

7 Keys to beating Pittsburgh tonight

photo by Phil Hoffmann

photo by Phil Hoffmann

1. Hit Ben early and often

In the first meeting, Courtney Upshaw hammered Ben Roethlisberger in the first quarter. Ben never recovered from that hit. It stayed in the back of his mind. We need to get one on him early and make him uncomfortable.

2. Contain Heath Miller

With Charlie Batch at quarterback in 2012, Heath Miller single-handedly won that game for the Steelers. He is sneaky on third down. Corey Mosley needs to know where he is at all times. He could be Ben’s safety valve with no check-down option.

3. Do not get rattled by James Harrison and the Steeler defense

The Ravens self-destructed in Pittsburgh in the second meeting. The game turned on a Lorenzo Taliaferro fumble. We beat ourselves. Joe Flacco looked unsure and tentative at times. Granted, he had no protection. Joe needs to shake off any bad plays and make something happen to beat Pittsburgh tonight.

4. Start fast and establish the run game

We won’t survive a lackadaisical start on offense in this one. We need to be sharp from the opening kick-off. We need to keep the Steelers offense off the field to win this game. Establishing a running game will be mandatory.

5. Do not let Antonio Brown beat us

I don’t care if you have to jam him at the line, double-team him or flat out just knock him down, Antonio Brown is the most potent weapon the Steelers have, and he will be open over the middle. We need to force him to run longer routes to give us time to get to Roethlisberger. When he catches the ball, we need to give him something to think about.

6. Turn the game into a defensive struggle

The Ravens defense needs to play the most physical game of their lives and mire the Steelers offense into a grind-it-out, ugly affair. Rain helps our case. We need to stall the high-octane Steeler offense.

7. Ravens receivers need to step up

Joe Flacco will not have a lot of time to throw the ball tonight. Torrey Smith and Steve Smith, Sr. will be the key to success in Pittsburgh. Smith Sr. needs to have a Hines Ward-like performance and carry the Ravens offense. Torrey and Steve can be the difference in this game.

Ravens 20, Pittsburgh 17

Ravens muster enough to beat Browns, Chiefs do their part

photo(64)For more than 50 minutes against the Browns, the Ravens offense generated less production than the Frisbee-catching dogs during the half-time show. The canines went high above the turf to make catches and put on an aerial display that prompted at least one fan to ask, “Can they catch footballs?” As the afternoon wore on, many in Section 535 were concerned that while the Chiefs were doing their part against the Chargers, we could easily lose to the Browns.

With only eight minutes left in the 4th and down 10-6, Torrey Smith and the Ravens changed all that. Joe Flacco, wrestling with his own demons for most of the afternoon, launched a mammoth bomb down the left sideline toward the Russell Street end zone. Smith and Joe Haden wrestled for position, but it was Smith who hauled it in, crashing to the turf. One play later, Flacco found Smith in the end zone. Torrey Smith put the team on his back for two plays and gave the Ravens the lead.

Running back Justin Forsett took over from there, gaining 70 of his 119 yards in the fourth quarter. His efforts set up a two-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to Kamar Aiken to salt away the victory.

Prior to that brief explosion, the Ravens played sluggishly on offense. Scoring from inside the 5-yard line remains a challenge. On 4th and 1 from the Cleveland one yard line in the first quarter, Forsett lost three yards.

The Ravens could have taken an early 7-0 lead or even a 3-0 lead—but they came away with nothing. The team needs to be able to gain one yard when they need it. This failure weighed heavy and led to a prolonged funk for Joe Flacco and his mates.

The Ravens defense once again kept them in the game, despite lapses in the secondary. Browns practice squad QB, Connor Shaw was not able to find open receivers. Daryl Smith (9 tackles), Corey Mosley (7 tackles) and Pernell McPhee (2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits) carried the load with Suggs delivering 1 sack, and a fumble recovery.

When the dust settled, the Ravens had made the playoffs. The Chiefs stifled the Chargers in Kansas City and we had just enough to beat Cleveland. Flacco was once again a bit flaccid to start the game but he is a winner and came alive in the second half.  It was almost as if the Ravens offense waited until the Chiefs were in control before starting to play. A slow start in the playoffs will spell doom.

But none of the above matters. Nobody talks about the labor pains, just the baby. Six of the last seven years, the Ravens have made the playoffs. The Ravens are playing with house money. They are in the dance. This team needs a playoff “at-bat” for future development. They have a slew of young players who will benefit from post-season experience.

The Ravens have yet to put 4 quarters of football together against a good team. Let’s hope they can do that next Saturday night.

Ravens faced perfect storm in Houston

photo(62)Texans 25, Ravens 13

The Ravens ran into a buzz-saw in Houston. Physically, it was as bad as the 43-13 thrashing during the 2012 Super Bowl season. The score last Sunday could have been much worse had the Texans scored touchdowns instead of six field goals. The Ravens were beaten by a better version of themselves.

They faced the wrong team at the wrong time. They were outplayed and out coached–something that rarely happens.

Texans defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel developed a suffocating game plan to stop the offense. He’s done that before. In Kansas City, during the 2012 Super Bowl season, his scheme limited the Ravens to three field goals in a 9-6 win. The Ravens won that game but should have lost it.

Texans quarterback Case Keenum, pulled from the Rams practice squad, played well enough and didn’t hurt his team. He’s familiar with the Texans offense. I liken him to a poor man’s Tony Romo—they have similar mannerisms.

The Texans defense rattled Joe Flacco. They’ve done this the last three times they’ve faced him. After the 20-13 Ravens 2011 playoff victory, Ed Reed told XM radio that he believed that Flacco was unnerved by the Texans front seven.

J.J. Watt got inside Joe’s head. The Steelers’ James Harrison does the same thing. Flacco was reticent from the start last Sunday, unsure and that’s understandable. His protection was terrible and his receivers not up to the task.

The Texans hate the Ravens. The Ravens ended their season in the 2011 playoffs–when the Texans felt they should’ve won that game. Their former coach is now a Raven. They came out and punched us in the mouth.

Texans head coach Bill O’Brien has ramped up the cycle time in restoring the Texans back to prominence. He’s the real deal and so is his strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, a former Terrapin football player.

O’Brien’s team played with desperation. They Ravens did not.
The season boils down to this. There are two glaring weaknesses in the 2014 Baltimore Ravens. We lack a couple of tall and rangy shutdown corners on defense and on offense, a receiver that can go up and get a ball.

These items should be on the wish-list for next year.

Right now, we have one quality win. We beat the Steelers 26-6 early in the season.

If we had beaten the Chargers and Houston, given what we’ve faced with 19 players on injury lists and the turmoil surrounding the Ray Rice debacle, John Harbaugh would be in line for coach of the year.

It’s not over yet. I don’t expect the Chiefs to fold in Arrowhead and Phillip Rivers can’t keep walking this tightrope.

Beat the Browns.

Ravens outlast pesky Jags, still in the hunt

photo-26 (2)Ravens 20, Jaguars 12

The haze of the Army-Navy game hung over M&T Bank Stadium. There were empty seats all around the enclosure at game time and neither the crowd nor the team felt playoff urgency looming. Wind swirled off Russell Street and the gray skies muted the crowd. Much of the game was like watching purple paint dry or being trapped in an endless television timeout. Not even the “Game of Thrones” theme song, a show in which Ravens play a symbolic and major role, could fire the boys up.

Sometimes a bad team is the worst one to play. Those guys are playing for their careers next year. And yesterday, the Jags pulled out all the stops to get a win with an onside kick and a fake punt. Toby Gerhardt and Blake Bortles came to play as did the Jaguars defense.

"Real Fan Dan" ignites crowd

“Real Fan Dan” ignites crowd

Bruce Cunningham’s introductions featured the Ravens offense and the spotlight on Coach Kubiak’s unit didn’t have the desired effect. It was the special teams who got the Ravens on the board first with a blocked punt by Darian Stewart that went for a touchdown. Kamar Aiken, kept for his special teams play as well as his hands as a wide receiver scooped up the ball and raced into the end zone. Aiken was everywhere on special teams.

Rookie quarterback Blake Bortles and the Jaguars moved the ball well in the first half and took the lead 9-7 and then 12-10 on four field goals at the half. His quick release was effective early on, getting the ball to his receivers before Suggs and the wrecking crew of Dumervil, Jernigan and McPhee dropped him to the turf eight times. He had difficulty finding the touch on deep balls and sideline passes all afternoon—a blessing for the Ravens.

Terrence Brooks and Asa Jackson were injured during the game. Jackson made a great defensive play on Cecil Shorts III in the third quarter, getting inside position on a route down the sideline. Shorts dove over Jackson’s back and was called for offensive pass interference. The Ravens corner injured his knee on the play. Another practice squad refugee from the Dolphins signed last week, Rashaan Melvin took his place and immediately made some critical tackles and deflections.

How good would the Ravens defense be with a secondary?

The Ravens lacked inspiration on offense, running into a strong Jaguar defensive line. Joe Flacco wasn’t as sharp as he has been, with balls sailing over receiver’s heads or low to the ground. There were plenty of drops too.

In the third quarter, “Real Fan Dan” took off his shirt in Section 531 and led the R-A-V-E-N-S cheer. The stadium sprang to life and so did the offense. Flacco found old faithful, Owen Daniels deep in Jaguar territory coming across the ten yard line. A few plays later he found Daniels again, this time alone in the right corner of the end zone for a 17-12 lead. The Ravens extended the lead on a Justin Tucker field goal to make it 20-12.

On a 3rd and 5 from the Ravens 42 with a little over 3 minutes remaining, Flacco took the snap and raced around right end for 11 yards and a first down. It was the most surprising play of the game.

Still the Jaguars had a chance to tie the game until Bortles threw a long pass to Ravens safety Jeremy Miles—ending the game.

“Winning ugly is a beautiful thing,” said Baltimore writer Charles Cohen. We’ve been doing it since 1996.