Archive for January, 2009

Trying a Different Formula
January 26, 2009

The Ravens changed course a bit today with the promotion of Greg Mattison to Defensive Coordinator.  Mattison does follow suit as a promotion from within, but his profile is different from the last three Ravens D-Coordinators.

BaltimoreRavens.com

Courtesy: BaltimoreRavens.com

Marvin Lewis, a young energetic coach on the rise, guided arguably the greatest defense in NFL history.  He parlayed that success into a head job with the Bengals.

Mike Nolan, also a coach soaring up the rankings took over for Lewis and kept the ship of destruction on path.  Nolan jumped from there to the head job in San Francisco.

Rex Ryan fit the same mold, maybe doing the best job of the three, and now sits on the throne in New York with the Jets.

Enter Mattison, who nobody considers a rising star in the coaching game.  That’s not to knock the 59 year old coach.  He has a remarkable resume, mostly from college.  He coordinated defenses at Michigan, Notre Dame, and most at Florida.  The last stop in Gainesville included a national championship.  He has proven himself a consistent winner and despite a smile that reminds you of your favorite grand fatherly memories, loves to attack a quarterback .

But he is not a youngster hungry for glory, looking to advance all the way to the top.  Not that he’d turn down a head job if somebody came calling, but it’s not his driving force.

No, his time in Baltimore comes thanks to a stop on the coaching trail 15 years at Western Michigan.  There he had a linebackers coach on his defense that impressed beyond his years.  John Harbaugh worked under Mattison and left an indelible mark.  Mattison says he knew right away that Harbaugh was destined for greatness.  And now gets to join on that journey.

So the Ravens break from the mold, and maybe that’s just what this team needs.

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One Shining Moment
January 21, 2009

In the days leading up to Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, the people of Pittsburgh treated us as their guests (and not the kind you’re trying to get rid of).  They offered smiles and hellos.  They seemed determined to prove how friendly Western Pennsylvania could be.

Then came game day.  It was like that car rental commercial with the two faced counted attendant.  They flipped theirs around and got flat out mean.  Our Jen Franciotti took the brunt of it post game with some words that I can’t repeat here. 

All the good will earned over two days vanished along with the Ravens Super Bowl hopes.

So we finish our coverage early Monday morning, just chilled to the bone.  A lousy night’s rest made for a grumpy wake up call.  Nobody is in a good mood.

After packing up the car we set out to find a place for late morning breakfast.  AA little off the beaten path we find King’s Family Restaurant in Monroeville.  Kenny  Brown(TV-11 photographer), Bryan James (TV-11 producer) and myself hunker down for one last bit of artery clogging before a return home.

Not a minute after we order an patron comes over to our booth.  Given the heckling received last night, we were not expecting the best.  The gentleman says he assumes we’re from Baltimore.  We say that we are, and he asks us how our weekend was.

The temptation to say what first popped in my head was huge, but the filter was on.  We said it was a long trip, and we were hoping for another to Tampa, but it was a great season for the Ravens and frankly the Steelers were the better team.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

The Steelers fan says something to the effect of: You probably had a hard weekend.  Some of the fans can be rough.  But I wanted you all to know not everyone in Pittsburgh’s a jerk.  He proceeded to drop a pair of 20 dollar bills on the table, proclaiming breakfast was on him.

We were stunned.

Not in a million years did we see that coming.  We tried to return the money saying it really wasn’t necessary (seriously, we did).  But he was having none of that.  He held the determined look of someone who had made up his mind to do something, and did it.

I caught up with him as he walked away, and we exchanged business cards.  Our Pittsburgh Patron Saint was Chris “Coach” Gathagan from St. Edmund’s Academy.  He is their athletics director and obviously all around good guy.

You see the bumper stickers asking for random acts of kindness and maybe snicker.  But the impact from that gesture of good will last much longer for me than any of the inebriated hecklers.  I’ve already told this story a dozen times (including the five minutes I hijacked from Steve Davis’ radio show on WBAL-AM). 

So thank you Coach for your hospitality, thankfully it is our lasting memory from a trip to Pittsburgh.

Saturday Surprise
January 18, 2009

When travelling to cover a story, I am reminded once more, always bring your foot warmers and a bag full of patience. 

In Pittsburgh for day two of our trip for the AFC Championship Game and it kicks off with a bang.  The frosty temps in Western, Pa (-8 degrees at 7:30 AM) have assaulted our satellite truck like a Rex Ryan zero cover blitz package.

11 Mobile News Room being treated for frostbite

11 Mobile News Room being treated for frostbite

Good news, the satellite part of the 11 Mobile News Room works just fine and we will have our full capabilities for Sunday’s big game.  But if you had any doubts about which was a nicer part of the country to live in the winter, they are erased.  Narrow roads along with an abundance of snow create traffic hazzards even on a Saturday afternoon. 

For a brief time today, we were though reliant on others.  Our friends at WTAE stepped up in tremendous fashion.  Likewise our friends at WGAL.  Both Hearst-Argyle stations that never hesitated to help us out.  My old boss Pat Principe from WGAL in Lancaster was a trooper, adjusting his schedule to accomadate our needs.  And really, does anyone make a silver mane / playoff mustache look any cooler?

Pat Principe, sports director extaordinaire

Pat Principe, sports director extaordinaire

Pat owns the unique position of covering both teams tomorrow.  In fact, he also covers the Eagles.  And yet,  his favorite team?  None of the above.  That gives you a nice, unbiased report every time out.

Then there’s our Jen Franciotti.  Bless her heart, on her first trip covering a sporting event, it’s a dream come true for the off the hook Ravens fan.  She can’t believe she has a seat in the press box for tomorrow.  She’s handled fan detail all season and now gets her chance at the biggest game of the season (at least so far).  But le it be known, in the cold of January in Pittsburgh, she is not exactly braving the elements.

Jen Franciotti blasting her Ravens smile

Jen Franciotti blasting her Ravens smile

 And credit Jen as a fan, she knows her football and loves to talk about the Ravens schematics all season long.  Then there’s the Pittsburgh fan I met at Mullen’s Sports Bar Saturday night.  Laura Lee professed her love for the black and gold but then was confused when I asked for her thoughts on Sunday’s game.  She said she thought it would be loud.  Again, I asked about the game and her response: “I don’t know.  Does it matter?”

pittsburgh-2-007

Ah yes, and then there’s the game itself.  What can we expect Sunday? If we’ve learned anything in these playoffs, it’s that predictions must not rely on logic.  A certain, not to be named national sports writer who professes his love for the point spread, went 0-4 last week.  Road teams don’t quite rule, but wow home field advantage does not mean what it used to.  The Steelers looked great last week at Heinz Field against San Diego, but history is not on their side.  The last three AFC Championships the Steelers have hosted left Pittsburgh fans to cry in their Iron City beers. 

The Ravens equal their talent, when healthy, but that is not the case Sunday.  Baltimore is simply banged up while the Steelers are ridiculously healthy for mid January.  But the Ravens have not faltered when challenged from day one of this season, and two things stick out in their favor.  Joe Flacco is a better road quarterback than when at home, and the Ravens believe with all their hearts they will persevere once more.  You want to tell Ray Lewis anything different?

Pittsburgh redefines cold
January 17, 2009

Thank goodness the AFC Championship game is 48 hours.  We have the chance for a balmy warm up to the mid 20’s.  The welcoming temperature gauge on I-76 just east of Pittsburgh read five degrees when we arrived at 3:00 this afternoon.  Not 3:00 AM, that’s mid day!

Our satellite dish on top of our truck froze in place, requiring manual breaking of the ice.  I would have taken pictures of our engineer John Jacobs on the roof battling the condition, but it was too cold for that.  Great efforts from John and our photographer Chuck Cochran to get our equipment in working order.

I did take take off the lens cap a few times as we ventured to Jerome Bettis’ Grille 36 just down the street from Heinz Field.

There's Chuck before battling the frozen sat truck

There's Chuck before battling the frozen sat truck

Turns out the Grille, despite miserable amounts of black and gold makes for a pretty nice place.  If your coming by this weekend, I recommend.  The service was great and the food matched the service.   Bettis himself was to do his radio show on site that evening, but you know, the truck.

We did manage to find a little bit of Baltimore flavor inside as well.  And I mean a little.  A Ravens fan wearing a Steve McNair jersey was surrounded by a host of Stillers fans.  I asked to take their picture and one of the fellas from Pittsburgh said, “hey, we’re really not together so I don’t know about that”.   I said, “Aren’t you friends?”.  He responded, “Yeah but I don’t want to be in the picture with anyone wearing a Ravens jersey.” 

He relented before long, as I was wondering why in the heck it mattered since he was eating with him in a public restaurant,  but,  oh well. 

Alone in a sea of Stillers

Alone in a sea of Stillers

I did meet one Steeler fan that truly impressed.  Paul Verizance drove eight hours today from Illinois.  A huge smile on his face as he checked into his hotel, saying he really looked forward to the game.  And about the weather,  he said this felt pretty good.  It was -25 degrees in the Midwest.  Yes,  it could always be worse.

Music City Miracle Part II
January 11, 2009

Okay, there was no ridiculous end of game lateral for a touchdown.  But what the Ravens accomplished in Nashville seemed no less a miracle.  They earn a trip to the AFC Championship Game next Sunday with a rookie head coach, a rookie quarterback, an aging defense, and having now played 17 weeks in a row.

The Ravens were outgained 391 – 211.  They held the ball for more than eight minutes less than the Titans.  They couldn’t run the ball, and often couldn’t stop it.  

How in the world this team won remains almost unexplainable.  Almost.

They got some help and caught some breaks.

Joe Flacco appeared to step out of the back of the end zone for a safety late in the 4th quarter, but replays showed he narrowly stayed in bounds.  On the game winning drive, his 3rd down completion to Todd Heap should never have happened.  The play clock reached zero well before he called for the snap.  The refs missed that one.

But the Ravens season lives on thanks very simply to this statistic.  Two playoff games, 8 turnovers for their opponents, none for the Ravens.   And they were the most timely of turnovers today.  

Three times in the red zone Tennessee gave it away.  Wait, check that, the Ravens took it.  Great pressure forced the Kerry Collins interception, and big hits created fumbles. 

The Titans hurt themselves too.  A pair of snaps that Collins did not expect stymied drives, and Rob Bironas missed a field goal too.

But the defense kept the Ravens in the game, and the offense went and won it.  Flacco looks nothing like a rookie, showing a  level of poise that 10 year veterans would kill for.  He doesn’t make mistakes and when they need him to make a throw, he delivers.  The throw to Todd Heap to keep the drive alive was his gutsiest. 

And sidebar on Heap.  He has struggled this year.  He no longer is the consistent playmaker that used to send him to the Pro Bowl.  But he made a truly incredible catch, knowing he would get pummeled (his helmet was ripped off on the play). 

Back to Flacco, his final pass of the game, an absolute bullet on 3rd and 9, put Matt Stover in his comfort zone (and really, did anyone doubt Stover would deliver?).

I wrote about destiny last week at wbal.com.  and only believe more strongly in it now. 

They probably should not have won today.  Tennessee looked more talented for much of the game.  But here they are, through toughness, togetherness, and heart.  I can’t wait to see how far this train goes.

Ravens / Titans Who Ya Like?
January 9, 2009

There are so many reasons to believe Tennessee will hold off Baltimore Saturday afternoon in Nashville, advancing to the AFC Title Game.  The Titans are well rested, playing at home, owners of the best record in the NFL, and are collectively uglier (in football, that’s a huge plus although King Ugly Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs works on evening that one out).

The simple fact that Tennessee owns the top seed means the Ravens must overcome an awful lot of statistical history.  Number one seeds in the divisional round win 79 percent of the time. 

And yet, it’s the Ravens whom so many say will advance.  They enjoy the tag, “team nobody wants to play”.  A defense that scores so often combined with an offense that rarely turns it over have earned them that.  They also are playing so well at the right time.  They’ve continuously gotten better as the season went on.

That’s why I like the Ravens too.  The Titans peaked in early November, finishing the season by splitting their last six games.  Too much parity in the NFL to believe you can just turn it on when the time is right.  Tennessee won’t, the Ravens already have.

Baltimore 16

Tennessee 9

Susan Lucci has nothing on the Ravens
January 5, 2009

Examine each case individually and logical arguments can be made. 

Matt Ryan went 11-5, reached the playoffs, and threw for more than 3,400 yards.  Ergo, Offensive  Rookie of the year.

Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan

Mike Smith took over a complete debacle in Atlanta.  Mike Vick derailed the franchise and Bobby Petrino bailed on the Falcons in their hour of need.  Smith then led the Falcons to the post season.  Again, a very deserving Coach of the Year trophy for Smith.

Mike Smith / NBC Sports Media

Mike Smith / NBC Sports Media

 

James Harrison was the best player on the top ranked defense in Pittsburgh.  16 sacks and seven forced fumbles make for a nice resume, so again, the argument seems grounded.

James Harrison / newpittsburgh post courier

James Harrison / newpittsburgh post courier

But let’s zoom out and see the big picture.  Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco offered a similar resume to Ryan’s but didn’t enjoy the luxury of knowing he would start from week one.  Ryan took all the first team reps through the mini camps, training camp, and the preseason.  Flacco thought he would ride pine his entire rookie season.  Then the injuries came during preseason to Kyle Boller and Troy Smith forcing Flacco into the starring role.  He never backed down, and never gave anyone else the chance to reclaim the prize.

Joe Flacco / NY Daily News

Joe Flacco / NY Daily News

John Harbaugh’s case for Coach of the Year comes up a little short of Smith and Miami’s Tony Sparano (a close 2nd place finish to Smith).  Sure he turned around a 5-11 team to 11-5 with a rookie quarterback (and after the first week of the playoffs is the only rookie coach still coaching), but I get why ultimately the award went elsewhere.  

john-harbaugh-ravens

But he couldn’t get a single vote?  Not one.  Nobody made the case he did the best job.  Don’t forget, he took over and immediately Steve McNair retires.  Jonathan Ogden followed a few months later in June.  And his locker room was fractured.  Harbaugh convinced a bunch of veteran defenders to get on board in a totatlly different way.  That’s not worth a single vote?

And finally, the case against Ed Reed.  Wait,  I can’t think of one.  Not a single defensive force made more of an impact this season.  He also returns punts.  James Harrison, when asked to perform a secondary role, long snapped a ball over the head of his punter for a safety.  That’s not versatility.  Reed scored three touchdowns in the regular season, led the NFL in  interceptions, and did it all with an injured neck.

ed-reed

Reed finished 3rd in the voting.

In reality though, Ravens fans should be thrilled.  The “Nobody respects us” card is free to be played over, and over again.  The snubs provide further galvanization. 

It’s all coming together, beware the scorned Raven evermore.

I chatted about the Ravens with several of you Monday afternoon. You can read the Q&A <a href=”http://www.wbaltv.com/sports/18414337/detail.html”><B>here</B></a&gt;.