How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Baltimore Ravens!
For all of you sports fans out there, cast your mind back to 1996. What sticks out from back then?
After all, this was the year the Cowboys succeeded, somewhat inevitably, in their attempt to win three of the last four Super Bowls. It was also the year of Atlanta when Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis took on the rest of the world - and won. The Chicago Bulls ended a record breaking season by beating the Seattle Supersonics and the Yankees came out on top against the Braves in the World Series.
One season follows another. Admit it: Until I jogged your memory, you'd forgotten all of those so-called momentous occasions, right? Presumably they still mean something to someone out there but for us neutrals they're pretty much gone from our minds. That's the thing about the yearly grind of the sports schedules: today's 'historic' victory quickly becomes tomorrow's quiz show question - and nothing else.
But 1996 was different. Suddenly the limelight had shifted to two pretty similar blue state towns; Cleveland and Baltimore. The name Art Modell was suddenly on the lips of every sports commentator; as was, bizarrely enough, the name Edgar Allen Poe.
It's all starting to ring bells with you now, isn't it? Yep, this was the year the Baltimore Ravens were born.
I say 'born', but as you all know (even those of you who switch off the news channel at even the hint of a link to the sports desk), it was a hell of a lot more complicated than that.
When the Baltimore Ravens arrived, a lot of us thought that we were facing armageddon so far as the future of sports teams in America were concerned.
Back then the Browns really were a very unfashionable team. Nevertheless, the sympathy of the whole nation was with the Browns fans when Art Modell announced he was shifting the whole franchise - lock, stock and barrel, over to Baltimore.
The fans were the ones left behind of course. That was the whole problem.
Anyway, February 1996 was when the NFL promised Cleveland their own team (who became the Browns) and the old Browns became the Ravens - 380 miles away in Baltimore!
Fans and commentators feared the worst. What's to stop billionaires from picking up any NFL franchise they like the look of and taking it wherever they think will net them the most dollars? Who really has ownership of a franchise in the truest sense of the word: the fans or the owner?
Well it turns out (so far at least) that the biblical-scale exodus of teams from poorer cities to 'more viable locations' hasn't come to pass; at least not yet.
One thing is truly remarkable: the progress of the Baltimore Ravens since their creation. Regardless of what you thought of the Ravens when they started out back in 1996, you have to admit that their progress in the NFL since then has been one hell of an adventure to watch.
Sure, it's now been a full 12 years since the Ravens victory at Super Bowl XXXV. Don't forget though that coach, John Harbaugh has managed to lead them to the postseason every year since he's been in charge. It's kind of surprising that Ravens fans have had to wait so long for another title.
Traditionally it's been the case that when you ask a neutral where he thinks the Ravens' strengths lie, he's going to answer; Defense. On first glance, the stats certainly support this. The names Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis probably aren't going to be too far away from your lips when you talk about what the Ravens have achieved. This year though has been this first season the team didn't actually finish in the league's top tiers of defense lineups. Yet here they are at the Super Bowl! Weird huh?
Forget your preconceptions and take a good look at the Offense stats for the Ravens and you'll get the full picture. One thing's for sure; Jim Caldwell has certainly shaken things up since his arrival. Oh and don't forget a certain Joe Flacco. Look back over the season and you'll see he's had an outstanding road to the Super Bowl. He's managed to clock up nearly 4000 yards, get 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a 7.2 yard per attempt ratio.
It seems it's against the laws of commentary to write about Baltimore's journey to New Orleans without mentioning Ray Lewis and his injury. Truth is, you can't talk about the Ravens period without his name being in there somewhere.
Not that Lewis's was the only injury problem faced by Harbaugh last season. The combination of Lewis, Suggs, Ngata and that other Defense cornerstone; Ed Reed looks great on paper. The problem for Baltimore was that they were all injured at some point. The combo didn't actually take to the field together until the beginning of the playoffs.
It's Lewis who gets the headlines though. Is he the greatest linebacker in NFL history? Champions of Singletary and Butkus and a select group of others might disagree with you there. He certainly sits at the top table though.
It's his longevity at the top (along with the impressive numbers) that really earns him his place. This is a guy selected by the Ravens in the 1996 draft and who, since then, has clocked up over 1500 tackles. Just before the playoffs Lewis announced he was calling it a day at the end of the season.
After that announcement, it seemed this was a guy who was going to go out in style. Then disaster struck. A triceps tear made it look likely that he would disappear without taking to the field again. In anyone's book, his determination and eventual recovery are a credit to a guy whose personal reputation has certainly had it's ups and downs!
Whatever happens, Let's just sit back and enjoy the football. After all, it'll all be forgotten soon enough.