As special as this season was for the city and its fans, the story really goes back to 1996 when football was reborn in the Charm City after a 12-year absence from the NFL. For those enduring the years of suffering after the Colts left town in the middle of the night on March 28, 1984, the Ravens represented a new chapter in the rich history of Baltimore football.
For someone who was only a few months old when the Mayflower trucks left the Baltimore Colts’ complex in Owings Mills on that snowy night, the NFL was little more than a sport played in other cities. As much as I enjoyed reading and hearing stories about the days of Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, and Gino Marchetti, I wanted—and needed—my own team and players to follow and revere.
For this reason, the 1996 Baltimore Ravens will forever be my favorite team. It wasn’t about anything they accomplished on the field—their final record was an abysmal 4-12—but it was the fact that they were simply playing NFL football at historic Memorial Stadium that mattered most.
My first NFL experience took place in August 1996 with the Ravens taking on the Green Bay Packers in a preseason game. A torrential downpour soaked my father and me for much of the first half, but it couldn’t dampen our spirits as we witnessed our first NFL game together. For my father, it was a reawakening of his younger days as a Colts fan, but for me, it was the first of many memories to come as a Baltimore football fan. The Packers won, 17-15, on a last-second field goal, but to watch the Ravens—our team—for the first time was a special moment.
The official reintroduction of Baltimore to the NFL took place on Sept. 1, 1996, as the Ravens hosted the Oakland Raiders in front of 64,124 at Memorial Stadium. The atmosphere was electric as the Baltimore Colts Marching Band (who had stayed together in the years following the Colts’ move) performed and the legendary Unitas presented the game ball at midfield before a raucous crowd.
Quarterback Vinny Testaverde scored the franchise’s first touchdown, an eight-yard run in the first quarter, and a rookie middle linebacker named Ray Lewis intercepted a Billy Joe Hobert pass in the end zone, igniting a love affair only trumped by Unitas in Baltimore football lore. The Ravens trailed in the fourth quarter before Earnest Byner’s one-yard run gave Baltimore the 19-14 victory, the city’s first NFL win since 1983.
Baltimore was back in the NFL, and the purple and black of the Ravens had officially replaced the blue and white of the old Colts. Memories of the Colts would never be forgotten, but the city could finally begin moving forward with a new team and a new identity.
Unfortunately, the highlights were few and far between after Week 1 for the 1996 Ravens. The team went 4-12, finishing last in the AFC Central. Head coach Ted Marchibroda was a popular choice to lead the new Ravens after guiding the Baltimore Colts to three AFC East titles in 1975, 1976, and 1977 but was unable to capture the same magic with the Ravens in Baltimore.
Despite their poor record, the Ravens demonstrated an explosive offense, ranking third in the NFL in yardage and sixth in points scored (23.2 per game). Leading the Ravens’ high-octane offense was Testaverde. Maligned throughout his career in Tampa Bay and Cleveland, the 10-year veteran was selected to his first Pro Bowl, throwing for 4,177 yards, 33 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions.
Testaverde had a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander. Jackson led the team with 1,201 yards and 14 touchdowns while Alexander averaged 17.7 yards per catch and caught nine touchdowns. The duo was one of the deadliest receiving threats in the league, as Testaverde threw the football all over the field to the delight of Ravens fans.
The rushing attack struggled early in the season with Byner and Leroy Hoard unable to move the chains consistently. As a result, general manager Ozzie Newsome jettisoned Hoard and signed former Steelers running back Bam Morris to boost the running game. The controversial back went on to rush for 737 yards and four touchdowns in 11 games.
Despite the Ravens’ well-chronicled history of outstanding defense, the 1996 unit was the exact opposite, ranking last in the NFL in total defense and 28th in points allowed (27.6 per game). Leading the way for the Ravens’ defense was Pro Bowl safety Eric Turner and the rookie Lewis, who led the team with 110 tackles and thrilled the Baltimore crowd with his passion and speed at the middle linebacker position.
The unit struggled mightily defending the pass, ranking last in passing defense and surrendering 27 touchdown passes. The ineffective pass rush—linebacker Mike Caldwell led the team with only 4.5 sacks—and the shoddy play of cornerbacks Isaac Booth, Donny Brady, DeRon Jenkins, and Antonio Langham led to opposing quarterbacks carving up the Ravens’ defense.
Though a 4-12 record might suggest otherwise, the 1996 Ravens were an extremely competitive team in the AFC. The team held fourth-quarter leads in five of their 12 losses, including twice against Jacksonville and once against Denver, both playoff teams. The Ravens’ porous defense and Marchibroda’s conservative play-calling in the fourth quarter—something for which he was criticized during his stint with the Baltimore Colts—led to several heartbreaking losses.
Other than their Opening Day win against the Raiders, the highlight of the season came on December 1 when the Ravens dominated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-17, in a driving rain storm at Memorial Stadium. Rookie left guard Jonathan Ogden (Tony Jones was the team’s left tackle before moving on to Denver following the 1996 season) caught a one-yard touchdown on a tackle-eligible play, and Morris rushed for 100 yards against his former team.
The Steelers had dominated the Ravens in their Week 2 matchup, 31-17, but the new Ravens planted the seed for the teams’ future rivalry by returning the favor in the second matchup.
Though the final record of 4-12 was disappointing for the Ravens and their fans, the first-round selections of Ogden and Lewis the previous April would provide the foundation for the Super Bowl victory that would take place four years later. In addition to these two future Hall of Famers, Newsome selected wide receiver Jermaine Lewis in the fifth round, a return man that sparked the special teams in 1996 and would return a kick for a touchdown four years later in Super Bowl XXXV.
More importantly than any victory or any player, the 1996 Ravens represented a renaissance of professional football in Baltimore, a city starving for a second chance after losing the Colts 12 years earlier. They represented the opportunity for a new generation to enjoy NFL football in the Charm City.
The 1996 Ravens would be little more than a footnote in the immense history of the NFL, but for Baltimore, they represented a giant step in moving on from the pain of losing a football team. More steps would be taken in subsequent years, culminating with the 2000 Ravens hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Tampa Bay, but the 1996 Ravens were the first new love for a city rabid for football.
For me, the 1996 Ravens opened the door for new memories to be shared with my father in the years to follow. They allowed me to see how special the NFL experience could be for a father and son.
I would continue to cherish the proud history of the Baltimore Colts, as I was able to demonstrate to my father prior to a game against the Jaguars on Nov. 24 of that season. As I sat in my lower level closed end zone seat near the field, I noticed the legendary Unitas standing near the goal post.
With my father still parking the car outside the stadium, I begged the on-field security guard to ask Unitas to sign my ticket stub. When my father finally made his way to our seats, I couldn’t stop grinning as I presented him the signed Ravens-Jaguars ticket stub. I was 13-years-old, and this moment linked the Colts of the past to the Ravens of the present—and future—for my father and me.
The 1996 Ravens were a heartbreaking—and at times, frustrating—team to watch, but I was thrilled to finally have a new generation of players—and a team—to call my own.