The '96 Ravens: The Greatest 4-12 Season in History

Patrick SmithContributor IMay 25, 2009

27 Jul 1998:  Head coach Ted Marchibroda of the Baltimore Ravens talks to quarterback Eric Zeier #10 during the Baltimore Ravens training camp at Western Maryland College in Westminster, Maryland. Mandatory Credit: Doug Pensinger  /Allsport

They went 4-12. They played in an antique stadium. And when they showed up for the draft, their colors were black and white.

But my favorite team of all time remains the 1996 Baltimore Ravens.

The story isn't new. After a devoted, if sometimes rocky, marriage, the Colts dumped Baltimore in the middle of a snowy night in 1984 for a Midwestern city with a triple-A baseball team.

In the years that followed the divorce, Baltimore played by the rules and tried to get an expansion team. Then, instead of an old, football-soaked city with a ready-made fan base, the NFL awarded new franchises to two cities that smelled like condos and new money. Baltimore fans were furious and it looked like the NFL would never return.

There weren't even rumors that the city was even looking for a new team. And then suddenly, there they were. Art Modell and Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening on a podium somewhere downtown, shaking hands.

There were contests to name to the new team. "Bombers" had some traction, though it's probably just as well that it didn't win. Can you imagine rooting for the Bombers now? There were a few others, but the one that really caught the city's attention paid homage to a syphilitic, half-crazy poet who's buried in a churchyard downtown. Edgar Allan Poe's 1845 poem "The Raven" was the inspiration for the new name and Baltimore repainted the Browns purple and black.

But there was no purple yet when Ravens GM, and Cleveland great, Ozzie Newsome drafted Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis in the summer of 1996. The team had no colors and no name yet. So, while other draftees held up uniform jerseys and put on team hats when they got their pictures taken, Ogden and Lewis held up white jerseys with black letters on them. That was it.

The season started and football returned to Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. Or, rather, NFL football returned. For a few seasons, the stadium had served as home to the Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League. Fans liked the Stallions, but they were never much more than than a novelty act.

The moment the NFL came back to Baltimore, the Stallions were never mentioned again.

On Sept. 1, 1996, coach Ted Marchibroda's Ravens beat Oakland at Memorial Stadium on touchdown runs by Vinny Testaverde and Ernest Byner and a couple field goals by Matt Stover. Some things never change.

It was the first game of the greatest 4-12 season in history.

Derrick Alexander and Michael Jackson each had 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Testaverde had one of his huge years at 4,177 passing yards. And that Lewis kid at linebacker looked like he might be pretty good.

I bought a single-game ticket for the New England game on Oct. 6, 1996. I walked to the game from my house and, the whole way there, couldn't believe I was walking to an NFL game. In Baltimore.

I sat in the very last row of the upper deck on a sunny and cool autumn afternoon and watched Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe each throw for more than 300 yards in a wild 46-38 New England win that featured a furious fourth-quarter Ravens comeback.

When Tedy Bruschi ran back a blocked punt in the fourth quarter for a touchdown, I realized that I didn't care if the Ravens won or lost; it was enough that they were here at all.