Fans will look back on the Baltimore Ravens’ 2008 playoff run and remember the poise of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, the steadiness of the offensive line, and the resurgent offense the team had lacked for so many seasons before then.
What they likely won’t talk about are the roles that Cam Cameron, Hue Jackson, and John Matsko played in their success.
The Ravens were entering a new era last season under first year head coach John Harbaugh. Not much was known about Harbaugh, a former special teams and secondary coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, when he was hired in January 2008, but an 11-5 season will change that quickly.
Harbaugh is quick to praise his assistant coaches and the parts they play in the success of the team. Many members of Harbaugh’s staff have personal connections to him and his family, or had them with the Ravens prior to his arrival.
While every coach has played a significant role, a few key individuals helped pave the way for the Ravens’ success last season in very specific and crucial ways, whether it was in the way they developed certain players or notable plays they called at the right time.
Plays like a double reverse in the second quarter of the first game of the season which saw wide receiver Mark Clayton find the end zone. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was the brainchild behind that and plenty of other amazing moments from the season.
Like quarterback Joe Flacco receiving a catch from quarterback Troy Smith against the Raiders in week eight, or wide receiver Derrick Mason catching a touchdown from Clayton in week 13.
Such unique and assertive play-calling has been a staple of Cameron’ since he was the offensive coordinator in San Diego.
“Without a doubt, Cam’s mind is always working,” quarterback Smith noted, saying he calls Cameron ‘the mad scientist.’
“He wants to win games and put this team in a position to let the best players play at all times. He puts us in situations to where we can be one the field, and if we can be productive, then let’s do it.”
But without a strong offensive line, there wouldn’t be the opportunity for such plays.
That’s where John Matsko came in.
Matsko is one of them most distinguished offensive line coaches in the NFL, coaching for the Chiefs, Rams, Giants, Saints, and Cardinals prior to coming to Baltimore. 1999 was an especially important year, as he coached the O-line for the Rams’ Super Bowl winning “greatest show on turf” offense.
But Matsko’s first year in Baltimore shouldn’t go unnoticed. Under Matsko, as well as assistant offensive line coach Andy Moeller, the Ravens O-line paved the way for the team’s three-headed running attack run for 2,376 yards and a franchise record of 20 touchdowns.
They did this despite a season ending injury to guard Marshal Yanda in week six and tackles Jared Gaither, Adam Terry, and Willie Anderson each facing injuries throughout the season as well.
“The intellectual part of it, John has done a great job, and our O-linemen have picked that up very well, especially for a young group that hasn’t played together,” Harbaugh said.
“I think we’re way ahead of the curve with that.”
The offseason saw some significant changes for Matsko’s O-line. The departure of a young star like Jason Brown and the retirement of a veteran leader like Willie Anderson might cripple other offensive lines.
But thanks to some maneuvering from Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens now have veteran Matt Birk anchoring the line and first-round draft pick Michael Oher—the favorite to become the right tackle.
Both additions have made Matsko, as Harbaugh put it, “the happiest guy in the room.”
Perhaps the largest unsung hero on the Ravens’ staff is quarterback coach Hue Jackson. Jackson has played key roles in many NFL offenses, including the Washington Redskins, Atlanta Falcons as their offensive coordinator, and the Bengals as their wide receivers coach.
His role of guiding Joe Flacco along cannot be disregarded.
“Hue [has done] a tremendous job with Joe,” said Harbaugh.
“He is one of the best offensive coaches in the league. He’s recognized around the league as that.”
Under Jackson’s tutelage, Joe Flacco threw for 2,971 yards, 14 touchdowns, and a 80.3 QB rating in his rookie season, and he is regarded as one of the bright young stars in the league.
Of course, the Ravens’ offense wouldn’t be as successful without the rest of their coaches. Coaches like Jim Hostler for the wide receivers, Wilbert Montgomery for the running backs, or Wade Harman for the tight ends.
Harbaugh would be quick to praise them as well.
And then there’s the vaunted defense and those who help run it.
Former defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Rex Ryan will always be hailed in Baltimore as a defensive genius. But his successor, Greg Mattison, has quite a pedigree himself, coaching for such college powerhouses as Michigan and Florida before making the jump to the pros in 2008.
“Greg is a guy that I have full trust and belief in,” Harbaugh said of his new coordinator. “He’s been successful at every stop. He’s been a coordinator at the highest level of college football, won national championships, done it all, really, at that level.
"But [also], the job he did this year with our guys...He established himself as a premiere coach in the NFL. If you talk to our players, they will tell you the same thing.”
Once Ryan left for the New York Jets, Harbaugh promoted special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg to assistant head coach. Given Harbaugh’s background in special teams, this move emphasized the Ravens’ devotion to staying strong on that aspect of the game.
There were moments in 2008 in which special teams decisions proved turning points in the game, such as a fake field goal week 17 in a must-win against Dallas that helped sustain a drive and produce a touchdown.
Like the offense, the defense also has position coaches playing their parts, like Chuck Pagano and Mark Carrier for the secondary, or Clarence Brooks for the defensive line, and Vic Fangio for the linebackers.
Key moments called for key plays.
And those plays were called by the right coaches at the right time. The Ravens’ coaching staff paved the way for success in 2008. They intend to keep that momentum going for 2009.