Picking the best Ravens team of all time is tough for me. It's like trying to pick my favorite slice of pizza.
Obviously the 2000, 2006 and 2008 teams are everybody's favorite because they won. Some may even pick the 1996 team because they were first. But for me, my favorite would be a team most Ravens fans would like to forget: the 2007 edition.
You see, 2007 was the first year I actually had the privilege of covering the Ravens home games for my paper, the Cape Gazette. First, a little background.
1) I got the job at the Gazette in February of 2007, after submitting writing samples of a Ravens book project that I was working on, then abandoned. One of the samples was a two-page diatribe on why I hated the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the irony of ironies, half the editorial staff ended up being Steeler fans. Yet, I still got the job. Go figure.
2) Our sports editor had a nephew who played for the Ravens, so the paper has had passes for home games since 1996. Our editor was going to be covering the Philadelphia Eagles and needed someone to cover the Ravens so we could keep the passes. Knowing I was a Ravens fan, they asked me. I remember our editor coming in, asking "Hey, do you want to cover the Ravens this year?" I don't think the three letters Y-E-S could come out of my mouth any faster.
So, with that, I did my first game in September against Arizona. Needless to say, the view from the press box was enough to keep me slack-jawed for three hours. I kept asking myself, "Do people really get paid for this?" It truly was an awe-inspiring moment. And then I went down to the locker room.
After every game, the first thing that happens is the coach gives a press conference. I'm standing there, next to people I had been reading for years: There's Mike Preston and David Steele of the Baltimore Sun. There's Scott Garceau. There's Bruce Cunningham. People I had been reading and watching on TV for years. Then Coach Brian Billick walked in. I'd seen him in person before, so I wasn't starstruck, but still, I was in his office, so to speak. The post-game presser, at least when Billick was coach, was surprisingly short.
After Billick and a couple of players spoke about the game, it was time to actually go into the locker room. And if you've never done the job before, believe me, the first time you go into the locker room after having been a fan, you have to restrain yourself from turning into a Trekkie. A fanboy. You must do your job coldly and objectively. Like James Bond with a tape recorder. But holy crap, there's Ray Lewis! There's Todd Heap! There's a nude Terrell Suggs and, oh God, I did not need to see that!
Funny thing is, after that first game, the fan-ness goes away. You become a media member. I did my first official Gazette story, a piece on the youth of the Ravens offensive line, two weeks later after a 22-3 win against the Rams, .
So to answer the question, why is the 2007 team my favorite? Well, besides my own personal stake, I loved the little moments I spent around that team. I remember interviewing rookie tackle Marshal Yanda after that game and just the smile on his face was indescribable. He looked like a little kid. He seemed as happy to be telling me about his first start as I was to be asking him about it. I remember the sheer size of tackle Jared Gaither (6'9", 350 pounds) and the cool professionalism of first-round pick Ben Grubbs.
But when you talk about the 2007 Ravens, you talk about losing. Lots and lots of losing. After that Rams game, things quickly went to hell for the team. They lost to Buffalo the next week and then were crushed on national TV by the Steelers.
The next week, they came back home and played the Cincinnati Bengals in maybe the worst football game I have ever seen. It was a game that set offensive football back 30 years. The Bengals won 21-7 by kicking seven field goals and the Ravens played hot potato with the football, turning it over six times. They stunk that day and the frustrated fan in me teed off on them in my story.
You can tell a lot about people by the way they react to losing. Some people are under the impression pro athletes don't care. Well, I can tell you, the 2007 Ravens hated losing. After that Bengals game, you could tell it was getting to them.
By that point in the season, Billick's post-game pressers turned into death marches. I interviewed center Jason Brown after the game and you could just tell he was embarrassed, hurt and ticked off. Ray Lewis gave a terse, one-sentence answer to a reporter and stormed off. And then there was quarterback Steve McNair: A proud veteran who after that game was now a broken man. He knew right then and there, he'd played his last NFL game.
I look back and think the seeds of the Ravens' success in 2008 was laid during the losing of 2007.
Certainly the change from Billick to John Harbaugh helped. Harbaugh brought in a fresh approach and a new, tougher attitude after Billick's laid-back style. Plus, having a franchise quarterback like Joe Flacco doesn't hurt. But I think part of the reason the 2008 team did what it did was because of the guys that went through 2007.
They remembered the hurt, the ridicule, the embarrassment and pain of losing and were determined not to go through it again. I know. I was there.