By Childs Walker
The Baltimore Sun
6:31 PM CST, February 1, 2013
NEW ORLEANS —
Ozzie Newsome circled the weekend more than a year ago.
He knew that Jonathan Ogden, the first player he picked for the Ravens, would have a strong chance to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Feb. 2, 2013. Wouldn't it be something, Newsome thought, if the Ravens played in Super Bowl XLVII the next day?
It was quite the fantasy, and it grew wilder still when Ray Lewis, the other potential Hall of Fame player Newsome selected in the first round in 1996, announced he would retire at the end of this year's playoffs. Then, late owner Art Modell, the man who brought pro football back to Baltimore, made the list of 15 Hall of Fame finalists for the first time since 2001.
Would the Ravens really get this unique chance, on the grandest stage in football, to celebrate Ogden, Lewis, Modell and the origins of the franchise?
As is often the case with Newsome — architect of the Ravens — ambitious dreams hardened into reality. Ogden and Modell will find out about the Hall of Fame on Saturday and the Ravens, with Lewis suiting up for the last time, will play for the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday.
"I don't think any of you guys could have written that script," said Newsome, speaking with the Baltimore media last week.
Because of his enduring dominance at a key position, Ogden is considered a strong candidate to make the Hall of Fame on his first try, a designation that will be decided by 46 media members in a closed meeting Saturday in New Orleans. The 2013 class will be announced on the NFL Network at 6:30 p.m. EST.
It won't be easy, because voters have called the ballot one of the deepest in memory.
That could also work against Modell, who would have to beat out not only players but a great coach in Bill Parcells for one of the five modern-era spots.
Ogden chuckled in disbelief at the way the strands of the story have come together.
"It started in 1996 with myself and Ray Lewis as the first draft picks, and now it's his last game, and I could potentially go in the Hall of Fame," he said. "It's like it's all coming full circle from where it started to where it is now."
Newsome not only built this year's team; his ties to the organization's seminal figures are powerful. He had a Hall of Fame career as a tight end for Modell's Cleveland Browns and earned the owner's trust to the point Modell appointed him the league's first black general manager in 2002.
Before becoming a pioneer, Newsome ran Modell's first draft as vice president of pro personnel in 1996 after the franchise moved to Baltimore. He made it one for the ages, convincing the owner that the Ravens should take Ogden with the No. 4 overall pick instead of dynamic but troubled running back Lawrence Phillips. Newsome mustered a little more magic 22 picks later, when he snagged the undersized Lewis after three other linebackers had been drafted.
So the franchise began its time in a new city with maybe the best first round any team had ever pulled off.
Ravens' president Dick Cass, who oversees the organization's business and community ties, said it's hard to overstate the importance of Newsome's success with his first draft in Baltimore.
"Obviously, that set the foundation for what the Ravens are in Baltimore," Cass said. "Those guys were not only great players, they became so popular in the city. You need people to put a face on your franchise."
Said Ogden: "If he'd have blown it with me and Ray, who knows what would have happened from then on in?"
There's a reason, apparently, that Newsome's nickname is "The Wizard."
It almost didn't happen
As the 1996 draft neared, most coverage of the Ravens focused on Phillips, who had mixed on-field brilliance and brushes with legal trouble at the University of Nebraska. The Ravens needed a star on offense, and Modell was convinced, after dining with Phillips, that the young running back would respond to mentoring from veteran teammates. Ogden was an afterthought, both because the Ravens already had two experienced offensive tackles and because the Arizona Cardinals were expected to take him at No. 3.
The Cardinals, however, selected defensive end Simeon Rice. That left Newsome with a dilemma: Ogden was the highest-graded player remaining on his board, but Modell still wanted Phillips.
"Art said, 'Well, we really need a running back,' " Newsome remembered. "We talked about it, and we finally decided that we were going to stay true to the board."
This set an important precedent for Newsome, who would forge a reputation as one of the best and most disciplined drafters in the league.
"I love the philosophy he's brought which is that you take the best player available," Ogden said. "You might need a quarterback or a corner, but you take the best guy. And that's really helped build the solid foundation of a team. I know a lot of other teams started trying to follow his philosophy."
It worked out spectacularly in 1996. Phillips managed just three undistinguished seasons with three teams and has been in prison since 2008 for a variety of assault charges. Ogden was not only a good citizen, he became the signature left tackle of his generation.
"When you watched him on tape, he dominated," Newsome said. "There were some questions of 'Is he intense enough?' But really, he dominated so much in college that he made it look easy."
Ogden later told author Michael Lewis that blocking college opponents was so simple, he could have done it with one hand while holding a cup of tea unspilled in the other.
He didn't say things like that to be cocky. In fact, Ogden always served as a mellow, understated counterpoint to Lewis' fiery leadership. He preferred baggy jeans to pin-striped suits and stacks of novels to Rolex watches. But he knew how good he was and wasn't afraid to say so.
"I've always been confident," he said. "I'm not going to say I always believed I was the best. But I always believed that when I did my best, no one was going to touch me. So it was always about me. It wasn't about the other guy."
Standing 6-foot-9 and looking almost svelte at 345 pounds, Ogden paired rare size with equally rare agility and balance. Newsome says the UCLA product remains the greatest offensive lineman he has scouted.
"I think he became the standard," he said. "There were other great players at that position who came before him, Anthony Munoz and Tony Boselli. But I'll put it this way: There's a cul de sac where the greatest players all live. And Jonathan is on that cul de sac."
The case for Modell
Modell died in September at age 87, and his passing spurred a reconsideration of his candidacy, which had floundered since the last time he was a finalist in 2001. Though he was one of the NFL's longest-tenured owners and a leader in pushing the league to television riches, Modell remains a controversial candidate because he moved the Browns to Baltimore. He has advocates among the voters, but others have said they remain skeptical of Modell's legacy, given how deeply he wounded one of the league's most loyal fan bases.
Newsome happily laid out the case for his former boss. "When you look at the body of work that Art did, then why shouldn't he be in?" he said. "If this game is as good as it is today — and we all think we have a very good game — then Art was an architect of the game. He helped build the game for what it is. That's why I think he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame."
Lewis, who describes Modell as a father figure, put a positive spin on the franchise move, noting that it invigorated Baltimore.
"Just the things that man did, not just for me, but for many thousands of players and organizations and the city of Baltimore … he had a vision and he followed the vision," Lewis said. "There is no Baltimore Ravens without Art Modell."
Others say the same about Newsome, who reached the Hall of Fame as a player and pulled a rare trick by making himself into just as good an executive. The Ravens general manager prefers to keep his act behind the curtain most of the time, granting few interviews and avoiding the locker room. But colleagues such as Cass and Ravens coach John Harbaugh insist that no one deserves more credit for the team's second trip to the Super Bowl.
"Ozzie is the foundation of the Ravens," Harbaugh said. "He drafted Ray. He drafted Jonathan Ogden. He's drafted every player. He's made every free agent signing that's come through here. There is no us without Ozzie.
If you want a sense of what makes Newsome so good, consider that he remembers the 1996 draft as much for an errant trade as for the remarkable successes with Ogden and Lewis. "We traded up into the second round, and we made the trade before the player we wanted fell to the right spot," he said. "The successes were good, but the failures, you have to pay attention to your mistakes and learn from them."
So he remains a perfectionist. And as such, he recognizes that this weekend could not have shaped up more perfectly for the Ravens.
"It's been my dream weekend," Newsome said. "It's a celebration of the beginning, but it's also a testament to the fact that we sustained it. We got off to a good start, and we've been able to sustain it by always tweaking our process."