Waging Four Battles and Relying on Joe Cool

Thursday October 30th, 2014

Joe Flacco Justin Forsett Joe Flacco hands the ball off to Ray Rice’s replacement, Justin Forsett, in a Week 7 win over the Falcons. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

BALTIMORE — In this city, rooting for the Orioles was much easier than getting behind the Ravens this fall. The O’s hadn’t been this good since the 1990s, but they won their division and advanced to the American League Championship Series for the first time in 17 years. Two seasons removed from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, the Ravens became ground zero for a firestorm that’s still casting a pall over the NFL.

Ray RiceAs September wore on, football fans in Baltimore noticed that the crowd kept arriving later than usual and that tailgating lots weren’t quite filling up—one of the final ripples in a series of chain-reaction events that began with Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée (now wife) in an Atlantic City casino elevator in February.

The team stood behind Rice for months, only to cut him on Sept. 8—a day after Baltimore’s opener—when TMZ aired the elevator surveillance video. But give the remaining players their due: They’ve made the Ravens impossible to ignore. Two Sundays ago, on the afternoon when Orioles manager Buck Showalter was feted at M&T Bank Stadium with a rousing ovation before kickoff, the Ravens dominated the Falcons, 29-7, and finished the afternoon in first place of their division.

The Bengals, only by the margin of a offensive pass interference call against Steve Smith, Sr., recaptured the top spot in the AFC North a week later. But even with a 27-24 down-to-the-wire loss to a division rival on the road, the Ravens made another statement about their resiliency. This is a good team that has a shot of making the playoffs. And while that’s been the norm in Baltimore, nothing about this season has been typical.

Controversy swirled, Rice was exiled and fans drifted, but give the players their due: They made the Ravens impossible to ignore.

Teams have fallen apart under less duress. Consider the 2008 New York Giants, who were 10-1 when wideout Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in a Manhattan nightclub. They lost four of their final six, including a divisional-round playoff game to the Eagles. “That’s what people want,” Baltimore receiver Torrey Smith says. “That’s why we’ve got to band together.”

The organization, up to the owner, will be investigated for how the Rice situation was handled, but none of the mess has bled onto the field. “The honest truth of it is, we are somewhat affected by all the stuff that happens to everybody on our team off the field,” Joe Flacco says. “But it didn’t happen to me. It didn’t happen to Marshal [Yanda]. It didn’t happen to Torrey. It didn’t happen to Steve. We feel for the people that it affected, [but] we aren’t as directly related as I think most people think we are.”

* * *

Amid the turmoil, players have clung to routine. The receivers go out for weekly dinners at Jimmy’s Famous Seafood. On Friday afternoons an actual jukebox blasts tunes of all genres in the locker room. Veterans have been a resource for younger guys. “Worry about your job,” Yanda, an All-Pro right guard, told the two rookies, John Urschel and James Hurst, who filled in for injured starters on the left side of the line. “Don’t make it more difficult than it has to be.”

More than just teammates, Torrey Smith is particularly close with Rice, as are their wives. In early October, after dropping a pass on a pivotal fourth down in a loss to the Colts, he tweeted, “Very trying times for me on and off the field.” The wideout has tried to steel his focus by staying off his cell phone—he often leaves it at home when going to the team facility—and by deleting the Twitter app from his phone (though he’s still occasionally tweeting). He described both as “outside distractions I needed to eliminate.”

John Harbaugh John Harbaugh didn’t make a speech after the Ravens cut Ray Rice. He simply turned the focus back on the field, and Baltimore is now 5-3. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Coach John Harbaugh is fond of using slogans and inspirational sayings to sharpen the mental focus of players. “Be here now” was one he used early in his tenure. “The Team, The Team, The Team” is painted on a wall outside the locker room. Recently, he’s been wearing a hat with a slogan borrowed from his dad: “4 Fights Every Day.”

The four fights:

1. Us vs. Them

2. Division From Within

3. Complacency

4. Fatigue

The four-fights slogan has been used in Baltimore for a while, but one battle in particular has taken on new meaning. “Division from within—it means making sure we stay together as a locker room,” Yanda says. “Through the losses. Through the adversity. Through the controversy. If that goes downhill, we are not going to win any games.”

Baltimore’s locker room was once defined by Ray Lewis, the spitfire linebacker everyone rallied around at the end of the 2012 season. The Ravens persevered through a different kind of black cloud then, losing four of their last five regular-season games before reeling off four straight postseason victories, including the Super Bowl. In Lewis’s absence, the Ravens’ team chemistry is now defined by their quarterback, Joe Cool.

Just look at how Flacco handled himself in Week 7 against the Falcons, sitting on the bench while watching Baltimore’s defense on the video board. Cornerback Jimmy Smith dropped an interception in the first half, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk leapt from the bench and shouted, “Ahhhh!” Flacco didn’t even bat an eyelash, prompting Juszczyk to turn to his quarterback and say, “Joe, you literally didn’t change that entire time!”

“Guys make fun of me. But it’s just me, it’s just who I am, I can’t help it or change it,” Flacco says. “But I think playing quarterback in the NFL, it does help. You’re the one guy, no matter what is going on—you have to stay with it and be the guy they can look at and say, ‘Ah, Joe looks alright. Let’s go.’ That definitely can come in handy in certain situations.”

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Where the emotional Lewis once yelled, Flacco just talks. During training camp, former Panther Steve Smith Sr. had been pressing in practice while trying to learn a new offense. Flacco just pulled him aside and told him, “Relax, and don’t overthink it.” When Rice was cut, Flacco also initiated a handful of one-on-one talks with teammates, but he knew where and when to let others take over.

“We had little conversations about it here and there,” Flacco says. “Torrey was really close with Ray. I wasn’t ever in a position to say, ‘Hey, let’s react like this,’ but I felt like the guys who were closest to the situation handled it pretty well. And I think the fact that we were winning football games has helped it be less of an issue.”

Three days after cutting Rice, the Ravens hosted the division-rival Steelers on a Thursday night. Harbaugh tersely briefed his team on the personnel decision and moved on. “No long speech or anything like that. There was nothing more really to be said,” Yanda says. “We just had to focus on beating Pittsburgh. That’s what we were talking about all week.”

The Ravens’ 26-6 win over the Steelers, in which Flacco completed 72.4% of his passes, was the first of three straight. And while two losses over the past four weeks—by a touchdown to the Colts and a field goal to the Bengals—dropped the Ravens’ record to 5-3, they have a chance to rebound by sweeping the season series with Pittsburgh this Sunday night at Heinz Field.

* * *

Justin Forsett Joe Flacco Now on his fifth team in seven seasons, Justin Forsett is averaging 5.5 yards per carry—2.4 more than Ray Rice in 2013. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

This season has presented players in the Ravens’ locker room with an off-field situation for which there is no manual on how to read and react. But on the field, Baltimore has implemented a new offense designed to give the players clear-cut answers.

New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak coaches Flacco with the goal of making his quarterback’s decision-making process black and white. When Flacco makes the right decision, the play works. When he doesn’t, everyone knows it. Flacco had an off day against the Bengals last week—a season-low 50% completion rate—but overall he’s been more decisive making his reads. Steve Smith, who had an 80-yard game-winning touchdown called back against Cincinnati because of offensive pass interference, has been a great match for Flacco’s big arm.

But the biggest boon has been Justin Forsett, a journeyman running back who has proved to be an upgrade over Rice. Through eight games, the 29-year-old is just 14 carries shy of matching his career high for an entire season (114 with Seattle in 2009). Now on his fifth team in seven seasons, Forsett is averaging 5.5 yards per carry (Rice averaged 3.1 in 2013).

“I guess I have surprised some people,” Forsett says, “especially people who didn’t think or know that I am still in the league.”

Forsett fits well in the zone-stretch scheme he first learned two seasons ago when playing for Kubiak in Houston. Despite standing a mere 5-8, he uses good acceleration to hit the hole and break tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, 247 of his 571 yards have come after contact. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, who has scored four touchdowns to Forsett’s three, has emerged as good complement.

“I guess I have surprised some people. Especially people who didn’t think or know that I am still in the league,” Forsett says. “But when we lost an All-Pro back like Ray, we knew we had to carry the load as a running back room.”

Ninth-year tight end Owen Daniels, who has ably filled the void of an injured Dennis Pitta, says the Ravens are “the deepest football team I have been on.” There are many factors that shape the “next man up” philosophy.

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Recently retired cornerback Chris Carr played for five NFL teams in nine years—including three seasons in Baltimore—and he remembers John Harbaugh as the best game-day coach he ever had. Harbaugh will get in players’ faces during practice, Carr says, but bring out the best in players on Sundays by letting them figure things out on the field. “The organizational culture, as much as it has come under attack, it is still a culture that the players and coaches can really thrive in,” adds ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer, a quarterback on the Ravens’ Super Bowl-winning team in 2000. “It’s very empowering as a player.”

“If you go to other places like Cleveland or Minnesota or Oakland, places where the coaching units often change, you might get the feeling when something negative comes up, Oh, here we go again! We are going to have a bad season,” Carr says. “With Baltimore, with that coaching staff, they’ve had seasons when they started off so-so but won the Super Bowl. They were up and down through the entire regular season, but they pulled it together at the end. So they can say, ‘Hey, we’ve had adversity before, stuff that has happened to us, this year and that year, and we prevailed and we played well.’ And that gives players confidence, too.”

* * *

John Harbaugh Marshal Yanda Winning is a potent elixir. Harbaugh and guard Marshal Yanda celebrate with fans after beating the Buccaneers, 48-17, in Tampa on Oct. 12. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

Some Ravens fans still have mixed feelings. Bill West, the president of a Ravens Roost fan club (his is No. 15, based in Arbutus, Md., out of 135) wasn’t one of the 7,000 fans who exchanged their Ray Rice jerseys in September. He won’t wear his anymore—for now at least—but it’s still hanging in his Ravens memorabilia room over his garage.

“Ray Rice was on the verge of being one of those iconic names in this town—15, 30 years from now, people would have talked about him like they do about Lenny Moore,” says Stan ‘The Fan’ Charles, who was a sports talk radio host in Baltimore for more than two decades. “But Baltimore sports fans, because of what happened with losing our football team [to Indianapolis in 1984], are very practical. They have just moved on.”

Rice still has ties to Baltimore. The House of Ruth Maryland, a Baltimore-based shelter for battered women, saw a 10-day bump in donations after the elevator video was released. The organization is having ongoing conversations with Rice and his wife, Janay, about opportunities to raise domestic violence awareness, a spokeswoman said. And Rice’s charitable fund, which has helped fund scholarships and hospital bills for underprivileged kids in Baltimore and his hometown of New Rochelle, N.Y., is still active.

Though he remains close with players in the Ravens’ locker room, Rice is largely out of that family now, forgotten in the manner of having suffered a season-ending injury while former teammates continue a week-to-week grind that doesn’t reward sentimentality.

Last week, a front-page Baltimore Sun article mentioned the fund and told the stories of two local families of special-needs boys who had met Rice at community events. The parents wrote character-reference letters on Rice’s behalf to court officials in Atlantic City, and they were photographed by the newspaper wearing Rice’s No. 27 Ravens jersey. On game days at M&T Bank Stadium, a smattering of fans still wear No. 27, and Rice’s name still appears on plaques in the press box. He won the “Media MVP” award in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Rice, whose initial two-game ban morphed into an indefinite league suspension, filed a grievance against the Ravens last week for terminating his contract. But he’s still close with players in the locker room, having played in Baltimore for six seasons and having been an integral part of the 2012 Super Bowl team. Torrey Smith, one of Rice’s closest friends, keeps in touch with him. But they don’t focus on the team—or even football.

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“We don’t bring it up. It’s taken away from him, so that’s not something you talk about,” Smith says. “The biggest thing is to make sure he takes care of himself to become a better man, which he is. It is still family. It’s tough for people outside to understand that, but it goes far beyond the lines for us.”

Yet Rice is largely out of that family now, forgotten in the manner of having suffered a season-ending injury, discarded and left behind while former teammates continue a week-to-week grind that doesn’t reward sentimentality. “Around the league in general, what people don’t realize is it’s a team game, but the players’ mindset is really like a selfish mindset,” Carr says. “And I don’t mean selfish in a bad sense, but privately focused on what they have to do.”

For Flacco that means making the right reads, handing the ball off to a back named Forsett and remaining as nonplussed as ever.

“Listen, Ray is very close to everybody in this locker room,” Flacco says. “He and I got drafted together. So I root for Ray. And whether he’s going to root for us, I have no idea. He’s not on the team anymore. So it’s not something I have ever really thought about, to be honest with you. I haven’t talked with him too much since then.”

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