Rebuilding a Franchise:
4. The 2007 Baltimore Ravens Fall Apart
2007 began with all the promise in the world for Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick and his staff. The Ravens were coming off a 13-3 campaign, the second best record in the NFL, and were prepared to take the next step in 2007. They traded for RB Willis McGahee to reinvigorate the offense and planned on a group of young receivers to improve over the course of the year. But their biggest strength was supposed to be the vaunted Ravens defense, which was far and away the best the league had to offer in 2006. Even in a playoff defeat they held Peyton Manning and the explosive Indianapolis offense to just 15 points, which should have been enough to win the game.
The mystique of the Ravens defense began back in the year 2000 when they carried the team to the Super Bowl and were arguably the most dominating defense the NFL had seen since the 1985 Chicago Bears. Though the defense continued to be solid in the years after, it never was good enough to make up for the offensive flaws the Ravens always seemed to have. In 2005 the defensive coordinator job went to a young brash assistant named Rex Ryan, son of Buddy Ryan, the legendary architect of those 1985 Bears not to mention the Purple People Eaters of the 1970s.
After a slow start in 2005, where the team ranked 10th in points allowed, Ryan set the football world on fire. The 2006 Ravens allowed a league low 201 points, 36 points less than the next best team. They dominated the league and Ryan became one of the hottest assistants in the NFL. The players loved him in Baltimore and he knew another season like this one was not only going to get him another Super Bowl ring, but was going to get him his pick of head coaching jobs in 2008.
Things started off well enough for Baltimore in 2007. They began the year 4-2 and Ryan's defense had held three opponents to under 14 points. Then the wheels fell off. The Ravens lost their next 9 games before a meaningless win against the Steelers in a game where the Steelers were resting players to prepare for the playoffs. The defense imploded. They no longer could cover for the offensive failures of the team and fell to 22nd in points allowed. They allowed 29.44 points per game over the final 9 games of the year. Billick and all his assistants, including Ryan, were let go.
While Ryan was still a name thrown around for head coaching jobs his star had certainly dimmed. He interviewed for three head coaching positions- the Ravens, Dolphins, and Falcons all considered him- but it is very hard to sell ownership or a fan base on a guy whose most recent claim to fame was calling a timeout from the sidelines just as a ball was snapped that would have ended the New England Patriots quest for an unbeaten season. The Ravens went on to lose after Ryan's mistake on the sidelines. Whether it is right or wrong this is a league of “what have you done for me lately” and Ryan had not done enough.
Atlanta decided that Mike Smith, defensive coordinator of the Jaguars, was a hotter name and better fit. Miami went with Tony Sparano. The Ravens, whom Ryan had been a part of for nine years and whose players loved him, had him as their third choice behind Jason Garrett and eventual head coach John Harbaugh. Ownership made the decision that they could not hire from within on a team that played so poorly the year before. Ryan was crushed but decided to go back to the Ravens as defensive coordinator for Harbaugh. Ryan was able to right the ship in 2008, his defense ranking 3rd in the NFL in points and carrying a team with a rookie QB to the AFC Championship Game.
That return to greatness was all Ryan needed to become a hot name in coaching again. This time around the Jets had a vacancy and the rest is history. But that marriage may have never happened if the Ravens did not fall apart the way they did in 2007. Had the team played better or Ryan's defense at least played better he would have likely gotten one of the jobs in 2008. Both Atlanta and Baltimore, had Billick been fired off a mediocre season, would have been much more receptive to Ryan had things gone as planned in 2007. Luckily for Ryan and the Jets they didn't.