A New Generation
In 2008, Billick was fired after a 5-11 season. To replace him, Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti, who went from minority to majority owner in ’04, went with an outside-the-box choice in former Eagles special teams coordinator John Harbaugh. During the interview process, Newsome’s reaction to one of Harbaugh’s answers left the candidate feeling uneasy. “He just kind of looked at me, cocked his head and said, ‘Oh … ok,” Harbaugh recalls. “What does that even mean? I figured, ‘Oh, I’m done.’ He didn’t give me more of a read than that. He left it at that.”
Harbaugh’s unease was misplaced. He got the job, is 54-26 in five seasons, making the playoffs each year, and is coaching the defending Super Bowl champions this season. Harbaugh says it helps that Newsome put the general manager’s office across from the coach’s office. There’s no ignoring each other down parallel paths. They’re in it together, for better or worse.
“He has an amazing ability to cut to the heart of the matter,” Harbaugh says. “There’s a lot of complicated stuff that comes between those two offices every single day. A lot of views and varying agendas, things like that. He’ll say, ‘Hey, this is the issue. This is how we should be looking at this.’ To me, it’s really special.”
It has helped Harbaugh that the best quarterback in franchise history, Joe Flacco, arrived the same time he did. That was a Newsome production, even though he never saw Flacco play a game in person.
Before the season, Newsome discusses the team’s needs with his assistant GM, DeCosta, and DeCosta and the rest of what he calls the 20/20 club—eight homegrown personnel men who started as interns in their 20s, making $20,000 a year—go to work. Newsome is hands off with his scouts: Savage says that in the nine years before he left for the Browns’ GM job in ’05, Newsome never once asked where he was going, scouting or doing. “When you have that kind of trust from your boss, that just gives you the latitude to want to do a great job,” Savage says.
Ravens scouts watched Flacco at Delaware long after other teams had left games. They watched him throw in poor weather on the final day of padded practice at the Senior Bowl. They worked him out privately on an uncut field and used Flacco’s own footballs. Newsome wasn’t there. He was, as he always is, watching the tape. And Flacco was their guy.
On draft day in ’08, the Ravens traded out of the eighth spot—not because they wanted Matt Ryan and he was gone to Atlanta, but because they wanted Flacco at their price. After a trade down and a trade up, the Ravens picked Flacco 18th and netted a third- and fourth-round pick for moving down 10 spots.
“One of his best moves was getting Flacco and how he did it,” DeCosta says of Newsome. “We had conviction on Flacco across the board. Ozzie was able to navigate those waters even though it was controversial thing [in the media].”
Almost every organization, either before training camp or during it, has an outing for the personnel department. After being on the road for college practices, all of the scouts and staffers get together to compare notes before the college season starts, scattering them all again until the following April. The Ravens’ affair is a happy outing, as old friendships are strengthened and new bonds are formed.
The 2008 dinner at swanky Woodholme Country Club in Pikesville, Md. Was just like the others, right up until Newsome stood up. Not before the meal or after it—during it, as his charges were mid-bite of their tender filets.
“Guys,” Newsome said, as the room dropped dead quiet, like someone had just scratched a needle on a record. “My friend Brian Billick has taken the blame for last season. One of the great coaches, someone I really respect. He’s taken a lot of blame for this team. But I have to tell you guys, the blame is on me. The blame is on me, and some of the blame is on you. We’ve gotten slow and we’ve gotten small. I can’t believe this has happened to us. We’re a small and slow football team. We went 5-11. 5-11. You’re 5-11.”
Play time was over.
“He’s somewhat of a father figure because you never want to disappoint him,” says senior personnel assistant George Kokinis. “We’re not motivated by fear, because we’re confident in our abilities. We’re always motivated because we don’t want to disappoint him. We don’t want to disappoint John or the owner, but really it’s Ozzie. We don’t want to disappoint him. I think that motivates us more than anything.”
Rest assured, the 20/20 club didn’t need to hear from Newsome again. Not that he would repeat himself. Words uttered by those who rarely speak up are delivered with a thousand decibels.
“That really affected me, and that really affected a lot of other people,” DeCosta says. “We’ve been to the playoffs every single year since that speech. I will never forget that speech and the impact that it had on us as scouts. Ozzie took the heat and blame, but he also put a little bit of blame on us and we needed it.”