- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2001

TAMPA, Fla. NFL teams are notorious copycats. They're always dissecting the Super Bowl champion and looking for things they can steal. Because of the 49ers' success, a lot of teams installed the West Coast offense. After watching Jimmy Johnson wheel and deal the Cowboys to greatness, a number of general managers became more adventurous, particularly on draft day.

But the Baltimore Ravens aren't likely to spawn a raft of imitators, just as the St. Louis Rams, last year's champs, haven't. It's not that they aren't terrific teams, it's just that they aren't very copy-able. The Ravens have a rare collection of defensive talent Ray Lewis, Rod Woodson, Chris McAlister, Sam Adams et al. And the Rams have three of the top 10 receivers in football Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Marshall Faulk plus Kurt Warner, Marino Jr. How do you duplicate that?

The answer, of course, is that you don't.

"This game is not about schemes," Brian Billick said yesterday. "It's about getting the best players you can and putting them in position to maximize their abilities. The X's and O's are pretty far down the list."

The Ravens' drafting record the past five years under personnel czar Ozzie Newsome has been as good as anybody's, maybe better. They haven't missed on a single top pick. Look at their first-round selections since they came to Baltimore: Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Duane Starks, Chris McAlister, Jamal Lewis. Wow. The first three have already been to the Pro Bowl, and the last three fearless prediction will make it there before long. In '97 alone the Ravens drafted Boulware, Jamie Sharper and Kim Herring three solid-to-outstanding defensive starters in one shot.

It's one thing to have a high draft pick several years in a row, as Baltimore did. It's another to hit on every one of those picks. The Redskins, you may recall, had three picks in the top four in the '90s and came away with Desmond Howard, Heath Shuler and Michael Westbrook. Two of them never finished their contracts with the team, and the third has been injury prone and disappointing.

As for "the X's and O's," as Billick put it, what the Ravens do on defense isn't all that complicated (compared to, say, the Giants, who throw the playbook at you). They basically just line up and whip your butt. I'm not trying to dis coordinator Marvin Lewis, but it's the defense's speed, its relentless hustle that stands out about it.

"We fly to the ball," Ray Lewis said. "We get seven or eight guys to the ball at all times." And what's more, they rarely miss a tackle. Tackling is almost a lost art in pro football these days; that's why you see so many 200-yard rushing games and Corey Dillon going for 278 (more than 200 in the second half). When the Ravens hit you, though, you stay hit. They're a joy to watch.

People make a big deal of Baltimore's popgun offense operated by the severely limited Trent Dilfer but the Ravens are just a product of their times. "The profile of a lot of teams in this league is that there seems to be an imbalance on one side of the ball," said Billick. "And that's because of the system. It seems like every dollar you spend on, say, defense, hurts you on offense [because your payroll can only be so much]. We're still in the middle of the league on offense. But if you balance it out, does a team with a good offense and defense beat a team with a great offense or a great defense? I'm not sure it does."

What we're seeing in the NFL is teams trying to get by the best they can. With free agency and the salary cap, you have to make choices; you can't have everything. The Rams built a killer offense and won with it. The Ravens built a killer defense and did the same. Maybe someone else will win a championship with kicking and special teams play. It seems farfetched, but so did the idea that Baltimore could get by with Dilfer as its quarterback.

All the old rules appear to be out the window. In pro football today, you can win the Super Bowl with a marginal QB. You can get to the conference title game with a toothless defense (see Minnesota). And other new models, no doubt, will emerge, too. How about a team that uses two running backs equally (sort of like the Giants do, only more so)? Or a team that blitzes the bejabbers out of its opponents? If you have the right talent, almost anything's possible.

The Ravens have certainly found a formula that works for them. They swept through the postseason like a purple and black cyclone. But don't expect other clubs to copy them unless they can figure out a way to clone Ray Lewis and his cohorts. Sheep are one thing, but champion football players … they're a whole different deal.


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