NEW ORLEANS -- With all the talk about minority hiring and firing in the NFL over the last month, there's a Super Bowl team whose personnel was assembled by a man of African-American descent, and that man doesn't seem to get nearly enough credit for it -- at least in the public eye. When the league's great personnel executives are discussed, Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome isn't generally at the top of any list not assembled from inside the league. But when you look at the record of the man who, along with Ray Lewis, has been the Ravens' only constant fixture since the franchise moved from Cleveland after the 1995 season, it's tough to find any NFL executive who has been able to formulate more consistent success.
Former Ravens head coach and current FOX Sports analyst Brian Billick once compared Newsome to John Nash, the Nobel Laureate in Economics and subject of the best-selling book and hit movie 'A Beautiful Mind," when Newsome was at the draft board. Few in the league would dispute that Newsome has a knack for getting the right players for the Ravens, though it does seem at times that he's taken for granted in the grand scheme of things. The man who has a chance to win his second Super Bowl as a team-builder received few media mentions when Executive of the Year mentions were made.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, however, minced no words when asked about Newsome's importance to the franchise.
"I'm not really sure what other people say about Ozzie, but the people I talk to and have been around universally believe that he's one the top executives, if not the top executive, in the NFL," Harbaugh told me on Monday. "We sure feel that way in Baltimore, right? So many things make him great. First of all, he's a brilliant guy. He's a very smart man, and he's got a knack for understanding what's important. He's got an incredible ability to get to the heart of a matter, just like that. He's also got a great ability to communicate that to whoever he talks to. Also, he has good judgment Bottom line, and in the end, he really cares about people. Ozzie's tremendous, and we would in no way, shape, or form be where we are without him."
Newsome isn't a self-promoter, though he'd certainly have reason if he so chose. Not only has he been a great success in the front office; he's also a Hall-of-Fame player and one of the first receiving tight ends -- the precursor to today's Rob Gronkowskis and Jimmy Grahams. He played with the Cleveland Browns from 1978 to 1990 and caught 662 passes for 7,980 yards, and 47 touchdowns in a era where most tight ends were smaller tackles who could run around a little bit. Football is football, some might tell you -- but as Matt Millen might admit in one of his weaker moments, an estimable career as a player doesn't automatically set one up for success in front of a draft board.
"I think the biggest thing is that when you're dealing with the players, you've got to be truthful to them," Newsome told me on Tuesday when I asked him about that transition. "They'll trust you if you tell them the truth, and sometimes, you'll tell them things they don't want to hear. A lot of what I do in evaluation -- I had to evaluate how I wanted to pretend to block Lawrence Taylor or Carl Banks, or some of those other guys. You're evaluating talent while you're playing."
And the challenge of evaluating talent never dissipates. As a team-builder, Newsome has generally managed to avoid the high-round bust rate that turns execs into ex-execs quicker than anything else. There are exceptions, of course, but the Ravens have been able to make up for their mistakes with other players who made huge impacts for years. Newsome's most obvious draft misstep was the selection of Cal quarterback Kyle Boller with the 19th overall pick in the 2003 draft, but when you get Terrell Suggs with the 10th pick in that same first round, things tend to work out.
Baltimore's one clear and potentially fatal flaw -- the lack of a marquee quarterback -- was solved when the Ravens took Delaware's Joe Flacco in the first round five years later. Newsome and the Ravens came back to the well in the next round and picked up an allegedly "too small/too slow" running back from Rutgers named Ray Rice, and Baltimore's offense was off to the races.
Moreover, Newsome holds fast to the notion that general managers really earn their salaries in the later rounds. Among the players taken in the third round or lower who have made serious contributions to the current Super Bowl team are guard Marshal Yanda, tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, defensive lineman Pernell McPhee, and running back Bernard Pierce.
Every quality personnel man has his own style, and Newsome's core belief is one of inclusion -- he will listen before he speaks.
"I don't say anything through the draft meetings up until the Thursday or Friday before the draft," he said. "I try and take the opportunity to be a good listener, and try to consume as much information as I can before I make a decision. If I'm the guy doing all the talking, I'm not the guy doing all the listening."
He had to listen after the Ravens won their first and only Super Bowl at the end of the 2000 season.
That roster was set for success at the time, and the subsequent changes led to a few rough years. The Ravens suffered through losing seasons in 2005 and 2007, and a change in coaches from Billick to Harbaugh before the 2008 season. That's when things really started to turn around, and the record shows it -- the team is 54-26 under Harbaugh, and has been in the hunt for the Super Bowl every season. They were one dropped pass away last season, and finally made the ultimate goal this time.
According to Newsome, the difference now is that the franchise is built for a longer run.
"I think what we've built now -- when we tried to do it before, we made that run, and then we tried to make a second run, and we knew we were going to have to start over. I think this team will continue to be successful because of some of the youth on the team. Your quarterback, your running back, your offensive line, Haloti Ngata, and we've got some young cornerbacks. So, I think we'll be able to contend for the next two or three years without having to blow the thing up like we did in 2001."
So, what's his secret? Humble but confident to the end, Newsome would prefer to credit others. “I think it’s having the right relationship with the coach, the owner and the president. I try to make myself available. I try to be very honest with any and everything that I try to tell them. They are my partners. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue and say, ‘OK, we need to do this, even though I don’t agree with it.’ There is a lot of give and take. Brian Billick and I were partners for nine years, and we’re still friends. You build a partnership just like I guess you do in a marriage.”
Newsome gives a lot of credit to that kid from Delaware -- the one who helped him get back to the league's biggest game.
“It goes with the quarterback," he said. "If Joe Flacco wasn’t a very good quarterback right now, I’d probably be playing golf down in Alabama somewhere."
Golf in Alabama will have to wait -- Newsome said that he and his staff have a personnel meeting to get started on the 2013 draft back in Baltimore just three days after the Super Bowl is over. The pressure rarely stops for people in his position, and Newsome feels the additional weight of his own societal responsibility, as one of the first minority NFL decision-makers. There was no Rooney Rule when Newsome worked his way up through the Browns' front office -- just the need to stay in football after his playing career was over, and a real hunger to succeed where never had when he was wearing a helmet.
“I think there will be an emptiness as a player because I never played in the Super Bowl," he said, when asked about his legacy. "I will never be able to go back and recapture that. But having the ability to have success on the field and off the field is going to match. I just wish I had a chance to play in the Super Bowl as a player.”
He'll have to "settle" for being a role model in a higher sense.
“When I first became a GM, I was on a radio show with John Thompson," Newsome recalled. "He made the statement, and it hadn’t dawned on me. He said, ‘Now that you’ve become a general manager, other young African Americans will inspire to do that.’ At that point, you go, ‘Well, yeah. Now that I’ve done it, somebody else can get a chance to do it.’ That’s the only time it’s come about. To me, it’s all about the challenge. And being the first – it just so happened when I was born, America started to change. So, I got a chance to be first because it changed. It’s not that I was any better than anybody else, I just hit the cycle at the right time.”
In truth, Ozzie Newsome did much more than that, though he's too modest to say. He set the pace and has kept it for years. That's a fact more people should celebrate.
Maybe they'll do so if he can grab another Lombardi Trophy.