Monday, December 31, 2007

Week 17 - A Ravens Carol

Baltimore, MD -- 12/30/07.

We won! We won! Or at least I think it was the Ravens who beat the Steelers on Sunday. And I’m pretty sure the game was played in Baltimore.

Excuse me for being a little confused. First of all, I spent Saturday night rooting for the New York Giants. (Apparently the G-men used our blueprint for playing the Pats as they found a way to fight them off for three and half quarters, only to fall three points short and break the hearts of all football fans outside of Foxborough. Although, as the RaveTV crew learned on the elevator ride up to the press box, one Giant of the game was rooting for New England on Saturday night as Phil Simms admitted that 16-0 sounded pretty sweet to CBS). Second, the stands of M&T Bank Stadium were soiled with terrible yellow towels and the front row of the south end zone was littered with black and gold. The weather even matched our Monday night match-up at Heinz Field with a steady, cold rain that just wouldn’t stop or turn to snow.

And finally, on a day in which many NFL teams made the decision to rest their starters, the Ravens weren’t given much of a choice as the team that took the field for Baltimore bared little resemblance to the roster rolled out opening night in Cincinnati. Jake Nordin? Robert McCune?? Adam Terry at Tight End?! With our third string quarterback, third and fourth string running backs, fourth and fifth string tight ends, a backup middle linebacker, a defensive backfield featuring five players yet to prove themselves in the NFL and a special teams unit that included a few teammates most Ravens had yet to be introduced to, it was hard to remember the promise, potential and predictions of the previous summer.

The RaveTV crew suffered a similar setback as Jeff Atkinson, Director of Photography and Wired veteran, was sidelined with the flu for the season finale. Stepping into his shoes for the second time this year was Tim Matkosky, who also had the pleasure of tracking Ray Lewis under the lights, and hurricane force winds, in Pittsburgh. This week, our Wired Raven was Haloti Ngata and we started our afternoon outside the locker room to roll tape on Haloti’s walk to the tunnel. As the team waited for their cue to emerge, you could see the players start to lose their patience, just itching to get on the field. The signs were easy to identify through the mix of fabricated fog and condensed breath: some would roll their necks from side to side; others would hammer the shoulder pads of the man in front of them; a few found the moment of silence soothing as they said a private prayer; and yet others were more vocal as I heard a few choice phrases that sounded something like second graders waiting to go on the roller coaster, “Come on already. What’s taking so long? Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”

When the Ravens finally got their wish, Tim followed Haloti as I stayed behind to avoid being run over by Ngata’s enormous friends. My reward for remaining amidst the smoke was an up close coronation for three all-time Ravens as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Jonathan Ogden were individually honored for their selection to the 2008 Pro Bowl. However, before the present-day Raven greats were introduced, a few ghosts of the Ravens past presented themselves on the press level.

Two TV screens, situated on opposite sides of the room, broadcast the Browns/49ers and Seahawks/Falcons games simultaneously. On our left, Chris Redman relived his Louisville legacy with four touchdown passes. On our right, Derek Anderson continued his sensational season with a 54-yard scoring strike to Braylon Edwards. Both quarterbacks once wore purple and black and neither were expected to make much noise in the NFL once they left the Charm City. However, Anderson has blossomed this year playing ahead of Brady Quinn (who did see some snaps on Sunday) and Redman, who was selling insurance earlier in the year, took advantage of Atlanta’s ailments this season and probably earned himself a paycheck yesterday for 2008.

Back to the present and the possibility of ending the year on a 10-game losing streak. I didn’t care if we were facing Ben Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch or Butch Cassidy; a win versus the Steelers counts the same in the standings no matter who the opposing quarterback is. And after bad bounces, inconvenient time-outs and a loss to the lowly Dolphins, RavensNation and this blogger were begging for the pain, and rain, to stop.

The game began with a bang as a Pittsburgh fumble on the opening kick gave Troy Smith incredible starting field position. Let’s review that sentence. Pittsburgh fumbled (not Baltimore), Troy Smith was at the helm of the offense (not Kyle Boller or Steve McNair) and we had good field position – even the action on the field was hard to recognize. The quick change of possession, however, did force me to get my sprints in early as I had already set up in the endzone for the first play, but retreated to the bench area as the fumble forced Haloti to wait a little longer to taste steel. The marathon would continue throughout the day as there is just no easy way to film a nose tackle. Joining me on my Sunday jog was Syreeta Hubbard, an intern with the Ravens broadcast department, and little did she know she was in for a wet weather workout. We had to shoot from the endzone on just about every defensive snap, which included a potential confrontation with the cheerleaders.

Not that I was paying attention, but there was a fleet of females lined up along the wall as the quarter was about to change, which is typically when the full squad performs. However, there was still a few plays left before the performance and my view was partially blocked by our Pro Bowl cheerleader, Crystal, and her case of abs. Not bad for a masters student. And of course I couldn’t get mad at her, especially since she never stops smiling. So I let the jubilant jumping continue until the quarter came to an end. I’m pretty sure the fans in the front row, yellow and purple alike were thankful.

As the game progressed, Musa Smith, Corey Ross and David Pittman (exactly) had led the team to a 27-7 lead late in the game. But just when we thought it was safe to start rooting for the Ravens again, we were reminded that 2007 was not over yet. A 59-yard touchdown pass by Batch, followed by a successful onside kick set the Steelers up with a 4th and goal in the 4th quarter in the very same endzone Tom Brady had burned us on in early December. For once on Sunday, the setting was all too familiar as Tim, Sereta and I watched from the back of the endzone. Batch hit Cedrick Wilson with a 7-yard scoring strike that Wilson seemed to scoop up off the grass. The fans behind us felt compelled to challenge the call and sans red flag, threw their beverage of choice on the field instead. The refs did not grant them the review; rather, security stepped in to escort them out of the stadium.

Down just 6 points, Pittsburgh would get the ball back with less than two minutes on the clock. Tim and I waited for the punt before deciding which end of the field to sprint to, but a funny thing happened on the way towards the sideline, the ball took a Ravens bounce and our special teams unit was able to down the ball at the 11-yard line. The resulting drive was thwarted when David Pittman (seriously) intercepted his second Batch pass of the day to seal the victory. I’m going to say those words a few more times –it’s been a while. Seal. The. Victory. Victory. Victory. Seal the victory!

Okay, now that it’s out of my system, I’ll move on the post game press conferences. Typically the line-up after a loss is limited to Coach Billick and possibly one or two players. However, with our first win in more than 2 months, the Ravens rolled out half the roster with Derrick Mason (who surprisingly began his comments by commenting on the Jets/Chiefs game being shown on the television in the room – he even asked the reporters if they were in overtime), Musa Smith, Corey Ross, Pittman, and of course, Troy Smith.

Big surprise, not only did Smith have a chance to perfect his PR persona during his Heisman Trophy winning senior season as a Buckeye, but the rookie quarterback majored in communications at Ohio State and his media savvy has been evident since his first day at camp. I remember listening to an interview with Troy during his first week of practice and he was sure to not only mention Steve McNair as a potential mentor, but he also mentioned Kyle Boller and Drew Olsen as signal callers he was hoping to learn from. On Sunday, Troy once again showed his press presence with a few choice quotes in describing the win. First off, his first words complimented the Steelers for playing so tough. He would go on to credit Rick Neuheisal’s parting words to the team as motivation and repeatedly commented on the character of his teammates. He even shared his spotlight for a second by reflecting on Corey Ross’ touchdown run when he solemnly stated, “When he scored, I scored,” alluding to the bond he has built with the other young players. His words also included phrases such as “We would not be denied,” and “There was something special about the field today.” But one quote stood out on a day in which the entire organization was forced to begin focusing on next year. “You have to be like a horse with blinders if you want to be the best.” said Smith. “The route to greatness starts now.”

A fitting final quote for the man who might just be the ghost of the Ravens future. End scene. Roll credits.

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