This past Sunday, I went to Baltimore to see the Steelers play the Ravens. The NFL doesn’t have very many REAL rivalries, but this has become one of them. The two cities are 250 miles apart, both fan bases see themselves as blue-collar, and both teams have been excellent for most of this century.
The Steelers have won the Super Bowl twice under two different coaches: Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. And the Ravens have also won the Super Bowl twice under two different coaches: Brian Billick and John Harbaugh.
Their games almost always come down to the final minute, one or two plays deciding the outcome. Last Christmas Day in Pittsburgh with the AFC North title at stake, the Ravens led 20-10 in the fourth quarter. The Steelers rallied to lead 24-20 and then the Ravens went ahead 27-24. The game wasn’t decided until Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown for a four-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left.
That’s typical Ravens-Steelers.
Sunday was anything but typical. Both teams were 2-1 but coming off bad losses: the Ravens had travellled to London and been humiliated, 44-7, by the Jaguars, scoring their only touchdown at the very end to avert a 44-0 shutout. Two days after the loss, I asked Joe Flacco when he knew it wasn’t his team’s day.
Flacco smiled. “I kept reminding myself that we were down 20-0 at halftime last year in Cleveland,” he said. “We came back and won. That’s what I reminded the guys about when we were down 23-0 at half. When they scored first in the second half to make it 30-0, well, I guess by then I knew we were done.”
The Steelers weren’t humiliated that day, but they did lose in overtime to a pretty hapless Bears team in Chicago. That game was marked by considerably controversy — as were all NFL games that day — when Tomlin decided to keep his team in the locker room for the national anthem to avoid the sight of some players kneeling or sitting and others standing. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger and West Point graduate, ended up just outside the tunnel when the anthem began. Rather than turn his back on the playing of the song, he stood at attention for it, leaving the impression that he was somehow throwing his teammates under the bus.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. And none of his teammates or his coach believed that to be true. When Tomlin was asked about it and said, “I was hoping everyone would do the same thing,” the right wing media (naturally) jumped on him claiming he was criticizing Villanueva — even though Villaneuvea made it clear he didn’t take it that way.
Either way, the game was — as always — very important for both teams, even early in the season. The Steelers came ready to play. The Ravens did not.
By halftime, Pittsburgh was up 19-0, aided by a critical fumble by Ravens rookie running back Alex Collins, that gave the Steelers the ball at Baltimore’s 32-yard line with the score just 6-0. The Steelers scored from there, then pieced together a two-minute drive to up the margin to 19 at the break.
The Ravens showed some life in the second half, cutting the lead to 19-9, but the offense sputtered after that, Flacco throwing two interceptions as the boo-birds took over the stadium. The final was 26-9 and Ravens play-by-play man Gerry Sandusky was left to say as the final seconds ticked off with Baltimore trying to drive for a consolation touchdown, “The only ones left here are the few, the faithful and the families.”
Most were pouring out of the stadium and steering into traffic by game’s end. In his postgame press conference Flacco was asked to assess his performance. “I sucked,” Flacco said. “I wasn’t good enough.”
At no point did he criticize anyone but himself because that’s not his way. Truth is, there was plenty of blame to go around. Harbaugh basically said that the next time Collins fumbles, he won’t see the field again for a long time. Receivers—notably Mike Wallace—dropped key passes. Early in the game, Flacco saw a rare opening in Pittsburgh’s defense to throw deep and hit Wallace in stride down the sideline. Wallace dropped the ball. The defense couldn’t get off the field when it most needed to do so.
That’s not to say Flacco was good — he wasn’t. But right now he’s a quarterback operating behind an inexperienced offensive line that is missing All-Pro guard Marshall Yanda, who went down for the season in Week 2 against Cleveland. That leaves the Ravens with an inconsistent running game and Flacco frequently with little time to pass. He was sacked four times Sunday and ran for his life to get the ball off on a number of other occasions.
Fans don’t want to hear that when a guy is making 20 million dollars a year — even if he got that contract after winning the Super Bowl with one of the great four-game postseason performances EVER.
Which is why it didn’t surprise me in the least when my friend Keith Mills began taking phone calls during his postgame radio show and the first phone call went like this:
“Keith, who is the highest-paid player on the Ravens offense?”
“In fact, who is the highest paid player on this team?”
“So when is he going to stand up and take responsibility for this disaster?”
Mills is not the type to argue with callers, but he did point out that Flacco’s self-assessment that day had been, “I sucked. . . . I have to be better than that.”
Presumably the caller would have been happier if Flacco had started beating himself over the head screaming, “I suck, I suck, I suck!”
Maybe that would have placated him — and the other callers, some of whom asked about whether it was time to switch to Ryan Mallett, who has thrown eight NFL touchdown passes in seven seasons as a backup, most of those in mop-up roles like in London two weeks ago.
In 2004, I did a book in which I spent the entire season—beginning with the draft and OTA’s—with the Ravens. The book came out in 2005 and was called, Next Man Up. I had complete access throughout: practices, team meetings, coaches meetings, locker room before, during and after games, sidelines during games.
The Ravens lost their opener in Cleveland that season, a harbinger, as it turned out to a disappointing 9-7 season. The next day when I arrived at their practice facility, I felt as if I’d walked into a funeral home. The place was deadly quiet. People spoke only in whispers. The normally affable Billick waved me off when I asked him if we could talk later that day. I finally sat down in Kevin Byrne’s office. Kevin’s been with the Ravens since they were the Browns. He’s seen all the ups and downs. Nothing makes him sweat.
“You have to understand something,” he said to me. “One loss in the NFL is like a 10-game losing streak in baseball. The season can get away from you FAST.”
The Ravens are now 2-2 and have to play in Oakland on Sunday. I have spent a lot of time with Flacco the last few months and with a handful of other quarterbacks for a book I’m writing about the pressures of playing the position in the NFL. All the guys I’m working with are making a LOT of money. They understand that with that comes the notion that if they’re the hero — and the highest-paid — when all goes well, they very quickly become the goat when things go bad, even 2-2 bad.
“You learn to accept it,” Flacco said BEFORE the Steeler game. “You HAVE to accept it. I like the pressure. If you don’t accept it or if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be playing.”
He’ll be out there on Sunday in Oakland, taking the pounding that quarterbacks take — and that most fans don’t understand. If the Ravens lose again, the fans will be screaming for his head—again. The good news? He can take it.
John Feinstein’s newest book is, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black and White,” which takes on the elephant-in-the-room issue of race in sports. He next non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—comes out October 24th. Both books can be ordered online now.