The Ravens long established that their succession plan for longtime general manager Ozzie Newsome was the promotion of Eric DeCosta. The question was always when it would take place.
Owner Steve Bisciotti provided the answer at Friday’s “State of the Ravens” address, indicating that Newsome, a fixture in the organization since its inception, will step aside after the 2018 season, handing the reins of the player personnel decisions to DeCosta, his longtime lieutenant.
“We had talked after the ’13 season and it was about Eric, and Ozzie agreed to redo his contract for a five-year extension, in which he case, he would turn over the 53-[man roster] to Eric. That’s a year away,” Bisciotti said in response to the first question of a 40-minute news conference. “Ozzie will step down as GM and has assured me that he’s not going anywhere and that he will work with me and work with Eric for a smooth transition.”
Newsome, who did not speak at the news conference, downplayed the announcement in an interview with The Baltimore Sun later Friday afternoon.
“I don’t know what my title will be, but I still will be a very big part of the organization. I’ll be in the building and working with the team every day as usual,” Newsome said. “This is all part of a five-year plan that I worked out with the owner near the end of my contract. Eric will have the title of general manager, which is part of the transition, but there will be very little change. Right now, my focus is on getting ready for the draft, the combine and free agency.”
The 61-year-old general manager and executive vice president built two Super Bowl-winning teams in Baltimore, made the Ravens front office one of the gold standards in the league and has had a trailblazing career as a top NFL executive. Though he will no longer be the organization’s top decision maker, he will remain with the team in an unspecified role.
“He’ll be the highest-paid scout in America when Eric takes over next year,” Bisciotti joked of Newsome. “I was not inclined to make a change in what we had worked on four years ago.”
DeCosta, who has been with the organization since the beginning in 1996 and then was hired as an area scout in 1998, has been the Ravens assistant general manager since 2012. DeCosta, 46, turned down numerous opportunities to interview for open general manager jobs over the years after Bisciotti had publicly declared him the likely successor to Newsome. Bisciotti said the Green Bay Packers were interested in interviewing DeCosta this offseason for their general manager opening that eventually was filled by Brian Gutekunst.
“I think he has learned from Ozzie and he’s a great leader of the scouts. It’s Ozzie’s department, but most of the interaction with all of the scouts is with Eric,” Bisciotti said. “I’ve seen the way he goes about the business. I’ve seen the way he’s embraced technology and analytics. I like working with him. I think it’s pretty evident by the fact that we were getting called every single year to try to get him, and it’s a matter of it’s time. There are people running other franchises that got the jobs because Eric wouldn’t take it. This year, it was the Packers. To me, that’s the best job in the NFL. Working for me is the second best.”
Bisciotti’s announcement comes with the Ravens entering a critical juncture as a franchise and their fans calling for widespread change. The Ravens have missed the playoffs for three consecutive years and in four of the past five seasons. Since winning Super Bowl XLVII at the end of the 2012 season, the Ravens have a 40-40 record in the regular season, they’ve made the playoffs just once and they haven’t won an AFC North crown.
The number of empty seats during key home games at M&T Bank Stadium over the past two seasons was proof of a fan base that was no longer as inspired by a team that featured an inconsistent offense and a defense that developed a habit of blowing late leads in important games.
Newsome, who is beloved by Ravens fans and deeply respected around the league, hasn’t been immune to recent criticism. Known for his drafting acumen, Newsome and the Ravens have seemingly missed more on picks in recent years than earlier in his career and that hurt the team’s roster depth. Recent early-round picks Matt Elam, Arthur Brown, Breshad Perriman, Maxx Williams and Kamalei Correa have been huge disappointments, and loading up on defensive players early in drafts has left the Ravens short-handed at the offensive skill positions compared to their top rivals.
Bisciotti acknowledged Friday that the early-round draft misses have been “costly,” forcing the team to spend money instead in free agency and leading to limited salary cap flexibility. Bisciotti said the team has erred in not hiring experienced scouts to replace some of its top evaluators who have left for promotions elsewhere, and he vowed to put a greater premium on veteran talent evaluators. He also attributed some of the team’s drafting problems in early rounds to “over-analysis,” and getting too many opinions on the perceived top players.
A Hall of Fame player, Newsome became the league’s first African-American general manager with the Ravens in 2002 and his leadership, team-building and decision-making skills contributed to the organization’s rise into a perennial championship contender. His first-ever draft pick in 1996, offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden, is in the Hall of Fame, and his second one, Ray Lewis, is expected to be voted in Saturday.
Newsome had said in recent offseasons that he hadn’t even thought about stepping aside, that he was still enjoying what he was doing. When he’s not seen sitting in his trademark spots in the Ravens’ indoor and outdoor facilities watching the team practice, Newsome can usually be found either on the treadmill or in his office watching film.
Still, there have been some challenging times for Newsome since celebrating the organization’s second Super Bowl win. After a Ravens loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in November 2013, he was taken via ambulance to a local hospital because he wasn’t feeling well. Newsome returned to Baltimore the next day and said that all of the tests he took came out fine.
In 2014, Ray Rice’s domestic violence case cast a dark cloud over both the Ravens and the NFL. Newsome said the Sept. 8 phone call that he made to Rice to inform him of his release was one of the toughest calls he’s had to make. Newsome and Rice were also close, and Newsome maintained from the beginning that Rice didn’t lie to him or league commissioner Roger Goodell in describing the running back’s assault on his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, in the elevator of an Atlantic City, N.J., casino in February 2014.
But the Rice situation hardly marred Newsome’s legacy. He is so respected league-wide that he’s a member of two different policy-making committees in the NFL: the competition committee and the player care foundation board.
As a player, he spent 13 seasons with the Cleveland Browns, and was considered the most productive tight end in NFL history until Shannon Sharpe broke his records in 2001. Newsome was selected to three Pro Bowl teams and his 662 catches and 7,980 receiving yards both ranked fifth all-time among tight ends.
As an executive, he started as an area scout with the Browns in 1991, and was ultimately elevated to director of pro personnel three years later. In 1996, owner Art Modell hired him as the Ravens vice president of player personnel after the team moved from Cleveland to Baltimore.
With the Ravens, 11 of his 22 first-round selections have been selected for at least one Pro Bowl game, and 18 of his picks have garnered Pro Bowl honors. Newsome’s ability to find and develop talent, and make at times difficult decisions in regard to the Ravens roster led to a familiar catchphrase at the team facility: “In Ozzie we trust.”
But Newsome, who was named NFL Executive of the Year in 2000 and has long been regarded as one of the top general managers in the league, continually redirected the praise, insisting the Ravens’ success was a result of sound ownership, stability in the front office and with the head coach, and an organizational philosophy of making sure everyone has a voice and a role, and was pulling in the same direction.
The crowning achievements for Newsome are building teams that won the Super Bowl in the 2000 and 2012 seasons. But one of the things Newsome is most proud of is the consistency the organization has maintained. Since Newsome was named general manager in 2002, the Ravens went to the playoffs in eight of 16 seasons.
Starting next year, it will be up to DeCosta to carry on that standard.
Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston contributed to this article.