Remembering the 1996 draft and how it built the Ravens

20 years ago the Ravens landed 2 superstars thanks to Bill Belichick, an ignored bluff and a mechanical bull.

General manager Ozzie Newsome's office is without any mementos from one of the most important days in franchise history. It contains helmets, game balls and photos, yet nothing that commemorates the day a fledgling franchise took its first significant step into the two-time Super Bowl winner it would become.

Twenty years later, what Newsome most remembers about the 1996 draft is a feeling. For weeks, Newsome, in a new role and city, operated amid chaos. But when the team selected UCLA offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden with its first-ever draft pick, a sense of calm took hold of the Ravens' outdated and windowless draft room.

Everything stopped. Newsome doesn't recall what, if anything, was said. He just remembers looking at the other men in the room and sensing the Ravens were going to be alright.

"I can't explain it, to this day," Newsome said Monday. "I knew we didn't make a bad pick, but I didn't know that he was going to become one of the greatest tackles of all time. There was no apprehension. I've never felt such a relief than when we turned that pick in."

Twenty-two slots after the Ravens took Ogden fourth, the organization selected an undersized but ultra-competitive linebacker from Miami named Ray Lewis. Ogden and Lewis played 29 combined seasons, garnered 24 Pro Bowl invitations, and became the prototypes for the characteristics the Ravens look for in players.

The 20th anniversary of their selections comes today without fanfare as Newsome and Ravens officials are consumed with finding impactful rookies in next week's draft. But so much of what the Ravens have become and the two shiny Lombardi Trophies on display in the lobby of the team facility trace back to the decisions made on April 20, 1996.

"Whatever comes of the history of the Ravens in Baltimore, that day will forever be the reason why this franchise is where it's at," Lewis said. "It was all because of the genius of Ozzie Newsome."

It was also because of Bill Belichick, an ignored Arizona Cardinals bluff, a mechanical bull and pure luck.

"Sometimes luck can be the answer," Newsome said, shaking his head.

Under construction

The 1996 NFL draft class was an overwhelming success. Thirty-three players from that draft made at least one Pro Bowl. Eddie George, Mike Alstott, Keyshawn Johnson, Simeon Rice, Zach Thomas and Tedy Bruschi were standouts at their positions.

Wide receiver Marvin Harrison will join Ogden in the Hall of Fame this year, and Lewis almost certainly will be inducted in 2018. Terrell Owens and Brian Dawkins are good candidates as well.

"It was one of the better drafts," said SiriusXM analyst Gil Brandt, the long-time player personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys. "We didn't have guys leaving school early. Guys might not be quite as good as they are hyped up to be, but they are experienced, they learned how to play, they learned the technique. I think the players that we got were so much more ready to step in and play than a lot of the players are now."

At the time of the draft, the Ravens didn't have a team logo or colors. They had a roster that went 5-11 the previous season in Cleveland, and they had a city that wanted to be excited about its new football team.

A Hall-of-Fame player who worked under Belichick and Mike Lombardi in the Browns' personnel department, Newsome was promoted by owner Art Modell to lead the Ravens' front office less than two months before the draft. He needed a franchise cornerstone, but time wasn't on his side.

The Ravens didn't move into their facility, an old state police barracks in Owings Mills, until April 1 — less than three weeks before the draft. VHS tapes of draft prospects lined the perimeter of the building, and accumulated inside hallways. The team's draft board was so rusted it had to be painted black.

But the Ravens had something in their favor: two first-round picks, courtesy of a trade Belichick made the previous year in Cleveland. Belichick sent the Browns' 10th overall pick in 1995 to the San Francisco 49ers for three picks that year, and a first-round selection in 1996. The 26th overall pick was courtesy of that trade. The fourth overall pick was courtesy of the Browns struggling so much in their final season before becoming the Ravens.

Getting their man

In a Friday meeting the day before the 1996 draft that was attended by Modell, his son, David, team president Jim Bailey, Newsome, director of college scouting Phil Savage, and new coach Ted Marchibroda, team officials reviewed the draft board.

At the top of it was Ogden, and below him was Nebraska's Lawrence Phillips, the talented running back who found off-the-field trouble almost as often as the end zone.

"You could tell that Mr. Modell and Ted, they wanted Lawrence Phillips," Savage said. "We had this discussion and my contribution to it was, 'Well, if we take Phillips, we'll never be able to put our heads on the pillow at night in certainty with what we'll wake up to the next day. If we take Jonathan Ogden, I think he's going to be a pillar for us for the next 10-to-12 years and probably a Pro Bowl player.'"

Before the 45-minute meeting was over, Newsome said if it came down to Ogden and Phillips, Ogden was his guy. There was only one problem: Newsome thought there was no way Ogden would get to the Ravens.

Newsome was near certain the Cardinals would take Ogden at No. 3. But the first sign of Arizona's other plans came on draft day in New York City. A card with Phillips' name conveniently sat on Arizona's draft table, well within eyesight of the Ravens' representative there.

"They wanted us to think that they were taking him and get us to trade up," Newsome said. "They wanted to force our hand."

The Ravens were comfortable with Phillips. Team officials took him out to dinner and thought they could provide a nurturing environment for him. The Ravens needed a running back, too. When the Cardinals selected Illinois pass rusher Simeon Rice, though, Newsome didn't flinch. Modell asked Newsome to reconsider the choice, but Newsome told the owner that he was picking Ogden and sticking to his board.

Ogden was so sure he would be a Cardinal that he got up in the green room when the phone rang with Arizona on the clock. Several minutes later, he strode on the stage at Madison Square Garden and held up a black Starter jacket with "Baltimore Ravens" and an NFL logo on it.

"It was a shock," Ogden said. "I knew that Baltimore had a pretty good offensive line and left tackle Tony Jones. I didn't think I was their need. I thought Lawrence Phillips was their need."

Taken sixth by the St. Louis Rams, Phillips played three seasons in the NFL and couldn't stay out of trouble. He committed suicide in January while serving time in a California prison.

Small only in stature

Lewis was a tackling machine at Miami, but teams were concerned about a 6-foot, 220-pound linebacker's transition to the NFL. Some of the Ravens' angst was eased when linebackers coach Maxie Baughan worked out Lewis before the draft. Baughan told Newsome that Lewis "could go all day."

Months earlier, defensive assistant Jim Schwartz attended the annual Playboy College Football All-American event as a guest of Brandt, who helped select the team. The members of the team, which included Ogden, participated in various workouts and activities.

"It looked like it was Ray Lewis and 25 guys versus nobody," Brandt said. "These guys just clung to him. We had workouts and activities, like riding a mechanical bull and a quick draw contest. Riding a mechanical bull, it seems simple, but you get up there and that thing starts bucking. He stayed on for an eternity. I think he wore the bull out."

Newsome said tales of Lewis' leadership made it back to the Ravens. A year earlier, Lewis might not have been a consideration for the franchise, certainly not in the first round. Belichick's evaluation system would have downgraded Lewis for his height. Newsome, though, opened up the process to allow for more input from scouts.

Still, Lewis was the not inside linebacker the Ravens coveted. They wanted Texas A&M's Reggie Brown who went 17th to the Detroit Lions. Nine picks later, the Ravens settled for Lewis.

"There was a good feeling about Ray, but it wasn't as if we were dying to get him," Savage said. "We had no clue that he was going to be what he became and honestly, it was evident from the first day he arrived – his leadership, his passion, his energy."

Like Ogden, Lewis felt he was headed someplace else. The Green Bay Packers had the 27th pick and were planning to take him. Lewis told family and friends he was going to be a Packer.

"I see my name and I was like, 'What?'" Lewis said. "I remember the phone call when Ozzie called, just hearing me say, 'Baltimore who? You don't have a name, you don't have a logo. OK, I'm excited.'"

Looking back

Lewis and Ogden roomed together during their rookie season and even during gloomy times — the Ravens won only 16 games over their first three seasons – they discussed what the organization ultimately could become with one leading the offense and the other spearheading the defense.

"This was kind of what we were hoping for," Ogden said. "Are you sure that it's going to end up that way? No, but when you go in there, you plan to give everything you got for the city and the team. To win two Super Bowls as an organization in the last 20 years, I just feel good that I helped get the ball rolling."

"I think all the time about what that moment, that day meant," Lewis said. "In drafting Jonathan four and me at 26, and saying, 'OK, we're starting right here.' Who could have ever thought that it would be this prosperous?"

It was not an unprecedented draft haul. The Chicago Bears landed Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus in the 1965 draft. The Pittsburgh Steelers' 1974 draft class included John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Mike Webster and Jack Lambert. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp in 1995.

But none of those situations involved both a team that had just moved to a new city and an executive leading his first draft. Entering the 1996 draft, the Ravens were said to need a replacement for quarterback Vinny Testaverde and playmakers to help pack Memorial Stadium. So, Newsome used the franchise's first two picks on an offensive tackle and an inside linebacker.

Twenty years later, you wonder what would have become of the Ravens if he hadn't.

"You've heard the term used over the last 20 years: 'Play like a Raven,'" Newsome said. "Well, you had two different personalities between Ray and Jonathan, but they personified what playing like a Raven was about — Ray with his passion, J.O. with his attention to detail, a quiet competitor that wanted to be good every day in every way.

"They were the foundation here."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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