Newsome, 57, could have walked away after last season with one of the best all-around resumes in football history — college and pro Hall of Famer, pioneering African-American executive, architect of two Super Bowl winners.

Instead, he opted to shake up the pieces and believe that he and the people around him could construct another beautiful puzzle.

This came as little surprise to those who work closely with Newsome. They describe him as, quietly, one of the most competitive people on earth, a man invigorated by this sort of challenge.

Bisciotti said he talked with Newsome about the general manager's future and came away certain that Newsome planned to stay. "No, I had no fear," the Ravens owner said. "And if I had that fear, I would've been more reluctant to back this purge of these veterans."

In a league of rampant turnover, the Ravens are a picture of stability at the top. The roots of the story go back to Cleveland, where Browns owner Art Modell grasped that Newsome was, more than a star player, a man of rare ability and dignity.

Newsome has run the football operation since the franchise moved to Baltimore in 1996, a tenure unmatched by any other executive in the NFL.

He has worked with only two head coaches, Billick and Harbaugh, since 1999. He even has a clear successor, Eric DeCosta, who has worked for the Ravens since day one and has risen from scout to Newsome's right-hand man.

Bisciotti laughed when asked how he sized Newsome up upon buying a stake in the team 13 years ago. "Really, I kind of thought I was auditioning for him," he said.

Building a champion

During Newsome's tenure, fans have learned the hallmarks of the Ravens' philosophy: Invest heavily in scouting so your information is fresh and original, draft for talent rather than positional need, commit big salaries only to irreplaceable players.

Over the years, he has only deepened his commitment to what he calls "process" and what Bisciotti calls "methodology." The Ravens braintrust learned a powerful lesson from the aftermath of the franchise's first Super Bowl victory. In that case, Newsome tried to keep the band together for one more run.

The Ravens were good but no championship threat the following season. In 2002, beset by salary cap woes, they crashed and burned.

"It was the worst of times for the Ravens," Bisciotti said.

Never again would Newsome allow himself to be stuck with an aged roster of players whose salaries outpaced their production. If that seemed unsentimental, so be it.

"We will not repeat what we did in 2001," Newsome said in February. "We're trying to build where we can win Super Bowls more than just one more time."

In that spirit, he knew a change was coming after last season. Lewis was on his last legs and veteran stars such as Boldin and safety Ed Reed would be expensive to keep through years of likely decline. The Ravens got the result they wanted, winning a championship with that crew.

But the key, Bisciotti said, was Newsome's refusal to let Super Bowl euphoria alter his planned overhaul.

He might have found a way to keep Boldin and young defenders Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, who were attractive free agents because of strong playoff performances.

Newsome no longer saw those players as good values, however, and he let them go.

Bisciotti said the plan was clear from the first meeting the Ravens' decision makers held, the day after the Super Bowl parade in February. "That's what we said to our coaches," he recalled. "We are not going to restructure contracts to keep these guys. We are going to rebuild the [salary] cap. And it's going to be a sane and balanced cap. We're going to lose some players."

As the frenzy of the NFL signing period waned, Newsome quietly snapped up modestly priced, productive players such as linebacker Daryl Smith, defensive lineman Chris Canty and safety Michael Huff. When star pass rusher Elvis Dumervil suddenly became available because of a negotiating mix-up with the Denver Broncos, Newsome pounced.

Without making a slew of national headlines, he remade a defense that had often struggled in 2012.

There's no denying that the team will look far different, though signature stars Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata remain.

"We've changed the menu," DeCosta said. "We went from being a steakhouse to a seafood house. We're trying to do it in a different way, and it's exciting."

That process would be enormously unsettling to many franchises, observers said, but Newsome's credibility made it smoother.

"Absolutely," Billick said. "When you can look to a leader who's in the Hall of Fame and has two rings that he won with two different coaches and two different quarterbacks, whatever he thinks it takes, you can't question."

Bisciotti, for one, can't wait to see how the season turns out. "I think it's a hell of a lot more fun with all the question marks," the Ravens owner said. "If you trust the guys making the decisions."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article