By Gary Lambrecht
The Baltimore Sun
November 20, 1997
Want to get a rise out of the normally unflappable Jonathan Ogden? Bring up the toughness issue.
Go ahead. Remind Ogden that, on the surface, he doesn't always act like an NFL offensive lineman. The same way those scouting reports hinted he wasn't mean enough to dominate at the professional level, before the Ravens chose him to be their cornerstone in last year's draft.
Remind Ogden that he lacks the menacing persona commonly associated with the men in the trenches. He is too cheery during the week. His practice habits are, at best, unspectacular. And from his left tackle position on Sunday, he rarely destroys opponents with crowd-pleasing "pancake" blocks.
In street clothes, Ogden, 6 feet 9 and 325 pounds, still looks more like a power forward than one of the game's premier pass blockers. He is not a throwback, save for his unruly Afro hairstyle, which last was fashionable when he was a toddler. Instead of steamrolling defenders, Ogden typically opts for the more efficient, technical approach of taking them out of a play.
Try isolating on Ogden during a game to see how often he gets beat, either when firing off the line to open a running lane or backing up to protect quarterback Vinny Testaverde. You'll probably be watching for quite a while. Ogden last surrendered a sack in the season opener on Aug. 31, against Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Clyde Simmons.
Since then, Ogden has swallowed up some of the game's better pass rushers on a weekly basis. Like Washington Redskins linebacker Ken Harvey, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd and New York Jets right end Hugh Douglas.
Miami Dolphins rookie linebacker Derrick Rodgers offered this assessment of the schooling administered by Ogden during last month's 24-13 Dolphins victory:
"It's hard getting through that big man. There were times when [Ogden] Velcro-ed himself to me."
Not tough enough? As a scowl forms on his face, Ogden recalled the doubters who mistook his finesse for softness, as he capped an All-America career at UCLA.
"What else was there to question about me?" Ogden said. "I read about all of the toughness issues before the draft, about how I was a great pass blocker, but not tough enough as a run blocker. You can't tell how tough a player is just by looking at him or talking to him.
"I don't want to be a monster, but I like people to perceive me as crazy on the field. That comes from loving to play the game. On game day, you get to go out and physically dominate somebody. You get to throw them around. You get thrown in jail if you try that on the street."
A clean record
The Ravens feel pretty safe about the off-the-field doings of their prized property.
Ogden is a few holding penalties short of squeaky clean. He hasn't been in a fistfight since elementary school, which can be explained by physics as well as his non-confrontational nature. As a ninth grader at St. Alban's School in Washington, Ogden measured 6-2, 270. The following summer, he grew five inches.
"I'm so used to looking down at people," he said. "Why would anyone bother me?"
As you walk into his modest, three-bedroom contemporary Owings Mills home, the first thing you notice are the three large, stuffed animals on a couch -- a lion, a tiger and a panda bear he won at the Maryland State Fair.
As he spreads out on the L-shaped, leather couch in his living room, Ogden stares at the screen on his 48-inch television. He complains about the new video game he has yet to master, the rooms he has yet to fill with furniture and the empty walls he has yet to decorate.
Ogden, 23, doesn't smoke, hardly drinks and keeps in close touch with his college sweetheart in Los Angeles. He admits to one vice. A handful of times a year, he will slip out to Las Vegas to hang out at the blackjack tables. But if you're looking for a steady night-life partner, call somebody else. Ogden prefers to remain alone at home, catching a movie or "Monday Night Football."
Or grabbing another snooze.
A sleepy guy
Sleeping might be Ogden's favorite pastime. He's always yawning, rubbing his eyes, always looking like he just took a nap. And if he could somehow make Baltimore's weather resemble the warm, dry, year-round climate he grew accustomed to at UCLA, Ogden would be in ecstasy. In that ideal world, his wardrobe would consist exclusively of shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.
"We'll get him straightened out with a few nice suits. We'll get him to comb his hair every day. We'll get him to spend some more of that money," said Ravens center Wally Williams, referring to Ogden's seven-year, $15.5 million contract, which included a $6.8 million signing bonus.
As he observes Ogden sitting at his locker horsing around with some fellow linemen, Williams addressed his teammate's elusive mean streak.
"You wouldn't think he's tough, because J.O. isn't what I would call physically intimidating. He's tall, but he's not what I would call a monster. Zeus [right tackle Orlando Brown, 6-7, 350 pounds] is a monster," Williams said.
"J.O. is just a real tall guy with an Afro who likes to smile all the time. But on that field, once he gets those long arms on you and throws you around a few times, you will be intimidated. His attitude changes when he gets between those white lines."
"He's not someone I would look forward to facing on Sunday. I don't think I've played against anyone as good as him," said Ravens right defensive end Michael McCrary, last year's AFC sack leader, who signed with the Ravens as a free agent and faces Ogden weekly in practice.
"He has all the physical tools, and he stays cool and collected out there. That's important for a tackle, because a guy can throw you off your game if he beats you with a great move. He doesn't let that happen."
Ogden realizes he is blessed with uncommon gifts. The long legs that anchor such a wide base, forcing defenders to go around him and, often, out of the play. The quick feet that negate the slickest finesse moves. The ability to change directions quickly enough to offset the most unpredictable pass rushers. The long arms that keep defenders at bay.
Ogden has known it since he became a starter as a first-year freshman at UCLA, where he took on USC pass-rushing sensation Willie McGinest, now a star with the New England Patriots.
"McGinest came into that game with his 15 sacks, and I just shut him down," Ogden said. "I didn't face any great athletes until I got to college. But I was already so big and coordinated, I just kind of engulfed everybody.
"I like to think that if I'm playing at my top level, they have to deal with me, not the other way around. And if I have a tough day, it means I'm not playing well."
Kirk Ferentz, Ravens offensive line coach, finds himself already taking Ogden for granted. Ogden consistently gets the highest grades among the team's linemen. Ferentz marvels at his studious approach to the game.
When Ogden joined the team as a rookie, the Ravens moved him inside to left guard. He needed about a week of training camp to get comfortable with the position, which requires fewer one-on-one battles as a pass protector and more physical run blocking against 300-pound tackles. He gave up only one sack and earned All-Rookie honors at a spot he had never played. The Ravens then made room for Ogden by trading left tackle Tony Jones to the Denver Broncos.
By Ferentz's count, Ogden needed about two preseason games to readjust to his old spot.
"I don't want to say it's effortless, but [Ogden] is so efficient. He grasps things so quickly in terms of schemes and making decisions from play to play," Ferentz said. "He's made the transition with very few mistakes. As a coach, you try to stay out of his way and not screw him up. He's never satisfied with himself. He's driven."
New York Jets player personnel director Scott Pioli has watched Ogden's development from two vantage points. Pioli worked with the Ravens last year. With the Jets, he has scouted Ogden extensively on videotape.
Not missing a beat
"When you move from guard to tackle, you're lined up against the opponent's best lineman or best pass rusher nine times out of 10," Pioli said. "You're operating on an island, in a lot of space, with no help. Jonathan hasn't missed a beat. With either move.
"Because he keeps such a wide base, it looks like you can run him over, but he absorbs power and doesn't give ground. For a guy his size and height, he has tremendous ability to bend his knees and create leverage. He has tremendous natural explosion for a guy so tall. With his physical skill, work ethic and intelligence, he is a potential NFL superstar."
Ogden, who wants to be a perennial Pro Bowl player who ends up in the Hall of Fame, learned something about setting goals through his middle-class upbringing. His father, Shirrel, is an investment banker who handles his son's voluminous finances. His mother, Cassandra, is the executive director of the Council ,, on Legal Education Opportunity, a nonprofit group that helps minority students to attend law school.
Genetics also have worked in Ogden's favor. Shirrel played on the offensive line for three years (1970-72) at Howard University, and stands 6-6, 360. Cassandra is 5-10. And Ogden's younger brother, Marcus, a 16-year-old senior at St. John's in Washington, is being recruited by several Atlantic Coast Conference schools to play offensive line. Marcus is 6-5, 290.
"I kind of realized Jonathan had a special talent early on, and it became obvious that he was going to be a very good player in high school," Shirrel said. "He was shy as a kid, very comfortable being by himself. He was also very self-motivated and meticulous about planning. I never had to tell him to do his homework."
Ogden's toughest adjustment probably came after the sixth grade, when his parents decided to remove him from the D.C. public school system and place him in St. Albans. Suddenly, Ogden went from a student body that was about 10 percent white to an exclusive academic institution that was about 10 percent black. Suddenly, he was rubbing elbows with new friends named Rockefeller and Marriott.
"I didn't have many white friends when I was in elementary school, and I didn't want to leave my black friends behind. There were maybe six or seven blacks out of a class of 80 in my first year [in St. Albans]," Ogden said. "It was an adjustment, but I started enjoying myself that first year, especially because we had some good sports.
"I've kept in touch with most of my close friends from when I was younger, but I've always been able to get along with everybody -- black, white, Mexican, whatever. I'll talk to anybody."
Ogden remains remarkably unfazed by his new fortune. His lifestyle is anything but flashy. A Range Rover he purchased in college sits in his driveway. He could have easily afforded a mansion, but he proudly shows off his $295,000 purchase that includes an acre of land and a backyard swimming pool.
Although he enjoys an occasional trip to Hawaii, loves to visit the West Coast as often as possible and is always angling for his next Vegas foray ("In college, I would go to the $2 tables; now I go the $25 tables"), Ogden generally surrenders money at the rate he gives up sacks.
"His uncle came down last summer from Buffalo to visit. He likes to drink beer, so Jonathan goes out and finds the cheapest beer, $4.99-a-case stuff," Shirrel said. "We shamed him into taking it back and buying something better. You hear these nightmare stories about young, rich athletes who run out of money. I can't envision that happening with Jonathan."
"I don't even think of myself as an extremely wealthy man," Ogden said. "I guess I take for granted that if I need money, it's always there. It was a rush signing that contract, but I really was more excited about playing than about getting the money."
And Ogden doesn't see motivation as a problem down the road.
"I can't make it to the Pro Bowl or the Hall of Fame if I slack off," he said. "I don't think I've ever gotten complacent. I know you're only as good as your last game. Or your last play."
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