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Right where he belongs

The Baltimore Sun

Exactly one year ago today, Cam Cameron was relieved of his duties as coach of the Miami Dolphins. Many fired coaches are comfortable spending a year or two on a fishing boat or in a golf cart, content to allow their former employers to pad their bank accounts rather than make an immediate return to the sidelines and forfeit guaranteed money.

"[My wife] Missy would tell you, I'm a football coach. There was never a thought in my mind that I'd sit out football for a couple of years and collect on a contract," Cameron says. "I was going to get right back in it."

And he did, joining the Ravens coaching staff as offensive coordinator, his enthusiasm hardly tarnished from the wear and tear of that single disastrous season with the Dolphins - one win, 15 losses. Tomorrow, he and the Ravens return to Miami to open the postseason against Cameron's former team.

While the arrival of a new head coach and rookie quarterback has garnered more attention, the addition of Cameron was among the most important moves of the offseason. Less than a year later, the Ravens, long feared for their tenacious defense, suddenly have an offense that can move the ball downfield, that doesn't treat the first-down marker like a land mine and doesn't need a GPS unit to find the end zone.

"He has taken this offense where it couldn't take itself," says John Matsko, offensive line coach. "He had a vision for this offense, and he's turned this offense into that vision."

Asked about returning to Miami this weekend, Cameron shrugs his shoulder and says it's just another game. Because that's what coaches say. And Cameron has always been a coach.

He says he knew when he was 14 years old. Cameron's stepfather, Tom Harp, was head coach at Indiana State University.

"He was always a perfectionist," says Harp, who also coached at Cornell and Duke. "One day we were watching North Carolina play basketball, and Phil Ford does this 360-degree dunk. Suddenly, Cam puts on his sweat shirt, goes outside in 20-degree weather. He comes in an hour later and says, 'I can do it.' 'Do what?' 'A 360 layup.' "

Cameron was a two-sport star at South Vigo High School in Terre Haute, Ind., recruited to play quarterback at Indiana University by Lee Corso. After two seasons, though, the school's basketball coach, Bobby Knight, asked Corso if Cameron could play on the basketball team, too.

"I brought Cameron in and said, 'You want to be a coach, don't you?' " Corso remembers. "He said, 'Yeah.' 'Well, I'm going to give you the opportunity to work with one of the best coaches of all time. And it ain't me.' "

Cameron juggled the responsibilities of both teams, even when Corso was fired and replaced by Sam Wyche, who would quickly establish himself as one of the game's most innovative offensive minds. As quarterback, Cameron always had an intimate understanding of the offense, but his interest went beyond that. Playing under Wyche, Indiana was experimenting with a no-huddle offense, tinkering with snap counts and setting trends that are still around 25 years later.

"I'm not sure I can put my finger on what you see, but you sense the way a player pays attention, the way a player picks up not just the play, but the whole concept, the philosophy, all the subtleties of the play," Wyche says. "He had all of that."

When Cameron completed his business degree, Knight, as irrepressible as he was successful, told him he was too smart for coaching and encouraged him to enter law school. So Cameron took the LSAT and visited with law school professors. But it didn't feel right.

"I went back and told him, 'I just want to coach,' " Cameron, 47, recalled. "In looking back, it was smart what he did. He wanted to make sure coaching was what I really wanted to do. Coach Knight always wants to push you to something bigger and better, and it made me explore some things. But deep down in my heart, I knew this is what I wanted to do."

So Knight helped arrange a job for Cameron on the staff of Bo Schembechler, the legendary coach at Michigan. Nearly 25 years and six jobs later, Cameron is among the most respected offensive minds in the game.

For all the success he had in ensuing jobs with the Redskins and the Chargers, what he's done in a relatively short period with the Ravens could forever be highlighted on his resume. This year's team improved a full touchdown over last season's, averaging 24.1 points per game, the second-most in team history.

Cameron has spent years tweaking his system, but in simple terms, it's run out of an I-formation and noted for its numbered pass routes - many aimed downfield - plus quick throws to tailbacks and a power running game. In addition, Cameron has consistently mixed in more trick plays this season than with his recent teams.

But as an offensive mind, Cameron really made his mark with the Chargers, where his offenses broke records set by Don Coryell's teams from the late 1970s and '80s. He also helped send Philip Rivers and Drew Brees to Pro Bowls. League observers say he could've been a head coach there, taking over a talented group, but the Chargers dragged their feet firing Marty Schottenheimer last January. By the time they finally pulled the trigger, Cameron had already accepted a job with a talent-depleted Dolphins team.

Saddled by injuries, the Dolphins nearly became the NFL's first 16-loss team last season. Their lone win came in December against the Ravens, a game that provided one of the final blows for former Ravens coach Brian Billick's career in Baltimore.

"He never got down," said Harp, Cameron's stepfather. "I know it was difficult, but he didn't show it. Not to me. Not to his players. Not to Missy. Not to his children. He's just an eternal optimist. I always say, if he came across a pile of manure, he'd start digging, looking for a pony."

Those who've watched Cameron's development over the years never saw the Dolphin debacle as a serious setback.

"Everybody goes through that. I mean, [Hall of Famer Vince] Lombardi had years things just didn't fall right," says Wyche, who coached the Bengals to the Super Bowl in 1988. "I always use the expression, 'Players play the game.' People say, what kind of stupid comment is that? Well, they do, and you're going to have years where sometimes your key players can't do it for whatever reason. I think Cam, over the long run, is going to be measured as one of the better offensive minds to ever coach in the game."

Last January, John Harbaugh, a career assistant given the keys to the Ravens franchise, certainly thought so. Within days of accepting the head coaching job, Harbaugh pegged Cameron as a top target.

"I guess you never know how something will play out," Cameron says. "I prayed about it, talked with my family. But the discussion that John and I had, it was a pretty easy decision."

And installing his offense was almost as effortless. It didn't hurt that several Ravens coaches have worked in some version of the offense before - Matsko, running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery and wide receiver coach Jim Hostler.

"I've been as fortunate as any guy could be," Cameron says. "It's truly a collective effort. Almost every guy I've ever worked with has some kind of fingerprints on what you're seeing."

CAM CAMERON

Position: Offensive coordinator

NFL coaching career: 10 years (Washington Redskins, 1994-96; San Diego Chargers, 2002-06; Miami Dolphins, 2007; Ravens, 2008)

College coaching career: 15 years (Indiana University, 1997-2001; University of Michigan, 1984-1993)

Age: 47

College: Indiana, played football and basketball. Degree in business.

How acquired: Signed during the offseason after being dismissed as the Dolphins head coach after the 2007 season.

Credentials: Under Cameron as the offensive coordinator, the Chargers ranked in the league's top 10 in rushing at the end of each of his five seasons. The offense scored 400 points in each of the final three years, and the unit ranked in the top 10 in total yards between 2004 and 2006. This season, the Ravens own the league's fourth-best rushing attack (148.5 yards per game), scored the second-most points per game (24.1) in franchise history and became the only team in the league to produce rushers with 450, 650 and 900 yards. Cameron has mentored many NFL quarterbacks, including Jim Harbaugh, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.

TOP 5 TRICK PLAYS

Sept. 7: In the Ravens' season-opening 17-10 win against the Cincinnati Bengals, the offense registered its first touchdown of the season when wide receiver Mark Clayton ran 42 yards on a double reverse in the first quarter. It was Clayton's first rushing touchdown since 2005, his rookie year.

Oct. 26: The Ravens punctuated their 29-10 thumping of the Oakland Raiders by debuting "the Suggs Package." With both Joe Flacco and Troy Smith in the backfield, the ball was snapped to Flacco, who pitched it to Smith. Smith then tossed a 43-yard strike to Flacco that led to a field goal by Matt Stover in the third quarter.

Nov. 30: Clayton sparkled in the Ravens' 34-3 rout of the Bengals with a one-handed, 70-yard touchdown catch, but he provided the fireworks when he connected with fellow wide receiver Derrick Mason on a 32-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. It was Clayton's first pass in a game since 2002, his sophomore season at Oklahoma.

Dec. 7: The Ravens ended a seven-game losing streak in prime time with a 24-10 victory over the Washington Redskins. The effort was aided by tight end Todd Heap's acting job. On fourth-and-one, Heap fell to the turf while play-action took the Redskins defense to the right. Heap resurfaced in the left flat, and Flacco found him for a 24-yard gain.

Dec. 28: The Ravens added to their playbook in a 27-7 thrashing of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the third quarter. Taking the snap, Smith threw the ball to Flacco, who had lined up to the right as a receiver. Flacco paused and then threw the ball back to Smith, who sprinted 36 yards along the left sideline.

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