Over two decades, two Super Bowl wins and two head coaches ago, Eric DeCosta was at the NFL scouting combine for the first time, insecure. Here he was in Indianapolis, a scouting intern for a nascent Ravens franchise, hair still on his head but not a clue where to sit in the stands.
DeCosta recalled wandering “aimlessly,” looking for a place to plop down, until his eyes met those of Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens’ personnel chief. Newsome waved to him and told him to come sit with him, with the head coaches and the general managers who were doing what DeCosta one day hoped to. For the next 23 years, DeCosta said, he sat with Newsome at the combine, learning all he could by his side, preparing for the possibility that he one day might lead a front office.
On Wednesday, as DeCosta was introduced as just the Ravens’ second general manager in franchise history, Newsome looked on from the back of the team’s auditorium. His protege could have gone most anywhere in the NFL. But DeCosta had chosen to stay with the franchise, and the mentor, that had asked more and more of him until there was only one job left.
“Had I had gone to another team — all new faces, new organization, new people — that would be, in my mind, a little more challenging to not have the relationships and things that I have been able to develop here over the last 23 years,” he said. “That would be tough for me. But being here, having been able to observe people, I know the quality of people that we have here, I know this community, I know what our fan base is like. And there's no better challenge for me than this.”
His first-year to-do list for the AFC North champions is not insignificant: Find weapons and protection for Lamar Jackson. Find a trade partner for Joe Flacco. Re-sign C.J. Mosley. Remain fiscally responsible.
But those are the long-expected realities of a vision he first dreamed when he was 6, at an age when Tom Landry’s Cowboys were among the sports’s titans and Dallas executive Tex Schramm was masterminding it all. After last season, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti announced that DeCosta would replace Newsome, and the 47-year-old was promoted from assistant GM on Jan. 11.
It was the toils of his time between fantasy and actuality that seemed to most delight DeCosta during his 41-minute news conference at team headquarters: how he started working for the franchise when there was a blank helmet on team stationery. How he helped the Ravens’ public relations staff, and their athletic trainers, and their coaches. How he made sure to get his money’s worth out of the $100 coach Ted Marchibroda would hand over for his car’s oil changes by finding a $9.99 special on Reisterstown Road.
“I think sometimes people would think that maybe I’d be embarrassed that I started off as an intern now that I’m a GM, that I want to forget that,” said DeCosta, who later was promoted to area scout, director of college scouting and assistant GM. “To be honest with you, I cherish that. ... That’s one of the great things that Ozzie instituted in scouting. We would bring people in back then; we had such a small staff. And he would say, ‘You’re going to learn this organization from soup to nuts.’ That’s what we did. I think, in looking back, that was probably the best gift that Ozzie could have given me.”
What made DeCosta so attractive to outsiders — he reportedly spurned interest from nine other NFL teams, the highlight of which, he joked, was a call from the late Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen — is also what might separate him from his predecessor.
In his role as Newsome’s lieutenant, DeCosta offered opinions and supported decisions. But, he asked rhetorically, “Are there things that I want to differently? Probably.” He laid out a future for the franchise where the Ravens would be on the cutting edge of analytics, technology, teaching principles, research and scouting. (Newsome was not available to comment.)
It is a new approach for a new era, one without Flacco and perhaps Terrell Suggs, holdovers from the Ravens’ last Super Bowl title. DeCosta knows well the challenges of replacing a GM whose front-office career is worthy of Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration. Knows them so well, in fact, that when he was asked about filling Newsome’s “huge shoes,” DeCosta rattled off their respective shoe sizes.
His task now is as intimidating as that first combine all those years ago: Perpetuate what Newsome did well and address what he did not.
“I'm a very competitive person, so I never look at it as not my responsibility,” he said. “I've always looked at it as my responsibility. If we have a player that's not playing well, I've always thought, 'That's my pick. My name's on that guy, too. Not the GM, not the head coach, but my name, too.’ When we play poorly, I take that personally. I take that home and I take it personal. It's very personal to me. So I don't think like that. I never have. Even when I was 26 years old working with Ozzie, I never felt that way. I took it personal, and I still do.”