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Ravens aim to give general manager Ozzie Newsome a fitting finale with playoff run

After the Ravens’ 26-24 win Sunday over the Cleveland Browns, their locker room at M&T Bank Stadium slowly filled with noise. The Ravens were going back to the playoffs, and the franchise’s biggest names weren’t going to miss out on the celebration.

Owner Steve Bisciotti stood shoulder to shoulder with players in T-shirts and hats commemorating their first AFC North title since 2012. Coach John Harbaugh held aloft a championship belt. Team and staff members celebrated with rapper Kodak Black, a childhood friend of rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson’s, before huddling for a prayer. Then Harbaugh spoke.

“We’re going to celebrate,” he said. “We’re going to have fun. But every ending is just a beginning, right? Every ending is just a beginning.”

The message carried a complex resonance for the man he introduced next. Harbaugh has given game balls to players, assistants and even the team’s strength and conditioning coach this season, but this one he gave to the 62-year-old wearing a leather jacket near the back of the room.

“This game ball goes to a man that loves every single one of us in this room, all right?” Harbaugh said. “Who believes in every single one of us in this room. Who, ultimately, through the draft, free agency, whatever, is responsible for bringing every one of us here. For saying this is who a Raven is and this is what a Raven looks like. Former Cleveland Brown — I know how much this means to him — AFC North champion Ozzie Newsome!”

Players mobbed the Ravens general manager, clamoring for him to make a speech. He shook his head. Harbaugh asked whether he had something to say. He did not.

Other people, inside and outside the organization, are free to celebrate Newsome as he concludes his 23rd and final season atop the Ravens’ football operation. They’re free to laud his fruitful final draft, which landed the team a wave of fresh contributors, led by Jackson. They’re free to argue that Newsome should become the first person to earn a second induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where he’s already enshrined for his work as Browns tight end.

Just don’t expect to hear any of that from Newsome, who’s as averse to attention now as he was when the Ravens set up shop in 1996 without a logo or a permanent office to call home.

He declined an interview request this week, as he usually does when public acclaim finds him. But those closest to Newsome said he was feeling an emotional punch as the team he built prepared for its first playoff game in four years Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers. It was evident after the Browns game and at a Christmas party a few weeks ago with the team’s scouting staff.

“I think these sort of moments … they have a little more significance,” said assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, who learned his trade under Newsome and will succeed him after this season.

When Newsome and DeCosta sit together during practices, conversation drifts to all the small moments they’ve shared, all the incremental changes and bits of humor. The student feels his teacher’s discomfort when people approach to thank him for his service to the Ravens.

That humility helps explain the admiration heaped on Newsome by current and former front-office peers from around the league, several of whom said they’re delighted to see the Ravens sending him out in style.

“He’s done it with class,” said former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly. “Let's talk about the big picture: He’s in the Hall of Fame as a player. He should be in the Hall of Fame as a general manager. Two Super Bowl wins with two different coaches — that's a lot of different things moving there.”

Longtime NFL executive Ernie Accorsi was the general manager in Cleveland when Newsome concluded his playing career and transitioned to the front office. He had noted Newsome’s keen eye for talent, even when he was still catching passes for the Browns. For example, Newsome told Accorsi that running back Earnest Byner, an anonymous 10th-round pick, would become a significant player. He noted that quarterback Bernie Kosar, criticized for his awkwardness, was “not a mediocre person.”

“A lot of former players don’t have that kind of scope,” Accorsi said. “To be as great as they are, they concentrate on themselves. But he saw the whole picture early.”

So he wasn’t surprised when Newsome began accumulating piles of good players for the Ravens.

“I think he’ll go down as one of the great general managers,” Accorsi said. “When I look at teams, I always look at: Who has players? You don’t always look at their record, because there’s not always continuity with the coaching staff. But who has players, and where did they get them? I mean, here they are again with maybe the best defense in the league. He’s just been so astute in finding players. Ozzie’s always gotten players, and I marvel at that.”

To grasp the Ravens’ culture, you have to understand that Newsome is more than the guy who gives final say on trades, signings and draft picks. He’s a football father to the scouts and executives who make the operation go and to countless others who’ve moved on to prominent roles with other teams.

“I think we’ve always kind of felt like we serve Oz,” DeCosta said. “We talk about it specifically, how our job growing up in this organization has been to help Ozzie build the best team. So we feel that obligation, and I think going into this year, we’ve talked about it a little bit — we want to build something that’s a lasting memory. Ozzie’s been such a transformative person for this organization. He’s done so much, selflessly and with such great humility, that we couldn’t think of any better way than to see this team succeed in his last season.”

That sense began to build on the first night of the draft in April, when team executives and scouts broke into applause after Newsome pulled off a trade to slip back into the first round and select Jackson with the 32nd overall pick.

It was a risky move. Some analysts believed the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner would never become a polished enough passer to thrive as an NFL quarterback. The pick also set up a potentially awkward competition between the rookie and incumbent quarterback Joe Flacco.

But Newsome went with his instinct, just as he had in his first draft for the Ravens, when he picked future Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden over talented but troubled running back Lawrence Phillips. It didn’t hurt that later in the same 1996 first round, Newsome bet on a guy named Ray Lewis to become the centerpiece of his defense.

Twenty-two years later, he worked his magic on the second and third days of the 2018 draft, picking up immediate contributors in tackle Orlando Brown Jr., tight end Mark Andrews, linebacker Kenny Young and guard/center Bradley Bozeman. The Ravens then signed an undrafted free agent named Gus Edwards, who’s now their powerhouse starting running back.

It’s a rookie class that celebrates all of Newsome’s best qualities, from his boldness to his eye for underappreciated talent.

“When people think about Ozzie Newsome, they think about the drafting and the young players and the undrafted guys,” DeCosta said. “I think from a football standpoint, to see the last draft class emerge and really help us, it epitomizes all of that.”

He compared the serendipity of the moment to the Ravens winning the Super Bowl in Lewis’ last game, on the same weekend Ogden was voted into the Hall of Fame.

“Whether or not we win the Super Bowl, in some respects, we have,” DeCosta said. “Because we’ve gotten the team back to being a relevant team again. We’ve been exciting. We won the division. We’ve got some younger players who have emerged. And that’s Ozzie. That’s his influence.”

Newsome won’t go away after the season, though the Ravens have not defined the role he’ll play. He will be in the building as a counselor to his closest protégé; DeCosta said they’ve worked so closely for so long that the role swap won’t feel awkward.

But the sense of impending change is real, and everyone from Bisciotti to the youngest players on the roster wanted Newsome to feel their appreciation after the Browns game.

As the team huddled one last time, encircling Harbaugh and linebacker C.J. Mosley, who had sealed victory with a last-minute interception, Newsome stood in the middle of it all.

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