You could argue it was the moment when the Ravens jettisoned their uneven history as the Cleveland Browns and began their evolution into one of the NFL's most-respected franchises.
And it did not happen on the field.
The year was 1996 and Ozzie Newsome was still better known as a tight end than as an executive. There he was, running his first draft for a franchise with no face.
Owner Art Modell, an NFL institution and Newsome's boss, was intrigued by Lawrence Phillips, a troubled but gifted runner who could infuse the relocated franchise with instant star power.
But Newsome's draft board, honed through thousands of hours of scouting, said offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden was clearly the better value at No. 4 overall. Newsome could have second-guessed himself. Instead, he picked Ogden, who went on to become a Hall of Famer.
As successions go, the change at general manager has felt seamless. DeCosta developed his philosophy at Newsome's side and consistently pays homage to his mentor. The Ravens will begin a new era with the 2019 draft, but their future will still be defined by principles Newsome instilled and by choices he made.
“There’s so many organizations without an identity,” said Daniel Jeremiah, a draft analyst for the NFL Network and former Ravens scout. “The Ravens have had an identity for a very long time, thanks to Ozzie. He’s built a culture that’s sustained itself for over 20 years now, and it’s going to continue.”
“You don’t have 50 million coaches,” he said. “You had the one major change from Brian [Billick] to John [Harbaugh], but Ozzie’s been that one steadying force the entire time they’ve been in Baltimore. I just think the moves in general, the way he puts together a football team … the majority of buttons he’s pushed have turned out to be the right buttons.”
Newsome's legacy goes well beyond the draft. He was a quiet but revered trailblazer for African-American executives in the NFL, a key voice on panels that shaped the rules of the modern game, the architect of two Super Bowl champions and perhaps the greatest defense of all time.
On draft day, his touch will be felt in war rooms around the country, where evaluators who came up in the Ravens’ “20/20” club of young scouts will try to make their marks on other franchises.
In Baltimore, Newsome will always stand beside Modell as a founding father of the city's second romance with professional football. “In Ozzie we trust” became a rallying cry for this new purple and black nation, even though the man behind that phrase had little interest in being a public figure.
All that said, the draft has been Newsome's most cherished ritual for more than two decades, his version of Christmas Day.
“Well you know, from the very first draft … I had the same anticipation, I had the same butterflies as I did when I walked out of that tunnel to play in my first NFL game,” he reflected last year, as he prepared to make his final picks as general manager. “You know all of the work is done, and then you have this moment where you have to pull the trigger; you have to go and perform. And I enjoy that aspect of it, just like I enjoyed competing on the field, because you’re still competing with 31 other clubs about getting it right. And that same enthusiasm, that same fear that I had coming out of that tunnel, I have it on Thursday nights now, especially when we get within an hour of our pick, because that’s when things start to happen.”
If you’ve listened to the understated Newsome talk over the years, you know that’s like a Shakespearean sonnet coming from him.
And the whole story began with that remarkable first round in 1996.
“Art Modell was an old-school owner who knew that, hey, with this first pick, you want to generate a lot of excitement, you want to sell tickets,” recalled Ravens senior vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty, who began working for the franchise in 1994, before the move from Cleveland. “This was our first year in Baltimore, and he wanted to make a statement, and I think he was leaning toward Lawrence Phillips. But he gave Ozzie the choice.”
Kevin Byrne, the Ravens executive vice president for public and community relations, was also in the room when Newsome picked Ogden over Phillips. He said the moment has been misunderstood as a confrontation between Modell and Newsome.
“It was not as dramatic as people have made it out to be,” Byrne recalled.
Modell turned to Newsome before he phoned in the Ogden pick and said, “Do you still want to do that?”
“Yeah, without a doubt,” Newsome replied.
His logic was simple, Moriarty said. Newsome was confident Ogden would be a franchise cornerstone five years down the line; he did not feel the same assurance about Phillips.
“And Art said, ‘OK,’ ” Byrne remembered. “It was not a long discussion. Ozzie was doing it for the first time, and I think Art wanted to see from Ozzie — are you confident this is the right thing to do? There was no argument. Art never pushed for Lawrence Phillips.”
The point wasn’t that Newsome had stared down his boss; it was that he felt complete faith in his drafting philosophy, even before he had years of successful picks to fall back on.
There would be many more astute choices over the years, from Ed Reed at No. 24 overall in 2002 to Marshal Yanda in the third round in 2007 to the one-two of Joe Flacco and Ray Rice in 2008. And some clunkers as well — try the 2004 and 2005 drafts, topped by Mark Clayton, Dan Cody and Dwan Edwards.
But Newsome’s calm, collaborative, value-first philosophy held with few exceptions.
“If I was going to use one word for Ozzie, I’d use wisdom,” Jeremiah said. “He just had so much experience on both sides, as a player and executive, and that allowed him to be poised and calm. He always was a great listener, making sure you listen to other people’s opinions and take in as much information as you can before making an educated decision. That was always how he operated, and I think that’s not only good advice for when you’re trying to evaluate players but pretty darn good life advice.”
Newsome had his grand finale last year as the team’s scouts crowded into the draft room to give him a standing ovation after he traded back into the first round to select quarterback Lamar Jackson with the last pick of the draft’s first night.
His last first round perfectly encapsulated his style, as he waited and waited, trading down twice, only to cap the evening with a bold move that had everyone buzzing. Eight months later, Jackson paid off that buzz, leading the Ravens back to the playoffs in Newsome’s last season at the helm.
The Ravens have not defined Newsome’s post-general manager role, and perhaps they never will. That’s the way he likes it, by all accounts, this new world in which administrative duties have fallen away and he can pick his spots to contribute. He’ll be the voice of wisdom in any front-office meeting for as long as he chooses, the equivalent of a semi-retired Don Corleone, as DeCosta put it, referencing “The Godfather.” He also gets to be a pure scout, which might be what he loved most in the first place.
“He’s watching a ton of tape,” DeCosta said. “He’s probably watched more tape this year than he has the last couple years. He’s not working on as many of the administrative things that he would’ve worked on in the past. I think he’s really enjoying it.”
There’s something not quite right about memorializing Newsome at this moment. He’ll be there when the Ravens draft Thursday night, and not as a ceremonial figure. No, he won’t be in the chair at the head of the room, flanked by owner Steve Bisciotti and coach John Harbaugh. But no one will be surprised if he’s the last person DeCosta consults before a crucial move.
Almost a quarter-century after he picked Ogden, this is still Newsome’s time of year.