The Ravens' team photo session at their training complex in 1996.
The Ravens' team photo session at their training complex in 1996. (PERR THORSVIK / Baltimore Sun)

John Moag did not recognize the full power of professional football until a rainy January morning in 2001.

It had been more than five years since he'd lured the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, and he no longer maintained a formal connection to the team or state government. But he'll never forget walking down from his office at Legg Mason to watch his city toast its first Super Bowl victory in three decades.

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"It just smacked you in the face," he recalls, sipping an iced tea at Dempsey's Brew Pub & Restaurant in the Camden Yards warehouse. "It was bosses and secretaries hugging. It was white and black, rich and poor. It's nothing you normally see in the course of events as a citizen. It just crossed all boundaries and made everybody so happy."

So many difficult memories faded in those ecstatic hours — the bitterness over losing the Colts to Indianapolis, the resignation that had set in after two failed attempts to secure an expansion franchise, the misgivings about taking another city's team.

Now entering their 20th season in Baltimore, the Ravens are an institution — two-time Super Bowl champions, one of the most consistent winners in the nation's most popular sports league, a civic rallying point every Sunday in the fall. In NFL circles, they're respected for their remarkable stability at the top and their rare acumen in spying young talent.

Last year, they survived one of the ugliest scandals in recent sports history — the fall from grace of running back Ray Rice — in part because they had laid such a sturdy foundation.

"The city is in good hands," says longtime NFL executive Ernie Accorsi, a former Baltimore Colts and Browns general manager. "The thing about them is they'll have a run with one group of players, and then they just regenerate. They keep on winning and winning."

It's easy to forget now, but this seemingly unshakable franchise was born from a long period of despair and uncertainty.

For 12 years, pro football was a painful subject for Baltimoreans, who'd awoken on a chilly morning in March 1984 to images of their beloved Colts being hauled off to Indianapolis on Mayflower moving trucks. In the ensuing years, city and state officials constructed a seemingly irresistible package, complete with a new downtown stadium, to attract a replacement franchise. They agreed to every condition the NFL laid out, jumped through every hoop. And teams went to Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., instead.

Baltimore had essentially given up when then-Gov. Parris Glendening appointed Moag, a former Washington lobbyist, as chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority in 1995. Glendening said he had one year to find a team or the money for a stadium would vanish.

Like seemingly everyone else, Moag assumed it was mission impossible. "Until I did my homework," he says. "I did a very thorough analysis of every team and where they stood in their markets, and it didn't take long to hit me that, 'wow, we have a real shot here.'"

From Cincinnati to Arizona to Tampa Bay, owners were unsatisfied with their stadium deals, and Baltimore could offer something better.

So when the situation in Cleveland worsened and Moag held secret meetings with Modell's associate, Al Lerner, in the summer and early fall of 1995, no one had any idea.

For his part, Moag knew the Browns were the franchise he wanted most. He admired Modell's record of civic virtue and his passion for winning.

"It was a great, great football organization from the top all the way down," he says. "It was a no-brainer that if that's the team I could get, that's the one we wanted."

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Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' senior vice president of public relations, recalls how startled he was when Modell informed him a deal was imminent. Byrne was a Cleveland native, living the dream of working for his hometown franchise.

"We won't be the Browns anymore," he remembers Modell saying as they spoke in the owner's office. "We don't deserve that."

Modell, Lerner and Moag agreed to the bones of a deal at a September meeting in New York, and Modell signed the final papers with Glendening at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in late October. The news leaked quickly from there, leaving the Browns to play out a miserable string as Cleveland violently turned on Modell.

Former Browns and Ravens kicker Matt Stover remembers the day Modell walked into the locker room to tell players of the impending move.

"Complete shock," Stover says. "He did a gracious job about it, but it was like, 'Ooh boy, what are we going to do?'"

Stover had a 1-year-old child and another baby on the way, and he'd just signed a long-term contract and built a house in the Cleveland area.

Abrupt moves are an accepted reality for professional athletes, but this was different. Everyone, from secretaries to Pro Bowl players, would uproot at once.

"Nobody knew where to live or what to do, because everything was brand new," Stover says of the early months in Baltimore. "Everybody was in survival mode. We were like kids who had been abused and then adopted."

Growing pains

The team inherited the Colts' old practice facility in Owings Mills, which had holes in the walls after being used as a training center for Baltimore Police. Without sufficient office space, team workers had to split between that run-down building and a downtown space. The franchise had no name, no colors and no logo.

Yet certain key principles already manifested. Former Browns star Ozzie Newsome, running Modell's draft room for the first time that spring, eschewed the easy candy of troubled running back Lawrence Phillips and used his No. 1 pick on a left tackle named Jonathan Ogden. With his second pick in the first round, he selected a linebacker named Ray Lewis, whom many scouts regarded as undersized.

As football foundations go, you can't do a lot better.

"Let me tell the genius side of Ozzie Newsome," says Lewis, who went on to make 13 Pro Bowls in 17 seasons with the Ravens. "You come from Cleveland, you have a bunch of old veterans who have been through this up-and-down cycle of not really knowing what it takes to win, or not knowing how to push that button. ... I've always believed this: 90 percent of football games are not won by quarterbacks. Ninety percent of football games are won in the trenches. Ozzie secured both sides for at least a decade of dominance, and that's genius."

Newsome is the living through line from Modell's Browns to the current Ravens. Long before Newsome finished his Hall of Fame playing career, Modell had decided the tight end would always have a significant voice in the franchise's direction.

When Accorsi was general manager in Cleveland, he'd ask Newsome, still playing then, to review his draft selections. "Ozzie was born to evaluate players," he says. "He has become one of the great general managers of my time."

Brian Billick arrived as coach for the fourth season in Baltimore and was immediately struck by the foundation Modell had created.

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"They were the fathers of football in this community, and they were telling people, 'It's OK to like this team,'" Byrne says.

Which isn't to say the connection was deep in those early years. Byrne recalls rarely seeing cars with Ravens stickers or people wearing purple garb, a disheartening experience for players and employees who'd been intrinsic to the fabric of Cleveland.

Despite Newsome's sharp picks, the Ravens did not win right away. They were 16-31-1 through three seasons, and Modell was falling deeper in debt because he'd regularly borrowed to pay football expenses.

The financial situation became perilous enough that by 1999, he had to seek a minority owner to steady the franchise. Enter a little-known businessman from Severna Park named Steve Bisciotti. Moag helped pair Modell and the young billionaire, and the graceful transition that followed is cited by many as the signature story of the team's long run of stability.

"He could not have been a better fit for the situation Art was in," Moag says. "He really did sit at Art's knee and learn, listen and keep his mouth shut. It could have been a disaster. In fact, more often than not, it is a disaster. Most of these owners are ambitious, they're in a hurry, they're not going to do what Steve did, which is wait, bide your time and learn the game."

Though the deal guaranteed Bisciotti full ownership by 2004, he stayed in the background during the 2000 Super Bowl run under Billick. His affection for Modell was genuine.

When Bisciotti had taken over and the team was set to open its lavish new practice facility in Owings Mills, the new owner invited his predecessor for a visit. Modell and his wife, Pat, saw a swath of purple fabric covering the wall as they entered the lobby. Modell was in a wheelchair, and Bisciotti put his hand on the older man's shoulder. Everyone who visited the facility would know Modell was the foundation of the whole enterprise, Bisciotti said. The purple fabric then dropped to reveal a striking portrait of Modell. He and his wife teared up.

Beyond touching gestures, Bisciotti demonstrated his respect for what Modell had built by keeping the team's brain trust largely intact. He made just one significant change, bringing in Dick Cass to replace Modell's son, David, as team president.

"Steve's smart," Accorsi says. "He didn't change much because he saw these guys were really good at what they did."

Bisciotti has said he had to prove himself to Newsome more than Newsome had to prove himself to a new owner.

He steps in as the final word on only the highest-level decisions, such as firing Billick and replacing him with John Harbaugh after the 2007 season.

In typical Ravens fashion, that change went off without a hitch, as the relatively unknown defensive backs coach from the Philadelphia Eagles led the team to the playoffs in his first season. He's missed the postseason just once in the years since.

At the same time Harbaugh entered, the Ravens finally shored up the one key spot that had been a source of chaos: quarterback. Joe Flacco started his first game as a rookie in 2008 and hasn't missed a game since.

"I remember when he first stepped in, we all looked at each other and said, 'That dude can stand in the pocket,'" Stover recalls. "It was like, 'Look at what we got. OK, let's go.'"

Constant and consistent

Since 2000, the Ravens rank fifth in the league in wins with 159 and second to the New England Patriots in playoff wins, with 15. They have the best playoff winning percentage of any team since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. The fans have come around, too — they drape themselves in purple year-round and fill 71,008-seat M&T Bank Stadium to the brim on gamedays.

Newsome, Harbaugh and Bisciotti govern the team's football operation, and by all accounts, it's an unusually effective collaboration.

"There's no ego in that room when the three of us are together," Harbaugh says. "Anything that happens, we're confronting it, we're challenging each other, we're hashing it out. We do it that way. There are no personalities. We don't care who says what or whose idea it was. It's just, 'How are we going to do this?' I know everybody says that's what they want to get to in an organizational model, but for some reason, we've been able to accomplish that."

The franchise's strengths are well known by now. Newsome has not only drafted stars in the first round, he's consistently found effective starters in later rounds and in rookie free agency. The Ravens rarely make a splashy signing at the beginning of free agency or overpay to keep a player they've developed. But if they deem a player truly essential — Lewis, Ogden, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Flacco — they spend big to make him an institutional component.

Bisciotti is so committed to stability that he's spent big to keep Newsome's planned successor, Eric DeCosta, in the fold despite overtures from many other franchises.

Meanwhile, the teams Newsome delivers generally get better over the course of the season under Harbaugh's coaching. Each of the six times his Ravens have made the playoffs, they've won at least one postseason game.

The fluidity of this machine is hardly lost on players.

This year's 20th edition of the Ravens is again a popular choice to win the AFC North and make a deep playoff run, despite the offseason losses of perennial Pro Bowl selection Haloti Ngata and other key players.

Billick, now an analyst for the NFL Network, says the Ravens are one of the top five franchises in the sport, a fact made all the more impressive by the uncertainty of the team's early years in Baltimore.

"I don't think people realized those first couple of years how perilous the situation was for Art — leaving Cleveland, coming to Baltimore," Billick says. "Everybody said, 'There's no way you're going to be able to transition this the way they did with Steve.' There are a lot of improbable things where you would have said, 'This isn't going to happen.' To look back 20 years, that makes it even that much more special."

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