The Ray Rice domestic violence case intensified just as the Baltimore Ravens season unfolded with a home loss against the Cincinnati Bengals. The case first broke on Feb. 15. The league's faulty two-game suspension was issued July 24. And after new video of the Rice attack surfaced, after that opening loss to the Bengals, the Ravens cut Rice the following day.
During this prolonged episode, the Ravens looked within for leadership, for a calming and impactful influence, for reason and even therapy.
They found it in general manager Ozzie Newsome.
He did what he has always done since his childhood days in Muscle Shoals, Ala., from his mentoring at Alabama under Bear Bryant and from his deep-rooted teachings under the late Ravens' owner Art Modell. Listen. Absorb. Be patient. Be prudent. And always seek a way to come out on the other side still standing.
Here the Ravens are in the playoffs again, still standing, on the road at the New England Patriots Saturday seeking a path to their third Super Bowl title under Newsome. He has been with the franchise since its inception in 1996. His Ravens teams are 168-135-1 overall and 15-7 in playoff games. His team is the in the playoffs for the 10th time in the last 15 seasons.
It is a remarkable body of work for a man who seeks little acclaim.
Those around Newsome, 58, and others in league-wide circles insist he is as selfless as any executive in the league and maybe the most humble among them.
Ravens vs. Patriots
Ravens vs. Patriots
That has been his approach as a college football Hall of Fame player (inducted in 1994), as an NFL Hall of Fame tight end with the Cleveland Browns (inducted in 1999) and as the first African American named NFL general manager (2002).
Before his NFL Hall of Fame induction in '99, he told me: "I've been evaluated all of my life, even though now my job is one of constant evaluation. There are a lot of blacks out there, former players and others, willing to climb their way up. A lot of people, owners included, are looking to see how I do. I'm being compared closely with my peers."
He has stood tall among them.
From his first draft in '96 that netted Hall of Fame player and tackle Jonathon Ogden to future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, Newsome has aced the guts of his job -- identify and select winning talent.
His positive Ravens influence in the Rice case and during other strife are all extra benefits.
"Ozzie is a positive and smart man and he does a great job of managing different situations," said James Harris, who worked with Newsome in Ravens' personnel from 1997-2003 and now works in Detroit Lions' personnel. "Ozzie has instincts for identifying players that cannot be learned; he has the kind of thing that is something you are just born with. He can identify what a player is and what he can become. He keeps it real simple. He is great at the end of the year at realizing what his team has, what it needs and fulfilling those needs."
Some of that wisdom comes from Newsome having been a player, a coach, a scout and overall personnel guru, former Ravens' head coach Brian Billick said.
"He has a collective perspective," said Billick, who coached and worked with Newsome for nine years. "A broader perspective. He is the best listener I have ever been around. He never feels the need to be the loudest guy in the room. He doesn't overact and he doesn't underreact, but he just keeps a measured pace, whether it is this game or the next game or the next draft or the next pick or the next anything."
Newsome's plan for the Ravens this season clicked in one distinguishable example: Once Rice was lost, who would carry the rushing load? Newsome had running back Justin Forsett in line. And Forsett rushed for 1,266 yards, averaged 5.4 yards per carry, scored eight rushing touchdowns and led the Ravens to 126.2 rushing yards averaged per game, eighth-best in the league.
Newsome made all Ravens personnel decisions from 1996 to 2002. But his title was personnel director and not general manager. The Ravens did not have one in name.
But Modell in November 2002 decided to change that. And make history.
There was always an immense affinity between Newsome and Modell, first as a player/owner relationship and then as an executive/owner relationship. There likely never has been two people in NFL history who worked together with as much respect and admiration and genuine love for each other as Newsome and Modell.
It clearly has colored the way Newsome as the Ravens' general manager has planned his works and worked his plans.
Newsome does not routinely travel to scout players. He can be seen at nearly every Ravens' practice every day. He talks to his players. He challenges them. He encourages them. He talks to his coaches. He keeps a direct line open with them to understand what they need more and what they need less. He is in tune with the inner workings of the Ravens by just being there on the field, in the building, in their heads while guiding with his expertise.
Modell used to do this. He was a constant figure at Ravens' practices.
It is a torch that Newsome has carried. Just one of many in helping guide the Ravens back into the playoffs. Into one more year - in the midst of fire - of standing tall.
"I saw it every day," Billick said of his time with the Ravens. "It was a mentor relationship. It was almost like a father-son relationship. A true affection. What they did for each other is special. I think Ozzie has continued in that spirit and it has provided a consistency of winning, a particular purpose. I don't think Ozzie will ever let anything derail that."