By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 28, 2001
Will the Giants ever face a better defense than the one they'll see in today's Super Bowl? Quoth the Ravens . . . Nevermore.
TAMPA -- We come today in search of greatness. And we offer this tip on how to identify it: Do not stand too close.
The Baltimore Ravens play the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV at Raymond James Stadium this evening in a game that will decide the champion of the NFL for this season and, perhaps, the superiority of a defense for the ages.
Watch Baltimore's defense today. Appreciate it. Enjoy it. But also step back and view it from a distance covered by years.
What is the best way to measure greatness?
By seeing how far it stretches the memory.
Do the Ravens invoke images of the '85 Bears? Or perhaps Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain? Can they stretch the mind as far back as the No Name Defense of the Dolphins in the early 1970s?
"If they win the Super Bowl, then on Monday morning they will be ranked as maybe one of the best of all time," said former NFL coach Mike Ditka. "If they don't win, they'll just be like Minnesota's great defensive teams. Everyone will forget them over time."
Therein lies the rub. If it takes 19 games to put a defense in position to be one of the greatest ever, should failure in one game wipe it all out?
"Regardless of the outcome, you can't erase statistics. Statistics are it. Fewest points allowed -- things like that," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Regardless of the (outcome) we have proven ourselves all year."
So they have. In the defensive statistic that matters the most -- points allowed -- the Ravens are virtually without peer.
Baltimore gave up an average of 10.3 points per game, a record for a 16-game season. Since the AFL merger, the record for fewest average points allowed in a season is 9.2 by the Falcons in 1977. And, because of changing eras, it could be argued Baltimore's achievement is more impressive than Atlanta's.
The Ravens held their opponents to 10.3 points at a time when the average defense yielded 20.6 points a game. The Falcons set their record of 9.2 in a season when the average defense gave up 17.1 points. Using the league averages as a reference point, the Ravens performance is stronger than the Falcons.
"I've been around football for 45 years and this is the best defense that has ever played the game," said former Colts running back Tom Matte. "You can go back to the '63 Bears, the '85 Bears, the Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh, the Fearsome Foursome in L.A. We don't have a name for this defense yet, but all they do is get the job done."
Others warn of a rush to judgment. One season does not a legend make. Those '77 Falcons, for instance, finished .500 and failed to make the playoffs. The '71 Baltimore Colts gave up an impressive 10.0 points a game, yet would go 11-31 in the next three seasons.
"They ain't even close to being the greatest of all time. One year does not make an all-time great," said Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones, who was part of Fearsome Foursome in Los Angeles. "If that's all it took, then I would have been the greatest in 1964. I wouldn't have had to play the rest of my career. You have to show consistency to be determined the best.
"They're good, they play great team defense. They move to the ball as well as anybody ever did. But I don't know who brought this garbage up about them being the greatest of all time."
Ravens personnel chief Ozzie Newsome might like to debate Jones on this topic in a few years. He has spent five seasons assembling the pieces to this defense and has hopes of keeping it intact well beyond this year.
In 1996, the franchise's first season in Baltimore, the Ravens had one of the worst defenses in the NFL. They placed 28th among 30 teams in points allowed, surrendering an average of 27.5 per game.
The defense had Ray Lewis and little else going for it. Newsome made the decision to build the defense around Lewis and build the team around the defense. In the off-season before '97, the Ravens signed free agent defensive linemen Michael McCrary and Tony Siragusa and then selected linebackers Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper and safety Kim Herring with Baltimore's first three picks in the draft. Virtually half the starting lineup was acquired in a span of 17 days.
"We were pretty bad in '96, pretty bad," Newsome said. "The plan was made after that season to build the defense. We tried to do that without crippling the offense. We never got the quarterback position resolved, but the defense kept getting better. When we finally got Sam Adams, who was the last piece of the puzzle this year, they became a true champion defense."
Much like the Buccaneers, the strength of the defense emanates from its four down linemen. Adams and defensive tackle Tony Siragusa provide about 700 pounds of run-stopping force in the middle of the line. They create such a road block for offensive linemen, Lewis is able to roam free at linebacker and often reaches ballcarriers without encountering a single blocker.
"Our two guys are tremendous athletes for as big as they are. Goose will go out here and shoot 80 in golf," defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said of Adams and Siragusa. "He'll be the first pick if we're playing 3-on-3 basketball. That's what we're looking for, guys who can say on their feet."
The defensive ends, McCrary and Rob Burnett, also get enough of a pass rush that the Ravens are not forced to put themselves in jeopardy with excessive blitzes from the linebackers or the secondary.
The defense became virtually impenetrable this season when young corners Chris McAlister and Duane Starks solidified their games.
The Ravens also bought into Marvin Lewis' philosophy of playing within a system, even if it meant sacrificing individual statistics.
"Our guys are very, very smart and motivated," Marvin Lewis said. "Most of them have been to Pro Bowls, but the opportunity to win a division, to win in the playoffs, to win the championship and go to the Super Bowl, there was only one guy in our defensive huddle who experienced that and that was Rod (Woodson). So that part of it was special and they bought into that. They have become accountable to each other. They police themselves in that way."
Although the Ravens are not able to use this argument to further their place in history, the defense has done a remarkable job overcoming a remarkably pedestrian offense. The Ravens scored 29 offensive touchdowns, the lowest total among the 12 playoff teams of 2000.
What that means is, more often than not, Baltimore's defense had to contend with time of possession and field position problems that other defenses did not. The Ravens scored 16 points or fewer in literally half their games in the regular season, yet managed to win 12 times.
No matter what factors are considered to judge the Ravens, most people agree they need to win a Super Bowl before laying claim to true greatness.
The Dolphins' No Name Defense won a pair of Super Bowls. The Dallas Doomsday Defense won a Super Bowl. The Steelers won four in the '70s. The Bears won Super Bowl XX with an astonishing defensive performance.
"If you're going down in history as the best defense, you have to show it in the Super Bowl," Boulware said. "This game is going to truly mark our season as a defense."
One way or another, history will be written today. That is the legacy of every Super Bowl. The question is whether history also will be rewritten.
By the end of the day, will we have decided the Ravens need to be wedged in between the other legendary defenses of all-time?
-- Staff writers Ernest Hooper, Brian Landman, Mike Readling and Marc Topkin contributed to this report.