By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
My first memories of watching the Baltimore Colts date back to the early 1980’s – dark times in franchise history. Lenny Moore, Art Donovan and Johnny Unitas were long gone. Losses were frequent – Baltimore hadn’t had a winning season since 1977 - and games at old Memorial Stadium were lightly attended.
If memory serves, WMAR (channel 2) beamed the Colts into Maryland homes. Truth is, I didn’t watch much. The Colts were an NFL afterthought and the ‘Skins were elite. How different were the franchises? In ’82, the Colts didn’t win a game…and Washington won its first Super Bowl. A year later Washington repeated as NFC Champions and the Colts infamously left for Indianapolis under the cover of darkness. Curse those Mayflower trucks…
In the 30 or so years since, the professional football teams in Baltimore and the nation’s capital have swapped roles. Since 1999, three years after Baltimore poached Cleveland’s Browns, the Ravens have won two Super Bowls, made 10 playoff appearance and had just three losing seasons. In that same time frame, Washington has had just four winning season and four playoff berths. Baltimore is now the model franchise; Washington is a perennial circus, a breeding ground for drama and dysfunction.
A strong indicator of team success is spotting gear - jerseys, flags, bumper stickers, hats, etc. – in public. In the early 80s, Colts paraphernalia was scarce; Southern Maryland was awash in burgundy and gold. Now? Ravens purple dominates. Is this the result of reborn Colts fans or one-time, sick-of-losing ‘Skins fans adopting Maryland’s team?
It would be easy to criticize those in the latter category for disloyalty, but I understand the Ravens’ appeal. The 2000-2015 Ravens and the 1981-1993 ‘Skins are philosophically similar: value substance over style; flashy free agents have their place, but homegrown talent must be the franchise’s foundation; develop a blue-collar identity that announces itself to opponents before the opening kickoff; acknowledge the inevitability of roster turnover (the sport’s brutal) and ensure cultural and front office stability; and, most importantly, make Monday morning after playing the Ravens/Skins hurt a little more than usual.
The results? Washington won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks. It had one coach during its fabled ’81-’93 run (Joe Gibbs), expertly navigated the loss of great players (John Riggins, Joe Theismann, Dexter Manley, etc.) and was best known for smash-mouth football and its offensive line. And the Ravens? They’ve won two Super Bowls with different quarterbacks, employed just two head coaches in 16 seasons (Brian Billick and John Harbaugh), absorbed the departures of Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and maintained a reputation for elite defensive football.
How did that happen in both Washington and Baltimore? Why did Baltimore fail in the early ‘80s? Why does Washington continue to fail now?
Leadership (or lack thereof).
In owner Steve Bisciotti (majority owner since 2004), GM Ozzie Newsome (in place since 2002) and Harbaugh, the Ravens have a leadership trio that is aligned philosophically and empowered to execute their roles independently. Washington had a similar structure with Gibbs, long-time GM Bobby Beathard and former owner Jack Kent Cooke. Now Dan Snyder, a guy who has had eight head coaches since 1999, resides at the top of Washington’s org chart. Baltimore fans can no doubt sympathize. Charm City still associates the name Robert Irsay – Colts owner in the early 80’s and the villain behind the move to Indianapolis – with pure evil.
I suppose what this snippet of NFL history emphasizes is that just a few people, with the right approach and conviction, can flip the fortunes of many. Opportunities to be one of these influential few are often obvious – parenthood, career, friends, community. But formality is unnecessary. Can’t we all greet someone with an earnest smile? Sense a person’s struggles and tell them that we believe in them? That we’ll be there for them? That they matter? That we care?
Few people are qualified to alter the course of an NFL franchise, but none of us should lose sight of our potential influence on others. Simply helping someone through their day is worth cheering, no matter what NFL colors you fly.
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