TAMPA - Art Modell calls him the architect of the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl team.
And, like any architect, Ozzie Newsome served an apprenticeship.
His began while he was still in the process of setting NFL pass-catching records by a tight end while playing for the Cleveland Browns.
“Art asked me about going in this direction maybe three, four years before I stopped playing,” Newsome, 44, said yesterday at Raymond James Stadium, where the Ravens will meet the New York Giants Sunday in Super Bowl XXXV. “So I started preparing myself then by studying positions other than my own.”
The best learning experience for Newsome, though, may have come while working during the Browns' off-season as a headhunter for the East Ohio Gas Co.
“I did campus recruiting for management trainees; I could tell after 10 minutes, usually, whether a person was worthy or not.”
Now, as Baltimore's vice president of player personnel, a fancy title for general manager, Newsome does his recruiting at the annual NFL combine in Indianapolis, where all collegians hoping to be drafted come to strut their stuff.
And yes, he still relies on the 10-minute rule.
“That's how long it usually takes me to come away with a good feeling for a player,” Newsome said. “Everybody has the same basic information on a player. Everybody looks at the same films, sees the same (physical) test results. Everybody can recognize athleticism, can tell if a player is powerful and explosive.
“So it comes down to one intangible for me. Passion. I look for a guy who loves the game so much that you know he can overcome any deficiencies. It's a gut feeling.”
Newsome's gut has served him well because the Ravens, more than just about any team in this day and age, have built through the draft.
Baltimore's last five first-round picks - offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, linebacker Peter Boulware, cornerback Duane Starks, cornerback Chris McAlister and running back Jamal Lewis - are starters, and three of them have been to the Pro Bowl.
Newsome admits that drafting at the top is “more hits than misses,” but Baltimore has cashed in on some lower picks as well.
Ray Lewis was a late first-round selection for the Ravens in the 1996 draft, but was the 26th player taken and was not Baltimore's first pick. He's now the NFL's premier middle linebacker and this season's defensive player of the year.
Imagine getting Ogden and Ray Lewis and fifth-rounder Jermain Lewis, now the league's leading punt returner, in the same draft! Then add linebacker Jamie Sharper, a second-round pick after Boulware in '97.
“There's no question the key to building a team is through the draft,” Newsome said. “You'll have those guys a minimum of four years and can develop them. Then you fill in the holes.”
Newsome's performance in that regard has been no less impressive. Starters signed as free agents include defensive end Michael McCrary, defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, free safety Rod Woodson, tight end Shannon Sharpe and quarterback Trent Dilfer.
Modell is still vilified in northern Ohio for moving his franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore after the 1995 season.
Critics charge that he turned his back on a city, a team's rich history and its loyal fans, but the truth is he turned his back on nothing more than a crumbling stadium that generated little revenue and a political climate that had him convinced he would never see a new facility.
So off he shuffled to Baltimore, sold on the promise of personal seat licenses, luxury suites and naming rights for what is now PSINet Stadium, which was handed to Modell free of charge.
“It gave us the wherewithal to compete,” Modell said. “Every nickel from the new stadium has gone into the draft, into free agents and into re-signing our own players. We have the means to do that now.”
Meaning Newsome, a 1999 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after 13 seasons with the Browns, had the means to build the Ravens.
“At the start of training camp, (head coach Brian Billick) and I felt like this team could win 10 games and make the playoffs,” Newsome said. “We didn't have any big injuries and the players continued to elevate their play as the season went on. So we made the playoffs and, you know, once you're there anything can happen.”
Like a Super Bowl.
It is because of Newsome's success perhaps that more team owners are turning to former players to fill front-office positions. Carried to the extreme is Detroit's recent hiring of one-time player and TV commentator Matt Millen, who has no front-office experience, as team president.
“I think owners have realized that the same players they have seen produce at a high level on the field can likely produce at a high level off the field too,” Newsome said. “Plus, coaches like Brian Billick aren't threatened by a former player as GM, for example.”
Newsome's first mentor, ironically, is his opposite in Sunday's Super Bowl, Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi.
“He was GM in Cleveland when I first got into player personnel. I'd been retired for two months and I was like a little baby bird in the nest. He kicked me out, put me to work scouting talent and taught me to always listen to what your scouts have to say.”
The toughest part of his job, Newsome said, is dealing with agents because “every player is a Hall-of-Famer when you're talking to his agent.”
But when Newsome wants to see a true Hall-of-Famer, all he needs to do is look in the mirror, which invariably reminds him of those days in a Browns uniform. In his 13 seasons along Lake Erie he caught 662 passes for 7,980 yards.
“Having a team in the Super Bowl is incredible. It validates all the work we've done, all the decisions we've made as an organization. It's a proud moment.
“In my heart of hearts though, I wish this would have happened while I was in Cleveland. Most of my football life was being a part of the Cleveland Browns, and now I'm finally getting to the big dance and they're not here.
“I'd like to think that all my (former) teammates and Cleveland's fans are sharing this experience with me in some way. I could have really enjoyed this happening while I was in Cleveland.”
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