After the Cleveland Browns left for Baltimore in 1996, the City of Cleveland got back their Browns’ team with an expansion team in 1999. And everything was back to normal in the AFC Central.
Well, sort of.
The problem was, the club that ended up in Baltimore was a club with established players on an ascending path, and the new franchise placed in Cleveland was brand spanking new with castoffs from other teams. All of those years suddenly vanished. To another city. In the same conference. Placed in the same division. To compete with their former players who the city had grown to love and admire.
If the 1990s proved one thing, is just how delicate the concepts of continuousness and lucidity could be in the NFL.
Not that it was all roses for the old Browns-now Ravens.
The City of Baltimore did indeed welcomed the Browns, especially since their beloved Colts bolted for the confines of Indianapolis years earlier. Baltimore is a good football town, and without the Colts the city just didn’t have the same vibe, especially on Sundays in the fall. But, the city did not exactly embrace the Ravens - at least, not initially. Fired was Browns’ head coach Bill Belichick and hired to guide the new Browns was Ted Marchibroda.
The Ravens franchise made an effort to re-connect the city to the old Colts instead of towards the old Browns. In the last game of the Ravens’ second season, 70 former Colts’ players were escorted onto the field at various parts of the game and introduced. The game was capped off by former greats Johnny Unitas, Tom Matte and Lenny Moore simulating a play for a TD.
The following season the Indianapolis Colts made their first appearance back in Baltimore since leaving the city without pro football although they had traveled to Indianapolis during their maiden season. Such an odd site seeing the exact same blue and white uniforms with the horseshoe decal playing as the opponent instead of the hometown favorites. Unitas watched the game from the Ravens sideline rooting against his old team at every opportunity as the home squad won 38-31.
Whereas the 1995 Browns went 5-11-0, the 1996 Ravens finished 4-12-0. After three mediocre seasons and several great drafts, the Ravens would go 12-4-0 in 2000 and offer one of the NFL’s greatest defenses ever conceived.
The anchor on that defense was a young linebacker named Ray Lewis. He was raised on the streets in a medium Florida city without a father and a mother who worked three jobs. Lewis’ responsibility was to take care of his four other siblings. When he attended the University of Miami, he was already hardened from life and found football to be his refuge from an unstable home life. As an NFL rookie, he took the league by storm and led the league in tackles two of his first four seasons while making the All-Rookie Team as well as the Pro Bowl.
Off the field, he was viewed cautiously - especially the friendships he kept. On the eve of Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta, Lewis and two of his friends were involved in a double-stabbing incident after a Super Bowl party. All three men were accused of the incident and the two murders. In the end, Lewis’ attorney negotiated a plea agreement to a guilty verdict of obstruction of justice, a misdemeanor. In addition, he was fined $250,000 by the NFL, the largest fine levied by the league for a non-substance abuse infraction.
The following season, Lewis played like a wild man on a defense that set records for fewest rushing yards allowed plus fewest points allowed for a single season. He was named Defensive Player of the Year, made the Pro Bowl for the fourth straight year, and the Ravens went 12-4-0 before defeating the Broncos, Titans and Raiders in the AFC playoffs. This sent them to the Super Bowl - one that would have been the Browns’ first Super Bowl appearance.
In Super Bowl XXXV with the Ravens against the New York Giants, despite leaving Cleveland just five seasons ago, only K Matt Stover, S Bennie Thompson and DT Larry Webster remained as former Browns.
With this Super Bowl above all others, was the fact that Browns’ fans were conflicted. Here was their former beloved team finally making the big game, but playing in another team’s jerseys. And their opponent was the Browns’ bitter rival throughout the 1950s-1960s when they were consistent winners along with the Giants.
The Ravens’ stifling defense was too much for the Giants coupled with Giants’ QB Kerry Collins horrid day laced with four INTs. A 34-7 Ravens victory did not accurately tell the story of how well the defense played that day. Lewis was named Super Bowl MVP to add to his trophy collection.
Oddly, it was QB Trent Dilfer who did the Disney World promo “I’m going to Disney World” instead of Lewis. The following year, five Raven defensive players were pictured on the cover of the annual NFL Record and Fact Book, but without the face of Lewis.
By 2003, the NFL let go on their stance with Lewis and he became a mainstay in advertising and video games. Ironically, it was former Browns’ great Jim Brown who was in Lewis’ corner the most, telling folks how much the LB inspired others and was a student of the game. Brown recognized the quality of the game he himself played, but in the same breath recognized the brilliance of the athletes today.
And with that sign of mutual respect, the Browns-Ravens gate finally closed.