NEW ORLEANS -- Former NFL owner Art Modell made two historic moves in his career, one of which Browns fans can't forget. But it's that other one that deserves to be mentioned now -- mostly because the Baltimore Ravens wouldn't be here without it.
I'm talking about his hiring of Ozzie Newsome as Baltimore's general manager.
A Hall of Fame tight end, Newsome has become a Hall of Fame general manager in Baltimore -- and he's there because Modell made him the first African-American GM in NFL history. That's not an argument to enshrine Modell in Canton; it's simply a statement of fact. He took a chance on someone he believed in, and look what happened.
He hit the lottery. Newsome may be the best GM in the business.
He runs one of pro football's most consistently successful and stable franchises. He drafts better than anyone out there. He makes smart and wise decisions that have Baltimore in the playoffs the past five years, including three appearances in conference championship games. And he has them in Super Bowl XLVII.
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Someone must be doing something right, and Ozzie Newsome is. But he wouldn't be doing it without Art Modell, and it's high time he gets mentioned for a move that didn't break the hearts of Browns fans.
"In the end," said David Modell, Art's son, "he understood the historic implications, but it had nothing to do with Art's decision. He had no notion as to the color of an individual's skin. It didn't matter to him. His decision was based solely on the fact that, after his playing career was over, Ozzie decided to get into personnel -- and it was over that time that his natural and incredible eye for talent came to the fore.
"Art's decision to elevate Ozzie to general manager of the Baltimore Ravens was purely a reflection of his confidence in Ozzie's abilities, period. The qualities that made Ozzie a Hall of Fame player are the same qualities he employs today. He's relentless. He works incredibly hard. He has great dedication. But, above all, he has what I regard as an astonishing eye for talent.
"In fact, he sat with Art and me before the Ravens' first-ever draft, and in evaluating who we might pick with the fourth choice that year , he said, 'If we pick Jonathan Ogden you'll be picking a player who'll be in the Pro Bowl every year and have a shot at the Hall of Fame.' That was the day before the draft. How about that?"
Ogden was not in the Pro Bowl every year, but he did make it 11 of his 12 pro seasons. He also has a shot at the Hall of Fame, just as Newsome predicted. In fact, he's one of this weekend's 17 finalists for Canton, along with Modell, and there's a strong feeling he makes it as a first-ballot choice.
But Ogden was only one of a litany of first-round scores by Newsome and the Ravens: Ray Lewis, Jamal Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Joe Flacco and Michael Oher. Look at a history of Baltimore's first draft picks, and it's a history of bull's-eyes -- with nearly all becoming starters who made immediate and significant impacts.
"Art did not hire a minority candidate," said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, "because he never saw that. He hired Ozzie, and that's to Art's credit.
"You look at the great coaches in this league, and you look at someone like Joe Gibbs. He did it with different quarterbacks. If the Ravens do, indeed, win they will have won two Super Bowls with two separate head coaches and two different quarterbacks. To me, that summarizes what a job Ozzie has done."
What makes the success of Newsome and the Ravens more compelling is that Baltimore almost always drafts near the bottom of the first round. Yet somehow it finds a star waiting to happen, and that's more than a coincidence; it's the work of a club ... and a general manager ... that knows talent.
Ray Lewis was the 26th pick in 1996. Todd Heap, a two-time Pro Bowl tight end, was the 31st selection in 2001. Ed Reed was the 24th choice in 2002. Flacco went 18th (2008), Oher was 23rd (2009) and I haven't even mentioned star running back Ray Rice. Baltimore found him with the 55th pick in 2008.
"Ozzie Newsome is very, very good," said former Dallas executive Gil Brandt, "but he's under the radar. He's not pounding himself on the chest and taking credit for everything. But he's like a river that has a steady flow."
The Ravens' lineup is the evidence. Of the 53 players on Baltimore's active roster for Super Bowl XLVII, 36 were either drafted or originally signed by Baltimore. One was last year's Defensive Player of the Year (Suggs) and another is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer (Lewis). With the Baltimore Ravens, the hits keep coming -- with the club drafting 15 Pro Bowl players -- and that's a credit to Newsome and the organization.
"How much do I respect Ozzie Newsome?" said one AFC coach. "A ton. It's just over and over again. I mean, Flacco every year wins playoff games again and again, and how does that happen in this day and age?"
I'll tell you how: Ozzie Newsome knows what he's doing. But so did Art Modell when he gave him a chance, and it's time he's recognized for it.