Since the hiring of Coach John Harbaugh in January, the Baltimore Ravens have embraced the concept of teamwork, and have come together as one unit to reverse the fortunes of the previous year's 5-11 outing.
With double-digit victories in 2008, there is no doubt that, above all, Coach Harbaugh deserves credit for taking a group of so-called "malcontents" and turning them into winners. However, here are 10 other individuals who deserve Team MVP honors for their contributions on the field:
(In no particular order)
1) Joe Flacco, QB -- The 18th overall selection of the 2008 NFL Draft went from relative unknown at the University of Delaware, to the centerpiece of an efficient offense that has erased all doubts about the ability of a former Division I-AA product. Flacco earned the starting job by default after preseason ailments to incumbents Kyle Boller and Troy Smith, and has never looked back since. His performance this season is nothing short of remarkable, as he has stood up to some of the NFL's elite pass defenses -- and walked away with victories. With the postseason in reach, Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome deserves credit for taking a chance on the former Blue Hen -- and Flacco deserves credit for giving Ravens fans no reason to doubt him.
2) Ray Lewis, LB -- Super Bowl MVP. 10 Pro Bowl selections. 2-time Defensive Player of the Year. And in his 13th season, Ray Lewis still hasn't finished writing the chapters to one of the greatest careers in NFL history. Even at 33 years of age, Lewis is playing like a young lion, with the same intensity that has willed his team to victory for over a decade. Having totaled 100 tackles for the 11th time of his illustrious career, #52 has had a string of dominance unlike none other. His leadership is the main reason that the Ravens have embraced John Harbaugh's new style that promotes team over individuality. And more importantly, Ray Lewis is the reason why the Ravens have a chance to win whenever he takes the field.
3) Derrick Mason, WR -- One of the most underrated receivers in the league, Derrick Mason has put his stamp on his tenure in Baltimore that has made Ravens fans embrace him even more as one of their own since signing as a free agent in 2005. The former Tennessee Titan once again leads his team in receptions and receiving TDs, as has been the case throughout most of his career. More importantly, his leadership is indicative in his heroic exploits in the final game at Texas Stadium against the Dallas Cowboys; after re-aggravating a dislocated shoulder, Mason continued to play, finishing the night with 6 receptions for 66 yards and a crucial score that would help the Ravens upset the Cowboys despite overwhelming odds. Mason's performance this season is the stuff of Baltimore legend, and #85 shows no sign of slowing down.
4) Haloti Ngata, DT -- In the Ravens' Super Bowl-winning season, Ray Lewis had the benefit of nose tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams to occupy opposing linemen as he hunted down running backs. This season, Lewis has Haloti Ngata to thank for another MVP-caliber season. Ngata, a Pro Bowl snub, has played on-par with the league's best defensive tackles, yet remains virtually unknown to casual fans because of his lack of name recognition. Playing on a defense filled with superstars, Ngata has risen up to his teammates' level of play on several occasions, and has made highlight reel-worthy plays of his own. Though Ngata's 2008 campaign may be remembered by some fans for his eye-popping interceptions, Ravens fans will remember Ngata for the dirty work he has done in maintaining Baltimore's defensive reputation.
5) Sam Koch, P -- Though special teams is an integral part of football, individuals other than flashy return specialists and clutch placekickers are often overlooked. However, given the Ravens' long history of QB ineptitude, punters are often more revered than the players under center in Baltimore. Despite Joe Flacco's phenomenal performance this season, Sam Koch is arguably just as popular with Ravens fans for his consistency this season in winning the battle of field position. Numerous times this season, Koch's punts have been placed within the 20-yard line, thanks to his new soccer-style drop technique introduced by coordinator Jerry Rosburg. However, technique or no technique, the raw strength of Koch's leg has manifested itself in booming kicks that are arguably good enough for long field goal attempts. With Matt Stover as his field goal-scoring counterpart, thankfully, there will be no need for Koch to ever assume the role of placekicker -- even if he is just as reliable as any kicker in the league.
6) Ed Reed, FS -- Rarely has a player been as dominant in the defensive secondary as Ed Reed. With jaw-dropping plays left and right, Reed has established himself as one of the premier defensive backs in the league -- and one of the best all-around players in the NFL, period. Often, his #20 has resembled an 'S' on his chest, as he flies seemingly out of nowhere, only to end up with the ball in his hands. At the rate he has played, Reed will go on to break former Ravens safety Rod Woodson's career record for interceptions returned for TDs, and is on pace to break former teammate Deion Sanders' record for defensive TDs. Even with a serious nerve impingement in his neck that threatened his career at the start of the season, Reed continued to play at an all-world level and has shown that this Superman has no kryptonite.
7) Le'Ron McClain, FB -- Even though his official designation on the roster is listed as fullback, Le'Ron McClain has taken charge of his new role as one-third of the Ravens' AFC-leading rushing attack and refuses to look back. As an unofficial running back, McClain leads the team in rushing yards and TDs, and has eclipsed star teammate Willis McGahee on the depth chart. With fellow fullback Lorenzo Neal bowling over defenders, the 2008 Ravens' rushing attack resembles the San Diego Chargers -- even if LaDainian Tomlinson had an unremarkable year by his lofty standards. The Ravens, unlike the Chargers however, have three runners with distinct styles that enable the unit to diversify the game plan. And Le'Ron McClain's bruising carries set the tone that enable his teammates to carry the same swagger as the Ravens' vaunted defense.
8) Terrell Suggs, LB -- Despite a temporary holdout in the preseason for a contract extension, Terrell Suggs has not missed a beat, with his 2008 performance more than justifying a new contract in the offseason. Though his dominance is not reflected in the numbers, Suggs has been a feared pass rusher all year, pressuring QBs almost as often as his NFC counterpart, the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware. Additionally, Suggs' work in coverage has baited QBs into interceptions, and his presence on the edge has allowed teammates to collect sacks and stuff opposing running backs. The statistics may not show that #55 is having a career year, but his game film certainly does.
9) Jim Leonhard, S -- After quietly signing as a free agent following his tenure with the Buffalo Bills, Jim Leonhard has proven to be arguably the Ravens' best offseason acquisition. Starting in place of the injured Dawan Landry, Leonhard has filled in admirably, ranking in the top five on the team in tackles. Additionally, Leonhard's versatility has helped remarkably on special teams, often giving the Ravens prime field position when he has subbed in as a returner. Though his performance will create an interesting dilemma when Dawan Landry returns next season to reclaim his starting job, Jim Leonhard has given the Ravens' defensive secondary depth that even the elite teams in the NFL do not have this season.
10) Jason Brown, C -- In only his fourth year, Jason Brown began the season as the elder statesman of a young Ravens offensive line in need of leadership after the retirement of Jonathan Ogden. Though former Cincinnati Bengal Willie Anderson would be signed shortly before the start of the regular season, Brown remained the leader of the unit throughout the season, and has largely been responsible for helping to protect rookie QB Joe Flacco. For all of the success that the offense has had both through the air and on the ground, much of it can be traced back to Brown's leadership by example, and his remarkable consistency at such a young age. As this offensive unit continues to grow, it will surely grow along with the play of Jason Brown.
These 10 players exemplify the Baltimore Ravens and the new direction in which the team is heading.
Coach Harbaugh had been quoted earlier this season as saying that the Ravens will eventually become a model organization, and will go on to become a dynasty on par with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Dallas Cowboys, the San Francisco 49ers, and the New England Patriots. As the 2008 season comes to an end, and with the postseason in sight, Coach Harbaugh's vision may come to fruition sooner than later...