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Th3 Num8ers G4me

November 11, 2009

Trying to Make Sense of Ravens Young Record Book

By John Eisenberg

The Ravens have won a Super Bowl, established a winning tradition and pretty much taken over the town since coming to Baltimore 13 years ago. But in one way, they’re still sporting teenagers trying to mature into adulthood. When it comes to records, their statistical footprint, they still have some growing up to do.

Who, for instance, is their career passing leader? In terms of yardage, it’s none other than -- drum roll -- Kyle Boller, their disappointing 2003 first-round draft pick and hardly a record-holder who sends chills down your spine.

Who has the most pass receptions in team history? Todd Heap just passed the 400-catch career mark earlier this season, and Derrick Mason isn’t far behind. But while those are certainly quality players, the Dallas Cowboys’ all-time receptions leader, Michael Irvin, has (750) as many as Heap and Mason combined. 

“The simple fact is, it takes many years to develop a set of records that are built for the ages,” said Bob Eller, Ravens’ vice president of operations, who edited media guides in both Cleveland and Baltimore, turning him into a keen observer of football records and statistics. “It’s all a function of finding players who stay with you a long time and perform at a high level. We’re not doing so badly in some cases.”

That is true. While franchise records, like freshly-planted trees or long-range business investments, take decades to mature, the Ravens have already sprouted some formidable numbers.

Matt Stover’s total of 1,464 points scored in a Ravens’ uniform should stand for a long time. The Green Bay Packers, whose NFL history dates back to 1922, don’t have a career scorer within 400 points of Stover, who booted 354 field goals and 402 extra points for the Ravens from 1996 through last season. He is closing in on 2,000 for his overall career, including his time in Cleveland and Indianapolis.

Ed Reed’s career total of 45 interceptions (through Oct. 2009) is also a healthy number that figures to rise with Reed, 31, still playing at a Pro Bowl level. The Packers’ career picks leader has 52.

And of course, career totals aren’t the only records in the Ravens’ book. There are also single-season and single-game marks, and the Ravens have some beauties. Jamal Lewis’ 295-yard rushing effort against the Cleveland Browns in 2003 may never be topped. And no quarterback has come close to challenging Vinny Testaverde’s 4,177-yard single-season passing effort in 1996, the Ravens’ inaugural season.

Testaverde still holds a slew of team records, including most 300-yard games in a season (5), most passing yards in a game (429), and highest quarterback rating for a season (82.8). But Joe Flacco, the Ravens’ second-year quarterback, could soon rewrite those records and many others. He has already produced a 385-yard passing day, and with 2,044 yards through eight games, is on pace to surpass 4,000 for the season.

Statistics are a fundamental aspect of the sports world as well as an eternal fascination for millions. They help everyone from fans to owners better understand games, enjoy them and form opinions about them. They make (and lose) money for players at contract time, and they’re a critical aspect of such enduring debates as which players belong in a Hall of Fame or which should be acquired in a trade.

They originated on this continent more than 150 years ago as baseball, the first of today’s major sports to develop, became popular. Henry Chadwick, a British-born cricket expert who wrote about sports for New York newspapers, observed some of the first games and expanded the box score, helping fans better understand what they were seeing. When football and basketball came along a few decades later, they similarly developed bodies of essential numbers.

Baseball’s numbers are usually deemed more significant and interesting than pro football’s, for a variety of reasons. The NFL wasn’t nearly as organized or popular as baseball until the 1960s, and its record-keeping in its rollicking early years was far from perfect. As well, it’s hard to compare eras, with the NFL regular season having expanded from 12 to 14 to 16 games over the years, and with the game itself having changed dramatically, becoming much more offensive in nature. 

As a result, football doesn’t have many commanding numbers that stand on their own, like baseball’s 56, 714, and 2,131 -- Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, Babe Ruth’s career home run total and Cal Ripken’s record-breaking consecutive-games night.

“The NFL has never embraced its history with the same fervor as major league baseball,” said Jim Considine, a Baltimore statistician who ran the Ravens’ game-day statistical crew from 1996-2003 and now works on the Washington Redskins’ stat crew. “And they don’t because their record-keeping was shoddy for the most part. The system was poor. Nothing was consistent. The history of pro football really begins with the rise of NFL Films (in the 1960s). But people want numbers, and the NFL has responded saying, ‘OK, you want numbers, we’ll give you numbers.’”

The most significant football number in Baltimore history is 47, the number of games in a row Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas threw a touchdown pass from 1956-1960, setting an NFL record that still stands. Brett Favre has the second-longest streak, 36, set from 2002-04.

“Forty-seven is far and away the biggest football number here,” said Eller, who grew up in Baltimore, graduated from Towson University and worked for the Colts both here and in Indianapolis before joining the Browns’ front office in 1987. “It’s a great record because it transcends all eras. I’m not sure it will ever be broken.”

When he worked in Cleveland, Eller oversaw a lush statistical landscape. The Browns had been in business since 1946 and won numerous titles in both the NFL and the old All-American Football Conference, and their records reflected their impressive history.

Their career rushing leader was (and still is) Jim Brown with 12,312 yards. Their career receptions leader was (and still is) Ozzie Newsome, now the Ravens’ general manager, with 662 catches.

But when Art Modell moved the franchise and the Browns became the Ravens in 1996, leaving their old name and records behind in Cleveland, the team had to start from scratch statistically.

“It was a dramatic change, to say the least,” Eller said. “You went from a team with a lot of impressive records to a team with no statistical history. We were like an expansion team in that respect.”

To come up with a statistical yardstick against which the Ravens’ performances could be measured, Modell’s son David, the Ravens’ team president, devised the idea of including a “Baltimore Pro Football Records” section in the Ravens’ inaugural media guide. Eller asked Considine to compile the statistics and records of the Colts, who played here from 1953-83, and their predecessors, also named the Colts, who played in the AAFC from 1947-49 and the NFL in 1950.

“It was a rewarding project but challenging,” Considine said. “Looking back at the AAFC Colts, for instance, only one of four newspapers in town covered the team. The numbers from the games were hard to come by.”

The Ravens have grown their own statistics and records over the years, but they continued to include a “Baltimore Pro Football Records” section in their media guide through 2007. They still list some of those records on their Web site.

Today, the Ravens have been around long enough to develop statistics and records that compare with those of most other NFL teams. Although they still have some growing to do, they have set some significant records in their 13 years.

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis has compiled an astounding total of tackles, for instance -- 2,182 coming into this season. The four players after Lewis on the Ravens’ all-time list (Kelly Gregg, Jamie Sharper, Bart Scott and Peter Boulware) combined don’t match Lewis’ total.

But tackles weren’t kept at NFL games until the 1970s, Considine said, and they still aren’t recognized by the league as an official statistic.

Lewis’ most prominent statistical legacy will probably be as the leader of the Ravens’ Super Bowl-winning team which allowed just 165 points during the regular season, setting an NFL record for a 16-game season.

“That’s probably the most significant record we hold -- 165,” Eller said. “That was a special, special group of players, and that number says it all about them and their great defense. It will be a tough record to beat.”

If the Ravens in their first 13 years have produced any number that belongs with 47 as a local icon, it is that 165.

But look out for Flacco who, if his brilliant early career is any indication, might soon start producing the kinds of records that make headlines and endure for decades.

“It took us a while to find the right guy at that position,” Eller said. “Joe is already starting to ring up some nice numbers, and hopefully he will stay healthy and play for a long time, and his numbers will just continue to grow and grow. That will be fun to watch.”

Issue 143: November 2009