By Larry Fine
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Built on the NFL draft and a vision of the type of player that can lead the way, the Baltimore Ravens have climbed once again to the pinnacle, with a shot on Sunday at claiming their second Super Bowl title.
The Ravens were born in 1996 when the late Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell moved his team to Baltimore to fill a void left by the Baltimore Colts after their move to Indianapolis, and fashioned by the deft hand of general manager Ozzie Newsome.
In five seasons they had won the Super Bowl on the backs of their defense, and now with an offense acting as a full partner, Baltimore will take on the San Francisco 49ers at the Superdome in New Orleans with another NFL title on the line.
Newsome got the Ravens off to a rousing start with a powerful one-two punch in the first round of the 1996 NFL Draft.
A Hall of Fame tight end and the league's first African American general manager, Newsome selected linebacker Ray Lewis with the 26th choice, 22 picks after taking offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, a finalist this week for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 2000 the drafting of running back Jamal Lewis gave Baltimore a rushing attack that provided just enough offense to allow a daunting defense led by linebacker Lewis to carry them all the way to the NFL title.
Now in his 17th and final season, the 37-year-old Lewis has inspired these Ravens to go on a magical run to the Super Bowl.
They have overcome injuries, a change of offensive coordinators late this season, and the loss of four of their last five games to go on this playoff run, thanks in no small part to the stewardship of head coach John Harbaugh.
But one constant over all the years for the Ravens, besides on-field leader Lewis, has been Newsome, whose work is much appreciated by the Ravens head coach.
"So many things make him great," said Harbaugh. "First of all, he's a brilliant guy. He's a very smart man, and he's got a knack for understanding what's important.
"Ozzie's tremendous, and we would in no way, shape, or form be where we are without him."
While the early Ravens thrived on defense, setting an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season as they scored four shutouts on their way to a 2001 Super Bowl triumph, Newsome has helped Baltimore transition to a strong offense.
Five seasons ago marked a turning point for Baltimore, which hired Harbaugh after he had served 10 seasons as special teams coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and put in place a starting backfield that formed the nucleus of another Super Bowl run.
The Ravens found their quarterback by selecting strong-armed Joe Flacco with the 18th overall pick in 2008, and a brilliant, all-purpose running back in a second-round choice of Ray Rice.
They have continued adding pieces each year through the draft, and deftly added other key pieces that fit the mold, including powerful fullback Vonta Leach, hard-hitting safety Bernard Pollard and wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who receivers coach Jim Hostler says has helped galvanize the offense.
"Anquan Boldin had a big effect on all of us. The way he approaches this game, the way he works at it, the knowledge that he brings has funneled down and inspired me and the other players," Hostler told Reuters.
Boldin has helped mentor some of Baltimore's younger receivers, including deep threat Torrey Smith, joining team role models such as Lewis and nine-time Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, taken with the 24th pick of the 2002 draft.
Hostler said having those team leaders was no accident, and credited Harbaugh and current team owner Steve Bisciotti along with Newsome.
"That's Ozzie. That's John. That's Mr. Bisciotti," he said. "That's their plan. It starts with good people. People that want to be successful. Those kind of guys. And they recognize them and put them in our room, which is a huge advantage for us."