As the sun was setting over the western end zone of M&T Bank Stadium last Thursday, I was standing on the mid-field emblem—a script B and an R married with the two flags which ensconce the helmets of the Big Ten-bound Terrapins—along with roughly a dozen other individuals. The stadium, 71,000 purple seats and two end zone jumbotrons, was completely empty. Somewhat eerie in the way a shopping mall is after the gates have been lowered, the confines in which the Baltimore Ravens call home was completely dark and silent, giving way only to the green glow of the M&T-branded signs which were perched at each end and the sporadic flash of smartphones trying to capture just the right angle.
A stadium nerd, I was fortunate enough to be in the town which locals refer to as “Charm City” thanks to the wonderful folks over at Crown Royal. As a marketing push of sorts, the Diageo-owned whiskey company decided to host their first (annual?) fantasy football league, dubbed “First and Crown.” A 16-team dalliance wherein teams are owned by various football-heavy markets, the draft also included a stadium tour and a whiskey tasting1prior to the year’s maiden gridiron voyage (featuring the hometown Ravens) was set to leave shore. Given my fondness of fantasy sports and my well-documented weakness for whiskey, it just made sense for me to embark on this one-day, one-night trip.
The draft itself went as well as one could have hoped2. The subsequent tour, however, merely served as a reminder of what could have been. The club level of M&T Bank Stadium serves as a museum of sorts, dating back to the AAFC and it’s eventual merger with the NFL. Unitas and Moore and Berry, Jim O’Brien’s game-winning field goal in Super Bowl V, the whole nine. Walking further down the hallway, images of Mayflower moving trucks served as the last wall of memorabilia prior to the section that included Ravens “Ring of Honor” member Art Modell and one of his many noted acts of cowardice.
Several portions of the Ravens’ confines are installed to give their team an advantage. The visiting team has to proceed through a distant tunnel en route to their locker room (roughly one-quarter the size of the home-team facilities) during halftime; the Ravens have a staircase behind the bench that gets them to their palatial expanse roughly four minutes earlier. They even get to pass by the Raven head at the bottom of the stairs. Rubbing it is said to bring good luck. I left M&T Bank Stadium in awe. The Super Bowls; the giant, remodeled Ravens locker room with the scent of freshly installed carpet; the seven-foot-high shower heads that were installed simply so Jonathan Ogden could shower while sporting a high fade.
As I was one of the 70,000 fans to proceed up the stairs on Sunday afternoon, away from my seats and toward a gate as the Browns squandered yet another home opener, I couldn’t help but think of where I was roughly three days earlier. If the Browns could not muster much of any offense at home, how did they plan on doing so against a team which will have been fitted with its Super Bowl rings just minutes earlier?3 The same team fresh off of an embarrassing 2013 debut that will also have had 10 days to gear up for their home team? Certainly, odds makers feel that the Ravens are bound to regress from last season’s triumph, but these are the same odds makers who said that the Browns were mere 1.5-point underdogs prior to their 13-point defeat at the hands of the not-very-good Miami Dolphins.
Those empty purple seats, the ones with the names Byner and Modell and Stover above them, would soon be filled. The silence would soon be overtaken by relative insanity. Ravens fans, those who I encountered, seem like an affable bunch. They still hate Robert Irsay for what he did many decades earlier, so they have a sense of understanding when it comes to what happened to the Browns in 1995. But that’s where it ends. Joe Flacco will see the tape; he has to be salivating about how putrid the Cleveland secondary was. Haloti Ngata will get to line up across from Oneil Cousins. Terrell Suggs is fantasizing about how far he can launch Chris Ogbonnaya into the ether.
I think the 6.5-point spread which is in favor of the Ravens heading into Sunday represent free money for anyone willing to take it. But I also know that this Browns team has stunned many of Super Bowl champions the season after. I have legitimate concern over what awaits the men in orange helmets. But I also rubbed that Raven head.
Landing the first-overall pick in a 16-team league is pretty damn lucky. Now we just have to hope Adrian Peterson’s knee stays intact. [↩]
Let me also point out how ridiculous it is that the Super Bowl champions do not get their home opener until Week 2 let alone against the Browns who now have to play the reigning champs on 10 days rest. [↩]