By Jeff Zrebiec
The Baltimore Sun
Former University of Alabama standout Ozzie Newsome, a fixture in the Baltimore Ravens organization since its inception, will step down as general manager after next season, handing the reins of the player personnel decisions over to Eric DeCosta, owner Steve Bisciotti said at Friday’s State of the Ravens address.
The 61-year-old general manager and executive vice president built two Super Bowl championship-winning teams in Baltimore, made the Ravens front office one of the gold standards in the league and has had a trailblazing career as a top NFL executive. Though he will no longer be the organization’s top decision maker, he will remain with the team in an unspecified role.
His decision to accept new responsibilities leads to the promotion of longtime lead assistant DeCosta.
DeCosta, who has been with the organization since 1998 when he was hired as an area scout, has been the Ravens assistant general manager since 2012. DeCosta, 46, turned down numerous opportunities to interview for open general-manager jobs over the years and Bisciotti had publicly declared him as the likely successor to Newsome.
The decision comes after the Ravens were beaten at home by the Cincinnati Bengals in a regular-season finale they needed to win to get back to the postseason. The loss was arguably the most devastating regular-season defeat in franchise history and prompted many fans to call for widespread change within the organization.
It marked the third consecutive season and the fourth time in five years that the Ravens didn’t make the playoffs. Since winning Super Bowl XLVII at the end of the 2012 season, the Ravens have a 40-40 record in the regular season, they’ve made the playoffs just once and they haven’t won an AFC North crown.
The number of empty seats during key home games at M&T Bank Stadium over the past two seasons was proof of a fan base that was no longer as inspired by a team that featured an inconsistent offense and a defense that developed a habit of blowing late leads in important games.
Newsome, who is beloved by Ravens fans and deeply respected around the league, hasn’t been immune to recent criticism. Known for his drafting acumen, Newsome and the Ravens have seemingly missed more on picks in recent years than earlier in his career and that hurt the team’s roster depth. Recent early-round picks Matt Elam, Arthur Brown,Breshad Perriman, Maxx Williams and Kamalei Correa have been huge disappointments, and loading up on defensive players early in drafts has left the Ravens short-handed at the offensive skill positions compared to their top rivals.
Still, Newsome will leave the Ravens general manager job with a sterling resume intact.
A Hall of Fame player, Newsome became the league’s first African-American general manager with the Ravens in 2002 and his leadership, team-building and decision-making skills have contributed to the organization’s rise into a perennial championship contender. His first-ever draft pick in 1996, offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden, is in the Hall of Fame, and his second one, Ray Lewis, is likely headed there this year.
Newsome had said in recent offseasons that he hadn’t even thought about stepping aside, that he was still enjoying what he was doing. When he’s not seen sitting in his trademark spots in the Ravens’ indoor and outdoor facilities watching the team practice, Newsome can usually be found either on the treadmill or in his office watching film.
It isn’t immediately clear what was the overriding factor in the decision. By all accounts, Newsome has maintained an extremely close relationship with Bisciotti and head coach John Harbaugh, and he’s in good health.
Still, there have been some challenging times for Newsome since celebrating the organization’s second Super Bowl. After a Ravens loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in November 2013, he was taken via ambulance to a local hospital because he wasn’t feeling well. Newsome returned to Baltimore the next day and said that all of the tests he took came out fine.
In 2014, Ray Rice’s domestic violence case cast a dark cloud over both the Ravens and the NFL. Newsome said the Sept. 8 phone call that he made to Rice to inform him of his release was one of the toughest calls he’s had to make. Newsome and Rice were also close, and Newsome maintained from the beginning that Rice didn’t lie to him or league commissioner Roger Goodell in describing the running back’s assault on his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, in the elevator of an Atlantic City, N.J., casino in February 2014.
But the Rice situation hardly marred Newsome’s legacy. He is so respected league-wide that he’s a member of two different policy-making committees in the NFL: the competition committee and the player care foundation board.
As a player, he spent 13 seasons with the Cleveland Browns, and was considered the most productive tight end in NFL history until Shannon Sharpe broke his records in 2001. Newsome was selected to three Pro Bowl teams and his 662 catches and 7,980 receiving yards both ranked fifth all-time among tight ends.
As an executive, he started as an area scout with the Browns in 1991, ultimately being elevated to director of pro personnel three years later. In 1996, owner Art Modell hired him as the Ravens’ vice president of player personnel after the team moved from Cleveland to Baltimore.
With the Ravens, 11 of his 22 first-round selections have been selected for at least one Pro Bowl game, and 18 of his picks have garnered Pro Bowl honors. Newsome’s ability to find and develop talent, and make at times difficult decisions in regard to the Ravens roster led to a familiar catchphrase at the team facility: “In Ozzie we trust.”
But Newsome, who was named NFL Executive of the Year in 2000 and has long been regarded as one of the top general managers in the league, continually redirected the praise, insisting the Ravens’ success was a result of sound ownership, stability in the front office and with the head coach, and an organizational philosophy of making sure everyone has a voice and a role, and was pulling in the same direction.
The crowning achievements for Newsome are building teams that won the Super Bowl in the 2000 and 2012 seasons. But one of the things Newsome is most proud of is the consistency that the organization has maintained. Since Newsome was named general manager in 2002, the Ravens went to the playoffs in eight of 16 seasons.
It will be up to DeCosta to carry on that standard.