The World According To Oz

Back in 1981, I was introduced to fantasy football by a friend named Bob Dillon. No, not that Bob Dylan but Bob Dillon. Bob was involved in a fantasy league with co-workers and for some reason that has never been explained to me, the game was called Gnu Football. We pronounced it with a hard "G" but something tells me that somewhere along the way it was really meant to be silent and pronounced "new", perhaps some clever and cool way to spell new -- much like they spell "phat" these days.

I was intrigued by the idea of being a General Manager in Gnu Football. After all, the Colts were in the midst of a 2-14 season so something new was welcomed. How cool it was to own and manage your very own football team. Joe Montana, Dan Fouts, Kenny Anderson and Steve Bartkowski were a few of the big names at quarterback; George Rogers, Walter Payton and Earl Campbell a few of the prized RB's; Roy Green and Kellen Winslow were sought after receivers. Trades and the draft and championships were all at your fingertips and those fingertips pushed the buttons to your franchise as you so pleased. You were in control.

Back then, the game was much less sophisticated. There was no worldwide web. There were no resources dedicated solely to the game of fantasy football. We were left to our own devices, our own intuition and the secret of Street & Smith's Pro Football Guide. 

Our drafts weren't conducted online. They were done in someone's basement or in some Bingo Hall on an off night. We had an easel and a marker and that's it. Have at it and may the best man pull the wool over the eyes of opposing franchise owners.

After a strike shortened 0-8-1 season in 1982 followed by a 7-9 season in 1983, the Colts bolted out of town. With no team to root for and only teams to hate (the Colts & the Redskins), Gnu Football became even more important in filling the gaping football void created by the Colts exodus. Looking back, my friend Bob Dillon may as well have sung:

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Yes they certainly did! But thankfully I was a GM/Owner of the NZone Dancers. At least I had that.

Much has changed since my early days in fantasy football and since the Colts left for Indianapolis. Today fantasy leagues incorporate many scoring systems, transaction fees, trade fees and salary caps. There are thousands of resources to assist in scouting. And those resources are vital to assimilating the information needed to effectively compete. The GM's in fantasy leagues today have more to consider as do the GM's in the NFL. Reality imitates fantasy? Life imitates art?

Speaking of art, Art Modell could never be his own GM these days. There was a time when Art didn't think that a GM was necessary and he once made many of the decisions for his team that today are made by General Managers. The game grew more sophisticated. Teams were more challenged. Art needed help and he looked no further than a former player who had a keen eye for talent. Ozzie Newsome was brought along by Art to learn how to run an organization. 

Today Ozzie Newsome is considered to be among the league's best GM's. Quietly or not so quietly, we envy Ozzie. We'd love to assume a position like his. How cool would it be to run an NFL franchise? Not a fantasy franchise -- an NFL franchise? To do something that you love so much, you would do it for free but get paid handsomely for it? 

That's not to say that Ozzie's world is nirvana. But to have the resources of the Ravens, their organization and leadership and you are the principal conductor of this finely tuned orchestra -- would that be a slice of heaven? Would that be like the Land of Oz? 

That's not to say or even suggest in the most subtle of ways, that Ozzie's world is easy. But is anything truly rewarding easy? In Ozzie's world, there are stiff challenges -- challenges that he faces every single day. Every time a player is hurt; every time a player bears psychological scars or loses confidence; every time a player loses a loved one; every time a coach disagrees with his decisions; every time the owner questions a choice; every time a player gets in trouble off the field; every press conference; every draft pick; every player signing; every day managing the cap in a way that maximizes productivity on the field; every time there's a change at quarterback; every time there's a hold out. All of these things are managed on a daily basis without losing focus of the big picture -- while keeping a watchful eye towards the future. 

Ozzie's job lies within a glass for the world to see. But he's human. He makes mistakes. He has his own personal challenges outside of football to deal with. He sits atop an illuminated stage while we sit in the dark and dare to take shots when a rare mistake occurs -- when a Terrell Owens trade takes the team out of the wide receiver market.

Ever have a bad day? Did you ever have to go to work on such a bad day? Ever make a mistake on such a day? We all have. We're distracted and preoccupied at times by the things that trouble us. If you are a brick layer and things are bothering you, is your brickwork your best? An accountant audits a company's books -- might one have slipped by the CPA? A salesman carries his attitude into an appointment with a prospective new client. Might he lose the sale? A wide receiver has a sick baby girl at home, might he drop a pass? A coach loses his Mom, might he make a bad call on Sunday?

Most of us would love to be involved in professional sports in nearly any capacity. But the fact remains, we are all human. We all make mistakes. But most of us have jobs that have lower profiles than a professional athlete, NFL coach or GM.

A player has a few beers and gets a DUI. The entire world finds out the next day. If it happens to you, it's a dark family secret. Musa Smith's younger brother John was in a coma for three weeks from a mortar blast while serving his country. Might that be something that Musa carries into practice or a game? Trent Smith's loses his Mom after a terrible battle with cancer. Might that affect his concentration or disrupt his rehabilitation? These players are not robots, they are men. Underneath the football armor, they are citizens just like you and me except for one thing -- money. It doesn't make them better or worse. But with the money comes a certain level of expectation. After all, they are paid so well because they are the best at what they do on the entire planet. All of the millions that have played the game of football, these players are among the 1,700 best.

But these athletes and the games they play represent our release or one of them anyway. They help us to get away from it -- whatever your "it" is. And when these athletes fail to perform to our standards and our level of expectation, we sometimes take it harder than they do. "How could Travis Taylor drop that pass? I could've caught that!" "C'mon Boller, he was wide open!" "How hard can it be to remember the snap count?"

How hard can it be to remember to update your anti-virus? Oh you didn't and now your whole network at the office is down?

In the past we've heard Brian Billick speak of his players -- players like Travis Taylor who he's referred to several times as a "fine young man." When a coach sees his players put in the work…put in the time, the blood, the sweat and tears and that player drops a pass, he is more likely to look the other way and let it go by without punishment. He knows the player and his commitment to the team and his efforts to succeed. The failure to execute may initially be more distressful to the coach than anyone. He has more at stake. Yet the coach is also aware of the effort and the dedication that we as fans aren't privy to. And that effort numbs the pain of poor execution. We on the other hand, want to bench the player or cut him or trade him and Orlando Brown and Bennie Anderson for Marvin Harrison, right? Tell me there isn't someone in your section that doesn't spout out things like that. Tell me after a few adult beverages at your tailgate party that there has never been a loose cannon firing off such uninformed and borderline preposterous ideas.

It's ok to gripe, to feel pain, to offer suggestions, to scream catch the friggin' ball! It says you care. But at the end of the day, be happy that there's this overseeing presence -- this calming influence in the storm of emotion that sweeps through a stadium filled with distraught fans after a poor performance. That guiding hand of Oz that directs the big picture, understands the journey and provides the ship's rudder.

Chris McAlister may hold out this summer and skip training camp. Do you think that will make Ozzie blink even a little? He might if he were Butch Davis or Carmen Policy. But thankfully he isn't. McAlister is only exacerbating the problem if he holds out. By signing the franchise offer and performing on the field in a manner that he did during the final 12 weeks of the season in 2003, McAlister will get the contract that he desires. But only then. Failing to do so, will only confirm the Ravens fears. And rambling on to The Sun's Mike Preston about his need to be socially active certainly doesn't help matters, particularly when you take swipes at your teammates. Either way, Ozzie has the leverage and the sooner McAlister understands that, the better off he'll be. Oz has it under control.

Ozzie's eye on the big picture trickles down. It trickles down to Brian Billick who eventually concedes to Ozzie. Right player, right price. Manage the big picture. Hence no Kerry Collins. Ozzie‘s influence even trickles down to Ray. Recently Ray said, "It's simple. . . . Our goal is Jacksonville. If we speak about anything other than Jacksonville, we're shorting ourselves right now. Our span is that we probably have about a three-year span left, to keep this core together, so why not do it now? Everybody knows it. That's the exciting part of it." As great a leader as Ray is, would he be making such visionary statements without the direct or indirect influence of Ozzie?

Keep in mind that these players are men, that they have lives outside of football and we can't just wind them up on Sunday and hope that they perform like robots. They make mistakes yet they are among the very best at what they do. Six of the Ravens have been ranked in the Top 50 in their profession by CBS Sportsline. They are among the best and they are led by the best. Criticize the trade, gripe about the legal battles and the holdouts, praise the success, enjoy the tailgates and your friends and scream jet engine cheers at The Vault. Continue to feel that passion but know one thing -- the National Football League is not the Gnu Football League. Think that you can run the organization better than Ozzie? Get real. It's pure fantasy. 

In the fantasy Land of Oz, they chose not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. In the world of Ozzie Newsome, you would be wise to pay attention to the man behind the Ravens.

Tony Lombardi is a diehard Ravens fan and also a writer and manager of Ravens24x7.com and host of GAMETIME, a Ravens talk show which airs every Sunday morning from 8-10 on Ravens Radio, AM 1300 The Jock


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