Anderson thrilled he joined Ravens

OWINGS MILLS -- Willie Anderson had reached a career crossroads in August, a point where only victories and not a pile of paychecks from a losing organization could ease the hurt feelings in his heart. The veteran offensive tackle had just been discarded by the downtrodden Cincinnati Bengals after a dozen seasons, treated as if he was totally washed-up and injury-prone.

All the 33-year-old lineman was looking for was the right place to keep playing football, somewhere that he could actually have hope for a meaningful playoff run.

And he surprisingly chose the Baltimore Ravens over the San Diego Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, picking a team coming off a 5-11 season. The Ravens were in need of a quality individual to provide wise leadership to a young offensive line reeling from the retirement of All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden, and Anderson fit the bill.

"Everyone questioned me about my decision, but I figured this team could be special," said Anderson, who followed the recommendation of Ravens quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson. "I figured with this team, this defense, great coaches, great organization, that this would be the right team for me. Hue told me when I was picking between here and Tampa Bay and San Diego that Joe Flacco is going to be a special quarterback, and if he comes along and the offensive line comes along, we'll be in the playoffs."

Now, the Ravens (12-5) are preparing for Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game against the top-seeded Tennessee Titans (13-3). And Anderson has injected experience, size and a physical nature to the blocking corps after general manager Ozzie Newsome convinced him to sign a three-year, $11 million contract.

"Big Willie" is regarded as the final, 6-foot-5, 340-pound building block on the foundation of an improved offense that features the NFL's fourth-ranked running game and allowed 33 sacks this season after surrendering 39 a year ago when Ogden was still playing.

"Ozzie bringing in Willie when he brought him in, when that thing happened, I think that was just vintage Ozzie Newsome from the way I understand it," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We knew we had a situation, we knew we wanted to upgrade there if we could with a veteran player and he was patient. He wanted to have the right guy, and it worked out.

"That may have been the best move any team made in August ever. It was just a great move by Ozzie and it made a big difference for us. Willie has just been tremendous for us. Not only is he a leader and a teacher, but he's a really good player."

He's a happier player, too.

Anderson made the Pro Bowl four times in Cincinnati, but he only reached the playoffs once and enjoyed only one winning season in 2005 when the Bengals were promptly booted out of the postseason by the Pittsburgh Steelers after winning the AFC North crown.

Since being drafted 10th overall out of Auburn in 1996, Anderson played on Cincinnati teams that went 76-116.

Watching the Ravens and Steelers revel in Super Bowl glory spawned emotions besides admiration in Anderson. It creating feelings of jealousy.

"It was very difficult watching rival division teams like the Ravens and Steelers going on to win the Super Bowl while we were always on the outside looking in," Anderson said. "We just kept asking ourselves, 'How come these teams keep getting better while we remain the same?' Being on a team like the Ravens is what I've prayed for my whole career."

Since taking over for an injured Adam Terry early this season, Anderson has played his way into shape since allowing three sacks to speedy Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis. Even when Terry recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery, he hasn't been able to unseat Anderson from the starting lineup.

"Willie brings a real sublime level of leadership," right offensive guard Chris Chester said. "He has no problem talking, but he's not one to yell or jump around to make a point. When he speaks, everyone hangs onto every word he says."

It took Anderson 12 long years to win an NFL playoff game, something he savored in the afterglow of the Ravens' 27-9 AFC wild-card victory over the Miami Dolphins.

Now, the Ravens are just two wins shy of reaching Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla.

"My past is behind me, this is my team now," Anderson said. "Now, I'm on a great team with a great group of guys and it feels good to be on a tough team with a lot of tough guys. I wouldn't have come here otherwise. The people that questioned me about coming here just didn't understand what was happening here in Baltimore."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

Notebook: Kokinis a step closer to Browns' GM job

Heap doesn't practice again due to back injury

By Aaron Wilson

OWINGS MILLS -- Now that Eric Mangini has been formally introduced as the Cleveland Browns' new head coach, the likelihood of Baltimore Ravens director of pro personnel George Kokinis joining his friend in Cleveland as the Browns' next general manager has increased markedly.

Although Kokinis can't interview for former Ravens executive Phil Savage's old job until after the Ravens' playoff game against the Tennessee Titans, he's regarded as the strong favorite to land the position since Scott Pioli and Tom Heckert are apparently no longer interested.

Mangini and Kokinis came up through the ranks together with the Browns and Ravens several years ago, and Kokinis is expected to interview as soon as Monday.

"He's an outstanding person, he's impressive and he's got tremendous substance," Mangini told Cleveland reporters during his introductory press conference. "That being said, what ultimately is important is to get the very best people we can get in here to fill each of the roles. We're going to go through that process and meet different candidates."

Mangini tried to lure Kokinis, 41, to the New York Jets twice, but it would have been a lateral move since Mike Tanenbaum had final-say authority over football operations in New York. Kokinis can only join the Browns if he's being hired as a general manager or a similar position where he contractually is assured of holding the trigger over personnel matters.

Kokinis has specialized in pro personnel for nine years, including six years as a director after working as a college scout for four years.

"If George Kokinis were to go there, it would be tough, it would be a disappointment," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "But then again, it would be an opportunity for George. We've got a lot of respect for George.

"George does a great job. He's had a huge impact on our team so far this year. Everybody knows that. It will be interesting to see how that goes."

Meanwhile, Mangini's hiring makes him the new coach on the block in the AFC North after being fired by the Jets. Harbaugh seemed to welcome his addition.

"We have a lot of respect for coach Mangini," Harbaugh said. "He's a good friend and a great coach, and it makes our division stronger. We look forward to the challenge of competing against him."

TRAINING ROOM: Tight end Todd Heap didn't practice again due to a lingering back injury and was walking very stiffly after practice in the locker room.

Heap sounded certain that he would play even though his injury seems to be more severe than what he's letting on.

"I'm feeling all right," he said. "I'll be ready to go."

Free safety Ed Reed didn't practice and is now dealing with an illness along with the knee injury he incurred in a 27-9 wild-card victory over the Miami Dolphins.

Wide receiver Derrick Mason (dislocated left shoulder) returned to practice on a limited basis. Cornerback Fabian Washington was added to the injury report with a neck injury, and was limited.

Defensive tackle Justin Bannan (foot), linebacker Jarret Johnson (calf), cornerback Samari Rolle (hamstring) and kicker Matt Stover (sprained right ankle) were limited, too. Stover said his ankle has improved.

"The ankle is doing all right," Stover said.

Rolle, who underwent neck surgery earlier this season, said there's no doubt that he'll play again next season. He's under contract through the 2010 season at more than $4 million per season.

For the Titans, center Kevin Mawae (right elbow) and defensive end David Ball (back) didn't practice for the second consecutive day and linebacker David Thornton (hip) was downgraded to not practicing. Cornerback Nick Harper (groin), safety Tuff Harris (calf), defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (knee) and defe nsive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (groin) participated fully.

MODELL ENDORSED: Harbaugh spent a few minutes after practice talking with former Ravens majority owner Art Modell, who didn't make the cut this year to be a finalist for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Former Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe and safety Rod Woodson are among the finalists.

Although Modell was instrumental in the AFL-NFL merger, the labor committee and helped form NFL Films and negotiated the deal to start Monday Night Football, moving the team from Cleveland has hurt his candidacy with selectors.

"There's no question in our mind that Art Modell should be in the Hall of Fame," Harbaugh said. "If you look back at his history and his record, and what he accomplished for the NFL as the NFL was becoming what it is today, nobody made a bigger contribution.

"All the great players who made the contribution are in the Hall of Fame. Here's a guy that made a contribution on about four or five fronts that were just critical to the development of this league and what it is being today. It's no question, he should definitely be in the Hall of Fame."

Harbaugh said he has spoken with Modell on a regular basis ever since he was hired in January by team owner Steve Bisciotti, including lunches in the team cafeteria.

"Sometimes, he shares observations that he has from a football perspective," Harbaugh said. "Other times, it's just chatting. He's excited about the game."

On Thursday, Modell wanted details from Harbaugh about the injury report. Unlike the intentionally vague answers Harbaugh usually gives to reporters where every player is described as hopeful, Modell got a full accounting.

"We told Mr. Modell," Harbaugh said. "No, we didn't mention 'hopeful.'"

RADIO: Free safety Jim Leonhard has been designated to wear the Ravens' radio-equipped helmet to communicate with the coaching staff after free safety Ed Reed and middle linebacker Ray Lewis declined to wear it, calling it distracting.

There were also concerns that Lewis would damage the equipment because of his head-knocking approach to the game.

Wearing the radio helmet hasn't bothered Leonhard, though. And the performance of the device has improved as the season has worn on.

"It's gone a lot better lately," Harbaugh said. "Probably the second half of the season, it's been smooth. Early in the season, it was a little bit spotty.

"I think we had some technical issues with it that seem to be worked out. We're expecting it to go smooth in Tennessee."

QUICK HITS: Harbaugh was upbeat following the team's third practice of the week. "We had a good practice, we were sharp and guys were excited to play," he said. "We're healthy, amazingly healthy probably for the fact that we turned it around so quickly. It was a good solid day. Guys seem excited, ready to play. Of course, this is such a big game, so we're looking forward to playing in it. They would play the whole thing in the next three days if they could, and that's just their mindset." ... The Ravens have had less injuries late in the season since an injury-plagued training camp. "The whole idea from the beginning has been we don't try to stay fresh, we try to become stronger," Harbaugh said. "Everything we went through in the offseason, through training camp, through the season, is the idea that you build strength, you build endurance, you build durability. Our guys have done a real nice job of that." ... Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan gets visibly excited on the sideline whenever anyone from his second-ranked defense delivers a big hit. "No question about that, I love it," Ryan said. "That's what you're all about. I think a big hit can change the momentum of a game faster than a turnover, so we're fortunate we have some guys who can deliver some big hits." ...

Referee Terry McAulay, a global network analyst for the Defense Department, is working the game. According to statistics compiled on officials, his crew calls the highest rate of face-mask penalties and the third-highest amount of offensive pass interference penalties with just seven defensive pass interference infractions all season. They have called the fifth-most false starts, ranking in the middle of the pack in total penalties assessed per game (13.5), penalty yards per contest (88) and home-team penalties (100). The Ravens were only penalized four times by this crew in a win over the Washington Redskins. One year ago, the Ravens were penalized a total of 21 times by McCaulay and his officials.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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