With the start of 2022 NFL training camps set to get started in just over a month, the need for football to fill my days’ increases. I found myself watching videos of the Baltimore Ravens during the mid-2000s and thinking, “What If?”. Baltimore fielded some very good football teams during the Brian Billick era. Much to the chagrin of the fans, Kyle Boller was at the helm for the majority of Coach Billick’s tenure. I can’t even type out his name without wanting to dry heave.
We were given a reprieve from the Boller era when Baltimore acquired former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair. The late quarterback was the answer to our prayers. With “Air McNair” leading the way, Baltimore had Super Bowl aspirations.
Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick knew that the 2006 season was imperative to keep his job. Righting the ship was at the forefront of the organization after a 9-7 finish in 2004 and a 6-10 finish in 2005. Billick had the coaching staff in place to help lead this veteran squad back to the playoffs. Rex Ryan was leading the defense, and former New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel was leading the offense. Current offensive coordinator Greg Roman was the assistant offensive line coach.
Rick Neuheisel was in charge of the quarterbacks’ room that featured the incumbent Boller and Steve McNair. Neuheisel would become the head coach of the UCLA Bruins a few years later. Between the 2006 NFL Draft and their free agency, Baltimore was heading in the right direction.
Baltimore selected future Hall of Fame defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, number twelve overall in the 2006 NFL Draft. Ngata made an immediate impact his rookie year and would later go on to win a Super Bowl with the team in 2012. Safety Dawan Landry and punter Sam Koch were taken in later rounds of this draft. Punter Sam Koch announced his Ravens retirement last month after a stellar 16-year career.
Air McNair To Charm City
The biggest impact move the Baltimore Ravens made in the 2006 offseason came in the form of trading for Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair. A month before the start of 2006 training camp, Baltimore sent a 2007 fourth-round draft pick to Tennessee for the veteran signal-caller. McNair’s former favorite target, wide receiver Derrick Mason, was already in town. So familiarity was not an issue for the veteran quarterback. Baltimore also had veteran tight end Todd Heap and running back Jamal Lewis hitting his prime. The offensive line was anchored by Hall of Fame left tackle Jon Ogden.
Steve McNair ended up having a career year in his first season as a Raven. He passed for over 3,000 yards with 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. McNair also had a career-high 63% completion rate, which is impressive considering he was in his 12th season. The 2006 season marked the fourth in his career that he played in and started all 16 games.
The Supporting Offensive Cast
Baltimore had their guy at quarterback. Running back Jamal Lewis was entering 2006 with full health after being banged up during the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Lewis ran for 906 yards in 2005 and averaged under four yards a carry for the first time in his career. Although 2006 would be the final season in Baltimore for the bruising running back, Lewis had a bounce-back year in 2006, rushing for 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns. That stat line was decent enough, averaging roughly 71 rushing yards per game.
Steve McNair’s former Titans wide receiver Derrick Mason arrived in Baltimore in 2005 after eight years catching passes together in Tennessee. Everyone was assuming the tandem would recreate their Titan magic and light up the league. What we got was the complete opposite. Mason recorded his worst statistical year as a Baltimore Raven. He amassed only 750 receiving yards and two touchdowns. In theory, Mason accounted for a quarter of McNair’s passing yards but only caught two of Steve’s 16 touchdowns.
Veteran tight end Todd Heap was the second leading receiver for the 2006 season. Heap, known for his fearless playstyle, benefitted from having McNair at quarterback. In my humble opinion, Kyle Boller shortened what could have been a Hall of Fame-type career if it weren’t for consistently leaving Heap hanging out to dry over the middle of the field for three consecutive years. The season before, Heap missed 11 games due to injuries. Todd would go on to play in Baltimore for four more seasons.
Second-year wide receiver Mark Clayton had his break-out campaign during the 2006 season. Clayton caught 67 passes for 939 yards and nine touchdowns. He doubled the output of his rookie year with McNair at the helm as opposed to Kyle Boller. He was the unexpected spark to the pass-catching group. Clayton never replicated his production in the years to follow. While he never lived up to the first-round expectations, Mark Clayton is still a popular Raven and is still involved with the organization.
The heading is very short and simple—the defense. For any football fanatic in love with defense, this team featured a terrifying and smothering defense. This defense is held in regard as the second-best Baltimore Ravens defense ever assembled. A portion of the fan base would argue that they were better than the historic 2000 defense.
The defense was aggressive and fast, led by Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis and Hall of Fame free safety Ed Reed. This unit featured future Hall of Fame outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg, defensive end Trevor Pryce, defensive end/linebacker/safety/gunner Adalius Thomas and inside linebacker Bart Scott. Cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle wreaked havoc on the outside of the hash marks.
This defense was relentless. Defensive end Trevor Pryce led the team with 13 sacks. Adalius Thomas added 11 sacks. Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs added 9.5 sacks each. As a whole, the defense amassed 60 sacks for a total of 410 yards lost in 16 games. Ray Lewis and Bart Scott each totaled 103 tackles. Adalius Thomas totaled 83 tackles while playing linebacker, defensive end, and strong safety at different points of the season.
When it came to the passing defense, they averaged nearly two interceptions per game during the regular season. Chris McAlister had six interceptions, two going for touchdowns. Ed Reed and rookie Dawan Landry each had five interceptions. Baltimore tallied 28 interceptions and five defensive touchdowns that year. To say this defense was stingy is an understatement. Opposing teams averaged a measly 54% completion percentage, 214 passing yards per game, 75 rushing yards per game, and just over one offensive touchdown surrendered per game. This was shades of the 2000 team reincarnated.
What Went Right?
Baltimore started the first month of the 2006 season with four wins. They shut out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-0 on the road in Week One. In the Week Two home opener, Baltimore stifled Oakland 28-6. Baltimore would go on to drop two straight games, the first being Week Five in Denver on Monday Night Football and Week Six at home versus the Carolina Panthers. After their Week Seven bye, Baltimore went on a five-game win streak, averaging 28 points per game. Their lone second-half loss was a Thursday Night clunker in Cincinnati 13-7 in November. Baltimore would follow the poor performance with another four-game win streak.
The Baltimore Ravens had a few hiccups or missteps during the 2006 campaign. The defense was the best it had been since Super Bowl XXXV. The offense found its groove under Steve McNair. The team even managed to clinch a first-round bye week. They finished the season 13-3 and seemed to be clicking on all cylinders. Then, that fateful January night at The Bank.
There is no other way to describe this game. Aside from the 2011 AFC Championship loss in New England and the 2019 AFC Divisional loss to the Titans, the loss to the Indianapolis Colts was absolutely brutal. The 2019 AFC Championship game was like DeJa’Vu. The offense fell flat after steamrolling everyone in their path. The 2006 Divisional Championship game was the first heartbreak for many Ravens fans. After the year they had offensively, the offense mustered up six points! Six!
This game was Baltimore’s for the taking. There weren’t many times during Peyton Manning’s career where he threw for under 200 yards with zero touchdowns and two interceptions. The defense was damn near perfect that evening. They held Peyton Manning and Co. scoreless. The game was decided by field positions and field goals. Legendary kickers Adam Vinatieri and Matt Stover did the best they could, given the weather and field conditions. After a few costly Baltimore turnovers, the Colts edged the Ravens 15-6.
Without a doubt, this Baltimore Ravens squad should have won the Lombardi Trophy. It’s dangerous to play the “if” game, especially when it comes to the Baltimore Ravens. A couple of bad breaks and mistakes were the difference in the outcome of the 2006 Ravens season. The same could be said for the 2011 season- the Lee Evans drop, the 2014 two-blown leads game in New England, and the 2019 Titans letdown. While you can argue for and against the aforementioned teams, the 2006 Baltimore Ravens will always be the quintessential “What If” story of the historic franchise.