For fans of the acclaimed America's Game documentary series on NFL Network, you already know what to expect when the episode chronicling the 2012 Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl season debuts Monday night at 9 PM ET - the very best of NFL Films. Like the other episodes in the series that came before it, America's Game: 2012 Baltimore Ravens delivers a compelling retrospective on the championship journey.
The format for the show remains the same. Three integral figures from the team, Ray Lewis, Joe Flacco, and John Harbaugh, lead the viewer through the season with a celebrity narrator (this time it's Edward Norton) making the occasional appearance to fill in the gaps. The real centerpiece of the documentary though isn't any of the individuals - it's the sounds and pictures from NFL Films that have been a gold standard in the sports world for decades. America's Game isn't the official NFL Films highlight video and you're not going to get a recap of every game here. Rather, where this program excels is in telling the story of the season through the eyes of its most important characters. The Flacco-Harbaugh relationship is a key storyline throughout the introductory portion of the show, before we even get to Week 1.
Once the season starts, there are a few regular season games touched upon along the way. Torrey Smith's heroics in Week 3 against New England after the death of his brother. A last second Week 6 victory against the Cowboys and Week 12 against the San Diego Chargers.
The charm of America's Game isn't in covering what we all know about the season. It's in the way the principal figures are free to open up and reveal new details about the season, like Sean Payton and his superstitious Juicy Fruit habits. One of the highlights of this episode is Flacco laughing and admitting he had no idea why he threw a check down to Ray Rice on 4th & 29 at San Diego on what was one of the plays of the season.
There's also several other revealing tidbits worth noting including how the Ravens responded after a closed door meeting, their inspiration drawn from meeting Muhammad Ali, and John Harbaugh's thinking into replacing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with Jim Caldwell midseason. And of course, there are the riches of the NFL Films vault showing candid moments - from Flacco telling his teammates to come off the sideline to prevent a winning 49ers TD on the last play of the Super Bowl to Terrell Suggs quoting Scarface in smacktalking Broncos fans to keep his mind off the cold.
In what comes as no surprise, Ray Lewis dominates the program. There's a conflicted feeling when Lewis is on screen. At times you're truly drawn in to this all time great player and leader and the incredible way in which he exited the game on top. Other times, he seems like a delusional egomaniac that really does think he is "THE GENERAL" and believes the globe should have stopped spinning on its axis for his retirement tour. When John Harbaugh talks about the linebacker convincing him that his dancing was all about the team and not himself, it's a perfect symbol of all that is the Ray Lewis persona.
But when Lewis drops the war analogies and inspirational cliches, we also get a glimpse into what he may be in his new career as an ESPN NFL analyst. Lewis was engaging and honest and even unleashed this line on Jacoby Jones' dramatic touchdown at Denver in the playoffs, "That's the first time in an 80,000 plus stadium you could hear a rat piss on cotton." I for one can't wait to hear that uttered on Monday Night Countdown.
For their part, Flacco and Harbaugh were equally as engaging as Lewis. Harbaugh in particular was thankfully free from the Belichickian coachspeak that promulgates through the profession and actually seemed to enjoy sitting down to talk to viewers about his team. A novelty.
There is one last part that stood out upon watching America's Game that must be mentioned. It's a moment that might go unnoticed for most viewers, but caught my eye given the current news cycle. When covering the AFC Championship Game, Bernard Pollard's hit on Stevan Ridley is spotlighted as the most significant play of the game. A play that forced a turnover, but also knocked Ridley out cold.
Ridley suffered a concussion and admitted not remembering the play afterwards. However, the Pollard hit is held up as a play that established the toughness and identity of the Ravens team. Although it's never mentioned and the hit isn't overly glorified, you can easily see Ridley laying on the ground in multiple replays. Even in a program of this caliber, you can't help but notice the current shadow hanging over the league in the background.