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Director Ken Rodgers on ‘The Bullies of Baltimore’ and giving a legendary defense their day in the sun

The VP of NFL Films speaks on how this collection of bold personalities makes their case as one of the greatest football teams in history.

AFC WildCard Game - Denver Broncos v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Let me throw some statistics out there (since we’re in a heavy analytics era). The 2000 Baltimore Ravens' defense allowed only 10.3 points average (the record low for a 16-game season), had 49 takeaways, and only allowed 970 yards of rushing total (another league record). That Baltimore Ravens team with players such as Ray Lewis, Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe, Jamal Lewis, the late Tony Siragusa, Trent Dilfer, and Sam Adams carried a hearty confidence that they were going to beat your team into submission.

That belief permeates from their head coach Brian Billick, the legendary defense which serves as the team's anchor, and an offense that understood their role with the inclusion of Dilfer into the starting role to get enough points as needed on their way to a 34-7 Super Bowl 35 win against the New York Giants.

The latest ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, The Bullies of Baltimore, co-directed by Ken Rodgers and Jason Weber, has a three-pronged foundation in giving this exceptional team of eccentric personalities their much-deserved flowers. First, there is archival footage from both the 2000 season and parts of the 2001 Hard Knocks series. Another is a 20-year reunion that occurred, bringing back pillars of that team for a lively and comical roundtable pitching their experiences. The last part is personal interviews, where their personalities shine through as much as they did during their heyday.

We spoke to Rodgers about his process of capturing the real essence of what made the 2000 Ravens special, the spirit of Goose, and if that all-time defense will make noise in today’s league.

The celebration of this legendary team is earmarked by the unfortunate passing of Tony “Goose” Siragusa. The Bullies of Baltimore begins and ends by acknowledging this loss. However, his clever, joking spirit has fingerprints all over The Bullies of Baltimore with his stories and being one of the anchors in the trenches on that defense. How did you balance the celebration and sorrow aspects of this story?

When we heard the news of Goose’s passing, there was a little concern about how that would affect the film's mood because it was so lighthearted and fun up on stage. After we watched the final cut after his unfortunate passing, we realized the live event, and this film could serve as an elegy to Goose. It was a tribute to the way he saw life and lived life. So, we didn’t put any more Goose in; we put in the best material. A lot of it happens to be Goose because he’s the ringleader. There were a lot of leaders on the team, but he was the ringleader of the circus. In the context of his passing, we realized that it meant so much more.

Knowing this was the last time he got together with his teammates. It adds a touch of sadness and bittersweetness. It also makes you appreciate the friendships. The energy that they had together on stage was that much more. You watch and say, “I can’t believe goose is gone.” At the same time, you think, “boy, I’m glad that these guys all got together one more time.” It was happenstance that the two happened so close to each other. In retrospect, it seems like it was meant to be that we happened to get these guys together one last time before he passed.

One of the strengths of this documentary is that it alternates from archival NFL Films footage, individual interviews, and the live event where the guys riffed off each other.

We interviewed all of these individuals separately many times because they’re so good. However, we also knew that this was the story of how they related to each other. We hoped their personalities would activate even more when they were together – feeding off each other. That’s exactly what happened. Coach Billick says at the beginning of this film, this allowed them to return to who they were in 2000. They relived 2000 together, both with individual and group memories. You can see it on stage.

I think the best example is Ray Lewis. He’s a very serious speaker and an intense person. It’s one of his best attributes. I couldn’t believe how often he just laughed on stage for 20 seconds straight at a time, listening to the stories being told by his friends. I’m not sure you would get that in an individual setting. Putting them together activated parts of their personality that only they know about each other.

It’s not the usual public-facing persona; it’s who they are. That added a new depth to the film that wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t put them up on stage in front of 2000 people.

I wanted to speak about Ray for a second. He’s known for bringing a sense of intensity and focus to everything he does. There’s an aura around him. We get to see the Gladiator/Maximus parallels, but when he’s around his former teammates, another fun side of Ray comes out. How was witnessing that dynamic play out in real-time?

He’s more intense in an individual interview because he brings himself back to that time and space where he was in that gladiator mentality. It’s easy for [Ray] to access that game day feeling and remember what it was like – in the locker room, the practice field, the weight room, etc. He had a much looser personality because he could have it around the people he trusted. So purposely fitting him next to Goose on stage was something we focused on. Let’s make sure that Shannon [Sharpe] is next to his offensive mate, Trent Dilfer, but Ray needs to be next to Goose, which helped. It helped bring Ray out of that seriousness and have fun.

I’m not sure that you see Ray has all that often because he’s often remembered as “Game Day Ray” instead of practice Ray or weight room Ray. That difference, I think, is palpable. I feel people will come out of watching the film feeling a lot different about not only Ray, but this team.

When we deservingly think of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, we focus on the dominance. However, this team struggled – particularly with the offense's scoring drought and a quarterback change mid-season. Did you learn anything new by putting together this documentary that you didn’t previously?

I didn’t realize how it never became a divided locker room. It would be tough today for a dominant defense and an offense that doesn’t score for five straight weeks not to have some public spat in the age of Twitter. And it never happened internally. The greatness of that team came from the leadership that never pointed fingers. It was the only reason they survived there, that crucible in the middle of a season where they stunk up the joint. I don’t think it would have happened without Trent Dilfer, either.

It takes a lot to subjugate your ego and say, “this is going to be a team that wins primarily from its defense.” That isn’t easy, and one of the things that they talked about often on stage and in their interviews is funny, but it’s also very instructive. I was amazed that the defense would tell the offense how many points they needed to score to win each week. Ray Lewis and Rod Woodson would tell Shannon Sharpe and Trent Dilfer to get us six points this week, and we’ll win.

That’s how much confidence there was. It was a “don’t worry, we have your back. Get six points, and we’re going to win this game because we’ve got you.” That defense supported the offense in a way that I’m not sure would happen very often. I give much credit to coach Billick for that and the players' leadership on both sides of the ball.

The game as we know it has become more of an offense-friendly NFL – with player safety at the forefront. The 2000 Ravens' defense is up there with the all-time greats like the 1975 Los Angeles Rams, the 1986 New York Giants, and recently the 2013 Seattle Seahawks. Given how the structure has drastically shifted, do you think this Ravens' defense would be as dominant today?

“Great “ and “best” – they’re tough words because it’s pretty all-encompassing. I will say this is the most dominant defense of all time. Their personalities and attitude were so dominant they added to their actual on-field skills. My favorite stat is that they played 20 teams in 20 games that year (16 regular season games and four playoff games), and only five teams scored more than 10 points.

They were so intimidating; this Ravens defense planned on having shutouts. Their personalities were bigger than any of the other great defenses. The other defenses have great players. But I’m not sure anyone had the dominant personalities on the field that intimidated you the way Goose, Ray, and Rod Woodson did,

The Bullies of Baltimore will air on ESPN on Feb. 5 at 8:30 p.m. ET. The film will be made available on ESPN+ immediately after its premiere.