Gold-medal streak: Inside the Ravens' 19-game record of summer dominance

John Harbaugh always wants his team to play to win, but he doesn't overemphasize winning during the preseason. AP Photo/Nell Redmond

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It was Aug. 11, 2016, and the Baltimore Ravens captured their first of 19 straight preseason wins with a 22-19 victory over the Carolina Panthers. And the most memorable moment had nothing to do with football.

Late in the fourth quarter, the Ravens players and fans celebrated after watching hometown hero Michael Phelps win his 22nd Olympic gold medal on the M&T Bank Stadium video board. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton raised both arms in the air, and Ravens safety Eric Weddle talked about how he would share this story with his children 20 years later.

“I remember [Phelps] winning, and that’s maybe the loudest applause of the night,” Ravens kicker Justin Tucker said this week.

Like Phelps, the Ravens have dominated the summer games, winning every time in the preseason over the last six years. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Ravens' preseason streak is the longest in at least 26 years, but Elias' preseason records don't go beyond 1995.

Long-time NFL reporter Rick Gosselin reported the Packers won 19 consecutive exhibition games 59 years ago. With a victory at Washington on Saturday, Baltimore can surpass Vince Lombardi’s teams for the unofficial mark of the most consecutive wins in the preseason.

The Ravens have heard others chide them for embracing a streak that isn’t recognized by the NFL record books and has occurred during a part of the league calendar where games technically don’t count. But, for players and team officials, this August dynasty represents a culture of winning, a track record for finding talent and a system for developing players.

How meaningful is this to the Ravens? Asked about the streak, quarterback Lamar Jackson crossed fingers on both hands and told the reporter to not jinx it.

"We want to win,” said Jackson, who was a freshman at Louisville the last time Baltimore lost a preseason game. "We don’t care what it is; we want to win. This is a very competitive team.”

It’s well-documented that Baltimore has the league’s best record (30-7) since Jackson took over as the starting quarterback midway through the 2018 season. What many don’t know is the Ravens try to one-up each other on the practice field.

There is a scoreboard that keeps track of whether the offense or defense wins the practice. Jackson and linebacker-safety Anthony Levine Jr. are always going at it with trash talk.

“Winning is winning,” said Levine, the third-longest tenured player on the Ravens. “If the score is being kept, we want to win. That’s the Raven way. That’s how we teach it."

The Ravens have dominated teams during this torrid preseason stretch, winning by an average margin of 11.7 points. But Baltimore isn’t trying to win at all costs.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh traditionally doesn’t play his starters much in the preseason, especially the quarterbacks. During the streak, Jackson and Joe Flacco have only thrown 20% of the Ravens’ passes. Ryan Mallett, Josh Woodrum, Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley have delivered the most touchdown strikes.

The real stars of the preseason have been the third-day draft prospects (and undrafted ones) who later became coveted players. In 2016, outside linebacker Matthew Judon led Baltimore in tackles and sacks as a rookie, outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith recorded a sack and Darren Waller produced 84 yards receiving as a wide receiver. In the finale that year, nose tackle Michael Pierce won one of the final spots on the roster with a strip-sack that he recovered for a touchdown.

Those four players -- Judon, Smith, Waller and Pierce -- have since totaled five Pro Bowls and received $80.6 million in guaranteed money on their second contracts.

"It’s something we’re proud of,” Tucker said. "It’s not Joe Flacco, Steve Smith and Terrell Suggs and all the other big-name starters that are a part of that. It’s everybody who has been on that 90-man roster for the Baltimore Ravens since 2016. That’s a lot of people who go into those wins.”

In 2017, Woodrum hit Tim White for a 33-yard touchdown against Washington. Woodrum played for the Alliance of American Football’s Salt Lake Stallions a year later before joining Washington, where he tore a pectoral muscle and never suited up again.

In 2018, running back De’Lance Turner broke free for a 65-yard touchdown in Miami. Turner went on to have 10 career rushing yards in 12 games for the Ravens and Dolphins.

This year, Huntley capped a fourth-quarter comeback with a 7-yard touchdown run against the New Orleans Saints with 6:35 remaining.

The Ravens’ most dramatic play of the preseason came in 2016 after the Indianapolis Colts jumped ahead 18-17 with 3:54 left in the game. Then, Levine intercepted the two-point conversion and returned it 95 yards for the winning score.

As soon as Levine reached the Lucas Oil Stadium end zone, he twice held up two fingers and then his entire hand to the crowd. It signified "25," the jersey number of cornerback Tray Walker, who died five months earlier of injuries sustained in a motorbike accident.

Don’t tell Levine that memories like these in the preseason are meaningless.

"Making that play and honoring him, I will say that’s probably one of my top plays of all time,” Levine said.

The next longest current winning streak in the preseason belongs to the Buffalo Bills, who have won seven in a row. In order to surpass the Ravens’ current mark, Buffalo would have to win every preseason game through 2025.

But Harbaugh isn’t worried about preseason records. The priority at this time of the season is to evaluate players.

“It’s not even a conversation,” Harbaugh said. "We’ve never approached any of these games any differently than we ever have.

“What’s the best way to say it? It means something to the people that over the years have been a part of it. There are other aspects of it that are valuable, but we’ll approach it the same way we always do and let the chips fly.”