When Ken Rodgers arrived at NFL Films in 2001, the Ravens were headed to HBO. Production on the first season of the “Hard Knocks” docuseries, now an Emmy Award-winning tentpole for the network, was months away from starting, and Rodgers wanted to spend training camp with the reigning Super Bowl champions. He was, he said, “obsessed” with the team.
Rodgers’ bosses said no. He was too green for the project. “We’re good without you,” he remembered them telling him. “We’re just fine.” Rodgers resolved to find a way back to the team: One day, when fans’ memories had faded, he’d make a documentary about the 2000 Ravens.
He only had to wait two-plus decades. “Bullies of Baltimore,” which Rodgers and NFL Films colleague Jason Weber directed for ESPN’s “30 for 30″ documentary series, premieres on ESPN at 8:30 p.m. Sunday. The film, which will also be available to stream on ESPN+, chronicles the Ravens’ first Super Bowl season and the outsize personalities behind one of the NFL’s most entertaining teams and most dominant defenses.
Drawing on archival footage, one-on-one interviews and a May event featuring some of the team’s coaches and players, “Bullies of Baltimore” packs a lot into its 100-minute runtime. There are outrageous quotes and hellacious defensive highlights, of course, but also revelations about a profane diss and a missing playbook. (Thank the Tennessee Titans for both.) The sudden passing of Tony Siragusa, who died in June at age 55, gives the documentary an emotional resonance.
The Baltimore Banner spoke Wednesday with Rodgers and Weber about the film’s origins, the magic of the Ravens’ reunion last year, what didn’t make the final cut and the search for a very specific hat.
(Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
The Banner: How did this project come together for you guys?
Rodgers: “Hard Knocks” is part of it, because the show has become an annual date on the NFL calendar. And we kept thinking, “People forget how entertaining this original team on ‘Hard Knocks’ was.” And then you take a step further and say, “People forget how absolutely dominant that defense was on the field.”
And there becomes a sort of life cycle of stories where, 20-something years into it, you realize that the young people around the building have no idea what you’re talking about when you describe the 2000 Ravens. Probably anyone under 35 doesn’t have super-strong memories of this team. And you begin to realize that there’s a growing audience of fans that can learn about the team and still a large audience who would love to revisit the team. And so we start thinking about how exactly would be best to tell the story. And that’s when Jason and I started discussing different options.
Weber: And I think the other thing, too, is that a lot of the people that were on that team are still recognizable faces in the spotlight, yet I don’t know if people necessarily remember what they did on the field with that team. They’re known now as talking heads, personalities talking about the game, but I think this is a great opportunity to remind people just how good they were on the field.
When you’re going through the archival footage, when you’re interviewing them, when you’re recording at the reunion, were the questions that you had more micro? Were they more macro? What was most appealing to you guys?
Weber: I kind of think it was two-fold, because we were doing this as two different events. So we had the one-on-one interviews, and I think that was an opportunity to dive into the micro and really get into the minutiae of the season.
There were definitely moments in the event where we dug into specific stories, but that was an opportunity to talk more about the broad things, because we only had a limited amount of time with the group of people that were on that stage to do that. So I think you got both sides of that. We’ve got the macro, the bigger stuff, and then kind of the more general stories onstage, but then really dug down into it with the individual interviews.
Rodgers: Along with that came the differing personalities, because in the individual interviews, you see who they are as singular people and players. But when we decided to put on this stage show in front of fans and got the Ravens to commit to it and agree to it, the result was that you, onstage, got to see who they were as a team and who they were to each other and what their relationships were.
So we got the individual stories, but really, the heart of the show is them together and what they meant to each other and the camaraderie you see on the field transferred 22 years later to the stage. And it still existed.
I mean, you can see how Tony Siragusa was still the ringleader, and you can see how Ray Lewis responded to him and laughed at him in a way that you don’t see Ray let go in an individual interview, because he’s bringing himself back to that intense, field general version of himself. But onstage, with “Goose,” he is sort of a sidekick to Goose’s personality, and it’s a totally different Ray Lewis. And I was glad that we got to see both versions of all these guys.
I think what stuck out to me the most was just the love that they showed for one another at the reunion and the amount of times that they said, “I love you.” That was really resonant with all those guys coming together.
Weber: It was very evident and very genuine from the second they kind of got together. What you see in the film is — at the hotel, before they even get to the event, just the excitement they had for being around each other. And that carried through from that moment until when they were departing and saying goodbye to each other at the end.
It was all genuine, and it really just hit home that, even though these guys aren’t together all the time and they’ve gone their separate ways from playing together 22 years ago, they really deeply care about each other and have that connection the instant they’re back together. It’s like they’re back on the practice field, kind of joking around, or on the sidelines. I think that came to light throughout the night.
Rodgers: All made more powerful by the fact that, a month later, the tragedy of Goose passing away occurs. And in retrospect, you watch the event and you see the footage contained in this film, and you feel great that they get to spend that time together. It shines a whole new light on their relationship and on who Goose was as a person. The film becomes an elegy for Siragusa, and the humor is suddenly tinged with this bittersweetness that he’s no longer with us.
But at the same time, you’re so happy that they got to spend this time together before he passed. So there’s a lot of mixed emotions watching it, and you come out, I think, feeling like it’s pretty life-affirming. And you can tell that these guys lived life the right way and that they care about each other in a very real sense, rather than just the platitudes that you might hear in the press.
I think Goose was responsible for a couple of moments where, today, you would say, “That would never happen in the NFL in 2023.” Do you guys have a favorite time capsule moment from this documentary?
Weber: I think, for me, it’s the moment where he’s [Siragusa’s] hitting [Oakland Raiders quarterback] Rich Gannon in the playoffs. It’s a moment that was not called a penalty on the field, and he ends up getting a fine later on, but I think, in today’s game, that play — which he argued then, he didn’t do anything malicious; he was just doing his job — that would’ve definitely been a penalty on the field. A different way of protecting the quarterback now than back in 2000.
Rodgers: I’m not sure, in general, off the field, you could be quite like Goose and [tight end] Shannon [Sharpe] and others were back then. I think in the era of social media, someone would’ve had to tell this team, “Hey, why don’t we quiet down? Why don’t we stop providing bulletin-board material? Why don’t we concentrate on football?”
It’s a totally different era than when Goose was front and center. Personality was not hidden. There was no controlled image when it came to this team, not even from the coach, who said, ‘This is who I am, and I’m not going to hide from it. I’m not going to change. And I’m going to let my guys be who they are.” I don’t know that you can do that today in the social media era, and Goose represents the height of that — maybe Goose and Shannon, along with [coach Brian] Billick.
I think it would’ve been called a distraction in minute one to have Goose showing his personality in that way, whereas back then, it was not only accepted, it was part of the reason they won. It’s because they had such intimidating personalities and intimidating auras about them on the football field.
There’s so much material packed into this film. Was there anything that you guys had to leave on the cutting-room floor that you would’ve loved to have included?
Rodgers: One thing I always wanted to explore that we didn’t get to was this coaching staff, and how incredible it was from a personality standpoint and a future-head-coach standpoint. Obviously, we had [defensive coordinator] Marvin Lewis and [linebackers coach] Jack Del Rio onstage [at the reunion], who are fantastic, but [defensive assistant] Mike Smith was on this staff, who went on to be a head coach. [Defensive line coach] Rex Ryan was on this staff, who went on to be a head coach.
There were some incredible coaches who went on to be head coaches themselves, and to be “Hard Knocks” stars themselves, in the case of a few of them. I think Coach Billick set the tone in many ways for a lot of these guys, of how to run a team and how to do so successfully. ...
I mean, all you have to do is think of Marvin Lewis and [Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver] Chad Johnson and the success they had over the long term to see it’s not too far from Brian Billick and Tony Siragusa. It’s letting someone be themselves and having them be successful, not just along with it, but because of it, because you’re allowing them to be themselves. And that coaching staff, boy, there’s still a lot on the cutting-room floor when it comes to that coaching staff and how they appeared on “Hard Knocks” the next year.
I want to end this interview on a fashion question. Do you guys think your documentary could be responsible for the comeback of bucket hats, or do you think that’s something that’ll be left in the past?
Weber: Let me tell you how hard it was to get the bucket hat that will appear in this film. I’m not even joking. The outfit — and I don’t want to spoil it, either — but that was one of the biggest challenges of the live event, was finding the bucket hat, the shirt, the jeans, everything that was involved in a surprise moment on that stage. We had a crew of people that were working hard to make that happen. So if it comes back because of this, there will be a sense of pride amongst all of us that worked on this documentary, because everybody worked hard to bring a back a little piece of 2000 and the bucket hats that were a part of that team back then.