Remember when “play by play account” referred to the action on the field? Good times, good times. According to an ESPN report that broke last night, the Baltimore Ravens knew within hours about what was on the elevator video and just how bad it would look if it emerged. Overruling head coach John Harbaugh’s advice to cut Rice from the team — twice — the Ravens urged Rice to accelerate the legal conclusion of the case in order to avoid that exposure. At the same time, the NFL’s head office remained curiously … incurious:

Just hours after running back Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancée with a left hook at the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Baltimore Ravens’ director of security, Darren Sanders, reached an Atlantic City police officer by phone. While watching surveillance video — shot from inside the elevator where Rice’s punch knocked his fiancée unconscious — the officer, who told Sanders he just happened to be a Ravens fan, described in detail to Sanders what he was seeing. …

After the Feb. 15 incident in the casino elevator, Ravens executives — in particular owner Steve Bisciotti, president Dick Cass and general manager Ozzie Newsome — began extensive public and private campaigns pushing for leniency for Rice on several fronts: from the judicial system in Atlantic County, where Rice faced assault charges, to commissioner Goodell, who ultimately would decide the number of games Rice would be suspended from this fall, to within their own building, where some were arguing immediately after the incident that Rice should be released.

The Ravens also consulted frequently with Rice’s Philadelphia defense attorney, Michael J. Diamondstein, who in early April had obtained a copy of the inside-elevator video and told Cass: “It’s f—ing horrible.” Cass did not request a copy of the video from Diamondstein but instead began urging Rice’s legal team to get Rice accepted into a pretrial intervention program after being told some of the program’s benefits. Among them: It would keep the inside-elevator video from becoming public.

For its part, the NFL — which in other player discipline cases has been able to obtain information that’s been sealed by court order — took an uncharacteristically passive approach when it came to gathering evidence, opening itself up to widespread criticism, allegations of inconsistent approaches to player discipline and questions about whether Goodell gave Rice — the corporate face of the Baltimore franchise — a light punishment as a favor to his good friend Bisciotti. Four sources said Ravens executives, including Bisciotti, Cass and Newsome, urged Goodell and other league executives to give Rice no more than a two-game suspension, and that’s what Goodell did on July 24.

This story broke after the strange press conference given by Goodell yesterday. The presser got interrupted by a stunt from a member of Howard Stern’s cast, but that was actually the most enlightening part of the entire event. For 45 minutes, Goodell more or less repeated the same mantra that has been coming from the league office ever since the end of last month: We got this wrong, we have to do better, we are working on a new policy, lather, rinse, repeat. Goodell refused to address the specifics of Rice’s appeal, nor did he explain how precisely he’d been misled by Rice, which is how the NFL commissioner had justified revisiting the punishment.

The ESPN report does support Goodell’s assertion that his office was misled about the nature of the assault, but not that it was just Rice who misled him. It also corroborates the Associated Press report ten days ago that the video had been sent to “an NFL executive” in April. According to ESPN’s investigation, the four Ravens executives, including Hall of Fame player Ozzie Newsome, aggressively pushed the minimization of the offense which led to the original short suspension. Initially, the Ravens insisted that Harbaugh didn’t change his mind on Rice until after the September 8th release of the elevator tape, but ESPN says Harbaugh wanted him out immediately after hearing the description of the assault and asked to have Rice released at least one later time during the summer as well. That might be Harbaugh or someone close to him attempting to cover his own rear end, but a decent NFL league office investigation might have substantiated it contemporaneously — and would have uncovered the testimony of what happened in the elevator tape.

The Ravens pushed back against the ESPN report, but offered no immediate specifics:

The Ravens are disputing the assertions. Some of their comments are included in the OTL story. Later Friday, the team released a statement stopping short of a full denial but claiming inaccuracies:

“The ESPN.com ‘Outside the Lines’ article contains numerous errors, inaccuracies, false assumptions and, perhaps, misunderstandings,” the statement read. “The Ravens will address all of these next week in Baltimore after our trip to Cleveland for Sunday’s game against the Browns.”

“Perhaps misunderstandings”? It’s curious that the Ravens didn’t actually identify the inaccuracies, even with the story in front of them. By this time, the team should be excruciatingly familiar with the facts of the Rice case.

As for Goodell, he made it clear that he has no intention of resigning. The other owners in the league have to be wondering just how much longer they can have confidence in his leadership, though. The farcical presser yesterday and the immediate blowing up of Goodell’s narrative by ESPN just a couple of hours later should have them looking for a new QB, sooner rather than later. Maybe they should be looking for another Rice to rescue them.