Despite the trying offseason that they have had, the Baltimore Ravens will be entering the 2012 season as a team favored to contend for a Super Bowl. That's basically a formality with the return of the core group of players responsible for four consecutive playoff berths, all of which had at least one Ravens postseason victory.
At this stage though, simply winning playoff games gets old. While it's true that any team would love to have four straight playoff appearances, regardless of wins, that's not the ultimate goal of an NFL team.
That goal is to win championships. Yes it's a ridiculously difficult goal because only one team will get this goal done during every NFL season, essentially making the other 31 teams all losers. Yet the Ravens now know as well as any other team that while important games, divisional playoff appearances and AFC Championship appearances mean nothing without getting to the Super Bowl.
It's really baffling that the Ravens have won a playoff game every year since 2008 yet in this time span they have no Super Bowl appearances. They've been close though, particularly in 2008 where the Pittsburgh Steelers only got past them thanks to a late pick-six by Troy Polamalu. They were even closer last season before Lee Evans' dropped pass and Billy Cundiff's missed field goal.
Now as the Ravens prepare for what will hopefully be a fifth consecutive playoff berth, a serious question arises. Is this season really a do-or-die year for the Ravens? Will their core group of players still be able to keep the team in contention in 2013 and beyond?
There are currently 11 players on the Ravens roster that are 30 years old or older. Now that may seem like a lot but bear in mind that four of them are linemen who are not expected to start and even if they do start, expectations won't be very high for them. There's also 35-year-old special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo who has started just one game in the last three seasons and a 32-year-old kicker who many fans are hoping gets cut.
That leaves five important starting players that are 30 or older. Vonta Leach (30), Anquan Boldin (31), Ed Reed (33), Matt Birk (36), and Ray Lewis (37).
Although in the latter parts of their careers, Leach and Boldin are not on the verge of retirement so Ravens fans shouldn't worry about them yet. That is not the same for the other three though. Birk, Lewis and Reed are now at the point where it is a yearly question as to whether or not they will be returning to football.
All three of these players will be difficult to replace but it's fair to say that Lewis and Reed will be doubly so. Both are future Hall of Famers so the defense almost will inevitably take a step back when they hang up the cleats.
That could be as soon as next season. Should the Ravens break through and win the Super Bowl, it's going to be very tempting for Lewis and Reed to retire. Their retirement could signal the end of an era in Baltimore and bring the defense a little down from their usual top 10 standard.
The other concern that needs to be addressed is key player contracts. Ray Rice is now locked up with the Ravens thanks to a last minute five-year deal with $24 million guaranteed. This deal is a win for both sides and with Rice being only 25 years old, it's virtually guaranteed that the Ravens will have him during the best years of his career.
This leaves two major Ravens still looking for a new deal. Both Joe Flacco and Reed will be free agents next year. Both players were hoping for deals this offseason however Rice's deal might make it a little more unlikely that these deals won't get done.
Flacco's been pretty professional about his deal, as he's been present during most offseason workouts. As the team's franchise quarterback, reaching a new deal with him is very much in the team's best interests. If all this work translates in better statistics for Flacco, then the Ravens should be inspired to work towards a new deal.
Reed, on the other hand, has been creating a lot of news with his bizarre approach to contract negotiations. With his access to Twitter and no agent to help him, Reed continues to make headlines that are quickly being devoured by the NFL's news sources in this slow part of the offseason.
There's definitely some reason to worry if he doesn't get signed because the Ravens safety depth isn't all that strong right now. Besides Reed there's rookie Christian Thompson as well as veterans Bernard Pollard and Sean Considine. So safety could go from a position of strength to weakness very quickly should Reed holdout or even do something more shocking like retire.
All this looking around the Ravens roster gives us several conclusions. Though they have a couple key players who are older, the team is actually fairly young. It is also pretty deep with few weaknesses and lots of strengths across the board.
However after four seasons, the Ravens need a playoff breakthrough. No one's job is on the line but the window is steadily closing and once Lewis and Reed retire, there may need to be a few years of adjustment.
This means that the Ravens should approach 2012 with a do-or-die mentality. As harsh as it sounds, anything less than a Super Bowl win is a disappointment.
Even possible excuses like Reed's holdout drama or Terrell Suggs' Achilles injury aren't enough to detract this team from its ultimate goal. For Lewis, Reed and really all the other players 30 years or older, they need to win the Super Bowl now. So with only nine days till training camp, every Raven needs to be getting prepared for this season and what could possibly await at its end.