In an unprecedented sweep of housekeeping, the Baltimore Ravens followed up their Super Bowl win by letting go of a number of their biggest veteran names. First linebacker Ray Lewis retired, then the team traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin for a sixth-round draft pick after he refused a pay cut. The team also released safety Bernard Pollard and let fellow safety Ed Reed head to the Houston Texans in free agency.
All of a sudden, it appeared that the Ravens were on the brink of suffering a crisis of leadership, with their most vocal and well-known players joining other teams or hanging up their cleats. However, the situation is far less dire than some may think.
Being vocal and in the spotlight aren't necessary qualities of leadership, though some leaders certainly possess them. In fact, sometimes those two traits can be an issue in an NFL locker room, splitting a team into factions instead of one united group.
That could have been the case when it came to Reed and Pollard. After head coach John Harbaugh announced in October the team would have a padded practice, Reed and Pollard openly complained, leading to what Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver characterized as a "near-mutiny" led by the two safeties, before Harbaugh got the situation under control.
Therefore, it may not be a mere coincidence or simply a salary cap situation that led to Pollard's release and allowing Reed to move on—it may have instead been a way for Harbaugh to take greater control of his team. It's obviously not in a head coach's best interest to be seen as a secondary force to players like Reed and Lewis who had been in Baltimore longer than Harbaugh, or to Pollard, the legendary "Patriot killer." A younger, quieter locker room means Harbaugh is the team's motivating force rather than the outsized personalities of these departed veterans.
That doesn't mean, however, that leadership responsibilities in Baltimore now fall solely on Harbaugh. The Ravens still need locker-room leaders, albeit ones of a different sort than what they've had for season upon season.
And they're there—linebacker Terrell Suggs, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, even new addition Elvis Dumervil are among them. But the one Raven who will need to step up and become the face of the team more than any other, is quarterback Joe Flacco.
It's not just the $120.6 million deal he signed after the Super Bowl win—though that's certainly a part of it. Mainly, Flacco needs to be this team's locker-room leader simply because of the position he plays.
Flacco is a fairly unassuming quarterback in a league filled with stars like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. However, in a Harbaugh-controlled team, a leader like Flacco is just what the Ravens need. It's like a palate cleanser after years of Reed and Lewis having control of the team. He's a keep-your-head-down-and-work type of player, the kind who can lead by example and not with fiery oratory or on-field jawing with opponents.
Granted, the Ravens' locker room, practice field and game days are all going to be quite different without Lewis' speeches or the presence of players as brash as Reed and Pollard. They have Suggs, of course, who is just as vocal and passionate as the veterans who left, and who can certainly fill that emotional void if the Ravens need it. But, as became clearer and clearer as the 2012 season gave way to the playoffs, the Ravens were becoming more of a Flacco-centered team, and where he goes in 2013, the rest of the team will follow.
The question of chemistry, however, is a more complicated one, especially when it comes to the defense. With Lewis, Reed and Pollard gone, and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger also with new teams, the Ravens are in the process of filling a number of their holes in starting positions. They brought on defensive tackle Chris Canty, safety Michael Huff and the aforementioned Dumervil to help this rebuilding process, and it will be augmented by next month's draft picks.
That's a lot of new players on one side of the ball, and they have but one offseason of OTAs, minicamps and training camp to all find themselves on the same page. Though leadership may not be an issue in Baltimore this year, putting these disparate parts together, particularly on defense, takes time. Becoming a team is a process, one that may not be entirely complete when the season starts.
While that doesn't mean that this mix of veterans, new faces and rookies won't be successful on the field, there are a number of issues inherent in rebuilding, and establishing trust and chemistry are chief among them. It can't be expected that this new-look Ravens defense will immediately be like the iteration that preceded it, even if there's no major decrease in overall on-field talent. There will likely be a few bumps along the road before it smooths out.
This isn't an unexpected wrinkle, and it doesn't need to be a major one, either. It will require leadership to overcome it—if it even comes up to a major degree—which takes us back around to the first question. And if that question of leadership has been answered, by both Harbaugh taking greater control, and Flacco and Suggs stepping up to lead the team and the defense, respectively, then the chemistry will come.
While no other team in NFL history has lost as many veterans as the Ravens have coming off of a Super Bowl victory, it doesn't mean the Ravens are in serious trouble. It's not the veteran losses that will make the impact, but how the team responds to them. And though there are new faces already added to the roster and more to come, with strong leadership in place, chemistry shouldn't prove itself to be too big of a problem.