How do you improve after winning the Super Bowl?
Only four teams in NFL history can legitimately claim they improved on a Super Bowl-winning season: 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers, 1989 San Francisco 49ers, 1998 Denver Broncos and 2004 New England Patriots.
Not only should it require a repeat, but you have to be a more dominant team than the previous year.
The Baltimore Ravens face the daunting task of improving on a 2012 season that was really the reward for a five-year journey in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era. So close in past years, Baltimore took a lukewarm regular season and turned it into playoff gold as is the chic thing to do these days.
But what now after perhaps the biggest roster purge of a champion since the Florida Marlins?
The last seven defending champions have failed to win a single playoff game. Baltimore is already pushing history with a playoff win in five straight seasons. Only the 1991-96 Dallas Cowboys were able to do it in six straight.
Should 2013 be a playoff miss, Ravens fans will probably take solace in last season’s trophy with an eye on a promising future.
But there are ways for this team to get back into the tournament again, which we know is all you have to do to have a decent chance at getting to the Super Bowl.
Baltimore’s Dearly Departed
Hopefully the Ravens took a team photo at Super Bowl XLVII, because faces have certainly changed. As many as eight starters from that game along with pass-rusher Paul Kruger will not return for the 2013 season.
Some losses hurt more than others.
No departure has a bigger impact on the team than the retirement of Ray Lewis. Now, he was not the player he used to be, but he was there for all 17 seasons in team history, serving as the face of the franchise for most of that time.
It may have been more than just coincidence that Baltimore was 9-1 with Lewis and 5-5 without him last season. Of course the postseason was the only time that core group of defensive studs was together on the field in 2012.
Not to bore you with legends of “leadership” or jokes about deer antler spray, the fact is this represents the start of a new era in Ravens history. Someone has to pick up the slack.
The loss of Lewis alone would not be as big of a deal if the team also did not lose linebackers Dannell Ellerbe (Dolphins) and Kruger (Browns) during free agency. These were young, talented building blocks for the defense that got away.
Lewis being there would be able to rally the troops, but now that falls on the backs of veteran players like Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. Being able to stop the run could prove to be difficult.
Keep in mind the 2012 Ravens were the worst run defense in team history, allowing franchise-worst numbers in yards (1,965) and yards per carry (3.99). Actually, it is rather incredible the team has gone 17 seasons without allowing at least 4.00 yards per carry once.
Fortunately, there is still talent in the front seven, and it’s more than just Suggs and Ngata. Baltimore took advantage of another incredible Denver mistake this year by being able to snatch Elvis Dumervil away. He is a better pass-rusher than Kruger, though he still will not offer much in the way of stopping the run. But that was a much-needed signing to stop the bleeding at linebacker.
This is where you miss the development of a young linebacker like Sergio Kindle, a second-round pick in 2010, who fell down the stairs that summer, practically ending his career before it had a chance to begin.
But the Ravens do have last year’s second-round pick, Courtney Upshaw, who should see significant playing time along with Suggs and Dumervil to help create a pass rush.
As for on-field production, there may not be a bigger loss than Anquan Boldin, who had an incredible postseason run, plucking jump balls out of the air and dominating in the red zone. He was the team’s leading receiver with 65 receptions for 921 yards. It only cost the San Francisco 49ers a sixth-round pick to get Boldin, who did not want to take a pay cut from Baltimore.
This one can hurt. Torrey Smith is a good receiver with awfully similar numbers in his first two seasons. He will have to break out in his third year out of necessity. The team still has another rising receiver in tight end Dennis Pitta, but unless you think Tandon Doss or Tommy Streeter are hidden gems, there is no legit No. 2 on this team right now. Playoff hero Jacoby Jones is more of a return specialist/No. 3 option.
There are plenty of interesting wide receivers in the 2013 draft, but it’s up to the Ravens to use a high pick on one. Right now, this looks like a gaping hole as Smith is still more of the deep-threat receiver that is not going to make all the catches a true No. 1 would make.
The only other real loss on offense was center Matt Birk retiring. He was a fringe Hall of Fame player on his last legs, but centers are usually not that hard to replace. Jason Brown was the starting center on the 2008 team that went to the AFC Championship Game. He left to St. Louis, only to never be heard from again.
Williams is no big deal as Lardarius Webb should be back in the starting lineup after his ACL injury last year. Webb could have been what Seattle’s Richard Sherman was to the 2012 season, though he does not run his mouth as much. One of the best young cornerbacks in the game, hopefully he will be fine after that injury and add improved coverage skills to this secondary.
The hole is with both safeties gone, including the Canton-bound Reed. Such a smart, instinctive player, he too was not what he used to be at age 34, but you need players like this around. Baltimore amazingly loses Lewis and Reed at the same time.
Pollard was a decent safety, probably best known for his voodoo against New England players. You might be able to stick a James Ihedigbo in for him to get by, but signing Michael Huff from Oakland still feels like the Ravens are hurting at safety. The only fix may be in the draft.
Finally, nose tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu is a free agent whom the Ravens can bring back. He started 13 games last season, but at age 34, the Ravens may want to get younger with 2010 second-round pick Terrence Cody. A mountain of a man, he has not been everything the Ravens hoped for, but he should be able to replace Kemoeatu.
Ozzie Newsome is one of the best general managers in the league, but he has his work cut out for him in what becomes a crucial draft for the team’s long-term success. Some of these holes need to be plugged with talent that may not have a huge impact in 2013, but will pay off soon.
The Ravens have mostly been building through the draft anyway, but it now may become an even bigger focus as they are paying top dollar for a quarterback for the first time in franchise history.
That rich quarterback is also the focus of where the Ravens need to improve the most this season.
Joe Flacco: Prove You Deserve the Huge Contract
With players like Lewis and Reed gone, this has to become Joe Flacco’s team. Suggs may assume the vocal leadership, also known as “the guy with the biggest mouth” for the team, but he is not the face of a franchise.
Flacco has the six-year contract worth $120.6 million. What better time than now to prove he is worth it?
If the Ravens are going to have a transitional period where the defense falls off, requiring the offense to carry the team, then Flacco will be front and center. Many people have already questioned his big contract as the cause of so many teammates not returning.
We have yet to see Flacco put in a position where he has to carry a significantly flawed team to the playoffs. That is why one of the most interesting storylines heading into the 2013 season is finding out who Flacco really is as a quarterback.
Is he the big-play making, efficient, mistake-limiting quarterback, or is he the guy that’s going to throw for less than 4,000 yards, about 22 touchdowns and leave you scratching your head at least six times a season?
Under offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, Flacco’s last five full games (the playoff run and Week 16 win over the Giants) became the best run of Flacco’s career. Against tough competition that was playing for their season, he lit up the scoreboard and did not throw any interceptions.
In the playoffs, and especially in the Super Bowl, Flacco demonstrated more poise in the pocket and an ability to throw under duress better than at any point in his career. At 28 years old, this should be his prime.
But was it as simple as removing Cam Cameron from calling plays? It is not as if Baltimore installed a new offense after Caldwell took over in Week 15. The plays were the same, but apparently the process of getting them into the quarterback improved.
Now without a couple of Hall of Fame players on defense and a void at receiver, we will learn quite a bit about Flacco in 2013. In early April, the Ravens do not look as complete of a team as they have in the past when the main piece they were searching for was the quarterback.
Flacco is being paid like the elite franchise quarterback who makes those issues like having a no-name at center or missing a receiver less of a problem. But his past level of play does not suggest he is capable of doing so. His past level of play may no longer be good enough for a postseason berth if the team around him is in decline.
Flacco is basically the AFC’s version of Eli Manning. They're both streaky players. Flacco’s first five seasons are actually better than what Manning did (2004-08), but to put him in with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, the consistency just has not been there.
No one has started more games (including playoffs) than Flacco’s 93 since 2008, but he also has the second-most games with a passer rating under 80.0 (minimum 15 attempts) in that time. Only Matt Cassel has more. Flacco also ranks in the top three for most games with a rating under 70.0 (25 games) and 60.0 (15 games).
Make note of the ranks for the best quarterbacks in the game here:
Nine times Flacco has been under 50.0, which is more than Roethlisberger (three), Manning (two), Brady (one), Brees (zero) and Rodgers (zero) have combined since 2008.
Passer rating may not be perfect, but an advanced stat like ESPN’s QBR, which correlates highly to winning, also does not favor Flacco. His 0.3 QBR against Houston in Week 7 last season was the worst QBR by anyone during the 2012 season. His 0.4 QBR against Denver in Week 15 was the third-worst of the season.
In plotting Flacco’s 80 regular-season starts by QBR, you get a sense of how inconsistent he has been on a weekly basis:
Flacco barely has more games with a QBR over 90.0 (eight) than he does with a QBR under 10.0 (seven). His average game is a 53.9. An average performance by QBR standards is 50.0.
If you take those five franchise quarterbacks along with Flacco, sort their single-game QBR from worst to best since 2008 (regular season only), you get this very telling chart:
Note: Flacco is the only player to play all 80 games since 2008. Manning missed 16, Brady missed 15, Roethlisberger missed nine, Rodgers missed two and Brees missed one. But that is not having any significant impact here.
The players are represented by team color. You can see Peyton Manning (orange) has the best curve, while Flacco (purple) is the worst. Manning’s worst game was a 20.4. Flacco has 15 games below that. There is a 16-game difference in sample size, but this is still a huge difference between the league's most consistent quarterback and Flacco.
In between are Brady (blue), Rodgers (green), Brees (gold) and Roethlisberger (yellow).
Keeping in mind 50.0 is average, Flacco’s 32nd-best game is when he finally crosses the 50.0 mark. It only took Manning nine games to do that, which is why his curve gets steeper the fastest. By that 32nd game when Flacco had a 51.2 QBR, Manning was hitting 80.2. Everyone else was already at 60 or 70.
You just get more quality performances out of the other quarterbacks than you do Flacco. But the Ravens are hoping this title run will have the type of impact it did on players like Phil Simms and Eli Manning after they won their first titles. They immediately began posting better regular-season numbers.
If Flacco can limit his number of poor games in a season, then the Ravens will continue to make the playoffs with him at quarterback. It just may never be more important for him to play well than it will be in 2013 with some of the uncertainties hanging over the roster right now.
Unless the burden of filling Boldin’s shoes proves to be too hard, I expect Flacco will have his best regular season yet with career highs in passing yards, touchdowns and various efficiency stats.
Flacco’s 2013 should not be judged on what happens in the playoffs, but what he shows in the 16 games to get there. The target is on Baltimore’s chest, the old leader is gone, and this is the scenario the team has created to see their $120-million man take over to start the new era.
Winning more playoff games and championships will hinge more on what Baltimore does from this point forward with retooling the roster. But as that is going on, you hope to see your quarterback improve and keep giving your team a chance to win any game.
That’s what Baltimore believes it invested in with Flacco, but only time will tell. A Super Bowl at least buys you some time if the start is unsavory.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.