The 2008 Baltimore Ravens made a run last year that exceeded all expectations. And that may be putting it mildly.
Behind a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback, the Ravens surprised the league with an 11-5 season and a January march that was just 10 points shy of the Super Bowl. After such a promising performance, the debate over expectations for 2009 began as soon as the final game ended.
The problem with expectations is that anything less than last year’s success feels like selling the home team short. Anything better sounds a bit too peppy—especially when better means reaching the Super Bowl.
To be fair to the Ravens, a realistic goal for 2009 should be to make the playoffs again, preferably without needing a win in Week 17 to secure the birth. Beyond that, it’s all gravy.
And fans certainly have a number of reasons to believe such a goal is within reach.
Start with experience. Joe Flacco is now a year older and a year wiser. His improvement from Week One to Week 17 last season was exceptional. If he can pick up where he left off, the Ravens offense should continue to improve as well.
Additionally, head coach John Harbaugh now has a year of experience as well. Players and assistant coaches alike should all be on board. No more transition period.
The same goes for offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. His progress with the offense last year was touted by fans and analysts. But it was clear for the first half of the season he was still getting used to the tools he had at his disposal—from Flacco and Troy Smith to Mark Clayton and Willis McGahee.
If all goes well, there is no reason the Ravens offense cannot take a big step forward and become a serious part of why the team is winning games.
But the Ravens have more than just experience playing into their fortunes in 2009. At first glance, the Ravens schedule this season appears easier than in 2008.
While the Ravens were still unlucky enough to draw perennial contenders Indianapolis and New England, their divisional draws are much friendlier. Two powerhouse divisions—the AFC South and NFC North—are out, replaced by a less intimidating foes, the AFC West and NFC North.
Such numbers certainly make the playoffs seem well within the realm of possibility—perhaps even probability—for this team. If the Ravens can win the easy games, the fight for the playoffs is halfway won.
Schedules and experience can be misleading, however. Consider what opponents must have been thinking when they saw the Dolphins on their schedule last season. Miami jumped from one win in 2007 to 11 in 2008.
For all the turmoil in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Oakland, and Kansas City last year, at least one of those teams is likely to make an unexpected jump in the standings in 2009. The Ravens can only hope such a jump does not come at their expense.
And as for all the optimism about things to come offensively, fans can toss in their sleep all summer pondering the changes and challenges that will face the Ravens defense this season.
Not only is longtime defensive guru Rex Ryan gone, but the team has parted ways with a number of important pieces from seasons past.
Ryan took a pair of fan favorites with him to New York in linebacker Bart Scott and defensive back Jim Leonhard. The team also parted ways with three-time Pro Bowler Chris McAlister, who spent 10 seasons in Baltimore.
The Ravens and most fans are confident that this defense can continue to dominate as it has in years past. It can be hard to gauge just how much of an impact such losses can have until the team is on the field. Especially for the Ravens, whose offense is still not yet ready to win games on its own, maintaining defensive supremacy is paramount.
In the AFC last season, 10 wins alone was not enough to make the playoffs. The Ravens made it with 11. There is no room for error if this team hopes to find its way to the postseason again.
While fans may be clamoring for this team to take the next step, a more realistic and reachable goal is to have this team find the playoffs once again. From there, anything can happen.