When attempting to peg what the Baltimore Ravens’ expectations should be for the upcoming season, the first thing that comes to mind is, what a difference a year makes.
Heading into 2008, the Ravens had what appeared to be the blueprint for a rebuilding year after going 5-11 a year before. With a first-year head coach and a rookie quarterback starting week one, many fans and analysts projected Baltimore to finish at the bottom of the standings in the AFC North.
Instead, head coach John Harbaugh led his team to an 11-5 record and an appearance in the AFC Championship game.
As a result, the Ravens believe they can make a strong run at Super Bowl XLIV. The fans in Baltimore will expect it. Harbaugh will demand it.
The Ravens are ready to become elite.
“John is always going to have higher expectations than me, and that’s what I want in the leader of 53 men,” said Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, who took a calculated risk when he fired incumbent coach Brian Billick the day after the 2007 ended. After being hired, Harbaugh made no secret about the fact that he believed his team had what it took to get to the Super Bowl.
Entering the second year under the Harbaugh regime, the Ravens have the components in place for a championship-caliber team. A young quarterback ready to break out in Joe Flacco. An effective running game that was fourth in the league last year. A young offensive line that the coaching staff believes could be the best in the NFL.
And of course, the same punishing defense that has been a staple in Baltimore for the past decade.
The Ravens shored up nearly every position this past offseason, knowing how quickly injuries can ruin a season (see 2007). Cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr were signed, as well as center Matt Birk, tight end L.J. Smith and quarterback John Beck.
General manager Ozzie Newsome led another solid draft, bringing in tackle Michael Oher, defensive end Paul Kruger and defensive back Lardarius Webb,
It’s also important to note what the Ravens were able to keep after 2008, namely Ray Lewis. The longtime linebacker and emotional leader of the defense will be back on the field for Baltimore after a brief stint as a free agent. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was franchised for the second year in a row, and the team is attempting to sign him to a long-term deal.
Nose tackle Kelly Gregg will be back in the starting lineup after missing all of last season with a knee injury, and safety Dawan Landry will be back from injury as well. Combined with elite players like Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata, the Ravens are poised to make a run in 2009.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t questions heading into the season, though. Or that there won’t be obstacles along the way.
After seeing Rex Ryan leave to become head coach of the New York Jets, the Ravens have a new defensive coordinator in Greg Mattison. Mattison insists there won’t be any major changes to the scheme of a defense that has not finished lower than sixth in any major category the last four seasons.
But the D’ also saw inside linebacker Bart Scott depart in free agency. The Ravens also parted way with center Jason Brown, cornerback Chris McAlister, kicker Matt Stover and fullback Lorenzo Neal in the offseason.
There are still some concerns that the Ravens need a deep-threat at wideout. Derrick Mason is 35 and in the last year of his contract. Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams are in the last years of their respective deals, as well. There is a wealth of unproven talent at the position, including Marcus Smith, Justin Harper, Marcus Maxwell and Ernie Wheelwright.
Inconsistency has plagued the Ravens the past few seasons, going from six wins in 2005 to 13 in 2006, down to five in 2007 and then up to 11 in 2008. As Bisciotti pointed out, the team needs to “smooth that out.”
The biggest thing that could stand in the Ravens’ way of their goal was the Pittsburgh Steelers, their fiercest divisional rival. After getting the best of the Ravens in week 4 last year in overtime and again week 15 on a controversial last-minute score, Pittsburgh made it three in a row by beating the Ravens in the conference title game on their way to their sixth Super Bowl title.
Despite the stinging losses, Bisciotti is glad his team has to play the best in football at least twice a year.
“It’s something for us to shoot for,” the affable owner said. “Our sights are focused on beating Pittsburgh. If you start there and you climb the mountain, then we’re probably going to be pretty good.”
Pittsburgh is again poised to be a strong contender in 2009. But after three straight defeats last year, the Ravens will be chomping at the bit for payback when the Steelers come to Baltimore for a Sunday night game on Nov. 29.
But 2009 will not be just about getting back at Pittsburgh. The Ravens have scheduled dates with 2008 playoff teams San Diego (Sept. 20), New England (Oct. 4), Minnesota (Oct. 18), and Indianapolis (Nov. 22).
Despite those games, Baltimore’s schedule is the fifth-easiest in 2009. But in a league where a team can jump from worst to first in one season, opponents that may have appeared easy last season could make a run, making the Ravens’ goal that much harder. The Chiefs, Bengals, Packers, Bears and Raiders are all teams that could be better this year, and they are all on the Ravens’ schedule.
But ultimately how far the Ravens go will be on how their young quarterback develops. Joe Flacco is poised to become one of the league’s biggest stars. It’s a quarterback’s league, and after searching for a franchise passer since arriving in Baltimore in 1996, the Ravens believe they have one.
Much like Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady have played significant roles in their Super Bowl squads, Flacco will have to play the same role for the Ravens if they are to become champions. It’s those teams, the Steelers and the Patriots, that the Ravens hope to emulate.
“There are some great images out there,” Bisciotti spoke of those franchises. “They’ve continued to lose coaches and lose great players and continued to grow. I think that success breeds success, and I think we’re on the way.”
Ultimately, this team expects to contend for a Super Bowl. They believe they have the players to do that, and provided those players stay healthy and continue to develop as they did last season, the Baltimore Ravens can match those expectations.