The Ravens lost some of the luster off their inaugural season on theplaying field, but the trouble indicators started flashing back in February,when the league approved the Cleveland Browns' move to Baltimore.
After that, it all became a hurried process, from naming Ted Marchibrodahead coach to selecting a coaching staff. The Ravens never seemed to catchtheir breath, from forming a permanent seat license campaign to releasingticket information finding housing for their players.
And remember: The Ravens were 5-11 in 1995 as the Cleveland Browns.
"We just never seemed to get a grasp of things," said offensive guardWally Williams. "We had guys looking for homes even after training campstarted. I left my family back home in Cleveland because I couldn't imaginetrying to settle into a new city, find schools for your kids and then try tocompete in a profession as intense as this.
"Next year, we'll be more settled," said Williams. "We know the city, weknow our coaches and we know our schemes. We've got a year under our belts,and I'm optimistic we'll come in, jump on our AFC Central rivals and turn 4-12into 12-4 next season."
That's too optimistic. But the Ravens aren't that far removed from being aplayoff team in the watered-down NFL.
The Ravens lost five games by five points or less. They heldfourth-quarter leads in five of their last eight games with a team thatstarted 40 different players, second to Indianapolis (which started 41),mainly due to injuries.
"I hate to talk about what-ifs, but I know we would have been better if wehadn't had all the injuries," said Marchibroda, who will take a hard look atthe team's off-season conditioning program. "I have never experienced so manyin one season, especially on the defensive side of the ball. That's how I knowI didn't overestimate the talent on this team, because we came so close withso many injuries."
The season started to turn for the Ravens on the night of Oct. 13 inIndianapolis, where the Colts defeated the Ravens, 26-21. The Ravens played aninspired game, physically whipping the Colts, but they lost more than a game.
They lost two of their best defensive linemen -- tackle Dan Footman(broken arm) for six games and end Rob Burnett (knee) for the season. It wassuch an emotional game that Marchibroda, who coached at Indianapolis lastseason, cried as the Ravens dropped to 2-4.
"There was another game that could have been a turnaround game," saidMarchibroda. "When we played Pittsburgh the first time, they were unsure ofthemselves and their quarterback situation. We were also trying to findourselves, and I think if we had beaten them it would have provided us with abig turnaround.
"But once we lost Burnett and Footman, that took away a lot of things wecould have done."
It would be a mistake for the Ravens to think that injuries alone causedthe collapse. They were showing signs of weakness before Burnett and Footmanwent down, like the 364 yards and 46 points surrendered to the New EnglandPatriots on Oct. 6.
And it wasn't just because of the defensive personnel. Veteran playerslike safeties Stevon Moore and Eric Turner had a tough time adjusting tofirst-year defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.
"I heard some of the better veteran players say before and during theseason it was going to be hard in the transition after working withestablished defensive coaches like Nick Saban and Bill Belichick," saidreserve safety Vashone Adams. "I think guys like Eric, Stevon and [cornerback]Antonio Langham struggled, especially early. I also think it would be a safeassessment to say we never had the grasp of his defense."
Added Moore: "Right now, the sidelines organization is not where it needsto be. That has to get better before anything else gets better. We can't gointo a football game not knowing what personnel should be out on the field."
"It could get better, and that's all I've got to say about it," Lewis saidin reference to team chemistry.
Injuries were partly to blame for some of the Ravens' organizationalproblems, because the team shuffled players in and out of the starting lineupevery week. Injuries forced the team to change to a 3-4 defense in the middleof the season and back to the 4-3 two weeks ago. L "Every week, we had new linemen or linebackers," said Adams.
But the Ravens also lacked talent. Moore and Turner never played up totheir Pro Bowl potential, according to Marchibroda, and Langham started offslowly. The defensive line was devastated by injuries. Rookie middlelinebacker Ray Lewis played well, but outside linebackers Mike Croel, JerrolWilliams, Craig Powell and Keith Goganious had little impact.
The Ravens had the league's worst defense, allowing 368.1 yards per game.
"That's why we're leaning toward a 4-3 next season," said Marchibroda."Other than Ray Lewis, none of our linebackers stepped forward. If we played a3-4, we would have to find three brand new linebackers."
Offensively, the Ravens are secure. Quarterback Vinny Testaverde passedfor more than 4,000 yards, and receivers Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexanderhad career years. Bam Morris proved to be the running back of the future.During the off-season, the team will have to determine if it wants to re-signSteve Everitt, a center with Pro Bowl potential, and release veteran lefttackle Tony Jones from a line that was one of the best in the league.
"We would like to keep the group together," said Marchibroda. "We thinkour offense is in fine shape. Our focus will be on defense."
The Ravens have the fourth pick in the draft in April, and there is littlequestion what they are looking for. They had only 30 sacks this season, andwill be looking for a pass-rushing threat who can do for the Ravens whatrookie Simeon Rice did for the Arizona Cardinals this season. Florida Statedefensive ends Reinard Wilson and Peter Boulware and linebackers Dwayne Ruddof Alabama and James Farrior of Virginia are some of the best collegeprospects.
The Ravens haven't decided if the pick will be a defensive lineman oroutside linebacker. The team also would like to add a cornerback and a speedyhalfback to complement the tough inside running of Morris.
The Ravens, who are struggling through some tough financial times untilthe new stadium opens in 1998, might trade down for a lower pick and alsoobtain a high-profile free agent such as Washington Redskins defensive linemanSean Gilbert, San Diego Chargers defensive tackle Reuben Davis or outsidelinebackers Chris Slade of New England or Vinson Smith of the Chicago Bears.
Whatever the situation, the Ravens have stressed a need for leadership.Marchibroda said he didn't get much from the veterans this season.
The Ravens don't necessarily want a rah-rah guy, but an emotional leaderwith a tough-guy temperament. Everitt, rookie offensive guard Jonathan Ogden,Morris, defensive tackle James Jones and Ray Lewis started to emerge asleaders this season.
But the Ravens are looking for a few more good men.
"We'll be looking for guys who have something to bring to the table," saidOzzie Newsome, the team's vice president of player personnel. "We don't wantjust talkers, but guys who can lead by example and not be afraid to take thatrole. We just don't have enough."
If not, the Ravens could have another season like 1996 or 1995.
"I didn't think anything could rival last season until this seasonmaterialized," said Everitt.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun