INDIANAPOLIS — The Ravens' quest for a franchise quarterback finally ended when Joe Flacco capped a stellar postseason by engineering a Super Bowl victory.
Now, a championship and Flacco's unresolved contract as a pending unrestricted free agent have created a complex reality.
Flacco is poised to either be paid as much as a $20.46 million franchise tender next season or be retained through a potential blockbuster deal that could rival New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees' $100 million contract.
The welcome prospect of having a top quarterback is juxtaposed by a challenge: trying not to lose several key players due to a tight salary cap situation that will be impacted by the expense that Flacco carries this year and going forward.
"You've got two issues, and the first one is a happy one, that you've got a great quarterback that can win the big one and be the top-flight quarterback at playoff time," said former NFL general manager Bill Polian, the architect of a Super Bowl winner with the Indianapolis Colts and four Super Bowl runner-ups with the Buffalo Bills. "There's no more questions for Flacco to answer. The other side of the coin is now they have to pay him whatever amount of money they have to pay him, and that's going to take up a lot of cap room.
"You've got to understand that the cap is designed to hurt the Baltimores of the world. It's designed to make them disgorge talent, just as it did with the Colts and all the good teams. That's a very tough stumbling block to be in their situation."
Polian knows well the pitfalls of having a franchise quarterback. During Peyton Manning's years in Indianapolis, the Colts annually devoted a large chunk of their salary cap space to Manning and had a relatively low cost defense with the exception of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. The Colts were unable to keep running back Edgerrin James prior to their Super Bowl winning season (2006-2007) because they couldn't afford him in addition to Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison.
However the Ravens aren't complaining about their situation.
They've earned their second Lombardi Trophy in the history of the franchise. And Flacco, 28, is hitting his prime.
Flacco threw 11 touchdowns with zero interceptions in four playoff games, out dueling the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick, the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning, Polian's former hand-picked quarterback in Indianapolis, and the Colts' Andrew Luck.
"It's a good problem to have," said Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta on Thursday. "We are aware of the challenges that lie ahead and we're prepared for them. Joe has really developed as a player, as a leader. Now, the challenge for us is to keep as many good players as we can. That's really the challenge of this business with the salary-cap constraints is to keep your good players, and we're going to try to do that."
Besides Flacco, the Ravens' top unrestricted free agents are starting inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, outside linebacker Paul Kruger, free safety Ed Reed and cornerback Cary Williams.
While Kruger and Williams are considered likely to leave, the Ravens ideally would like to keep Ellerbe and are set to meet with his agent, Hadley Engelhard, here at the NFL scouting combine. Reed, 34, who's still in the process of selecting a new agent after firing his previous representation years ago, could potentially make more money elsewhere now that his six-year, $44.5 million contract has expired.
"We've never had three marquee players who were free agents at the same time like Kruger, Ellerbe and Flacco," said Polian in reference to the Colts. "That's a tough puzzle for [vice president of football administration] Pat Moriarty and [team president] Dick Cass to solve."
The Ravens have 49 contract commitments for the 2013 fiscal year totaling $111.136 million against the salary cap, leaving them $10.864 million under a projected salary cap of $122 million. That includes $1.182 million in salary-cap space carried over from 2012 as well as $1.8 million in dead money from former Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff, but doesn't account for $4.35 million in savings once middle linebacker Ray Lewis officially retires.
However, the Ravens have yet to assign restricted free agent tenders for tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson and defensive lineman Arthur Jones.
The undertaking of paying Flacco will carry a hefty price regardless of how negotiations unfold between his agent, Joe Linta, and Moriarty that are expected to resume with an upcoming meeting in the next few days in Indianapolis.
"It's a huge, huge challenge," said Gil Brandt, a retired former Dallas Cowboys personnel executive who now analyzes the NFL draft. "You've got players on that team that are high-priced. So, it's hard when you have to pay the quarterback. I think they'll be fair."
With so much money to be invested at the quarterback spot, the most in the history of the franchise, the Ravens will likely have to save money at other positions.
"It's tough because anytime you're paying these guys big-time money, you have to skimp to some degree in other areas," Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. "It becomes a game of decisions where am I'm going to with some young players who aren't making as much money. Anytime you have a quarterback you think is a franchise guy, you have to pay him.
"If they lose guys, they have the ability to restock. I really admire what Eric and Ozzie Newsome have done. Their organization is set up the right way. They've done a fantastic job of drafting players and signing in free agents that fit in well."
For the Ravens, their bid to remain on top is going to require them to bolster the roster through the draft in April and, to a much lesser extent, a free agent signing period that starts March 12.
"We think you have to be patient, first and foremost," DeCosta said. "In Ozzie Newsome, you have a guy who's always patient and never panics. That's what makes him a Hall of Fame executive."
The Ravens have a proven track record of acquiring future Pro Bowl talent through the draft and are banking on those evaluation skills to replenish the roster.
"The Ravens stay with the process, which has proven to be successful," Polian said. "They're not driven by anything more than pure football needs. The proof obviously is in the pudding. They've been a contender for a long time. I can tell you from personal experience, it's awfully hard to do.
"And they've done it. It's much tougher than people understand. It's tougher than going to the big game once and then falling back for eight years. To stay up there for a long time, as they've done and we did here in Indianapolis, is very difficult to do."
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