By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun
9:10 PM EST, December 30, 2013
His teammates were all around him, saying their goodbyes, exchanging phone numbers and emptying the contents of their lockers into industrial-size garbage bags. But Ravens running back Ray Rice couldn't get himself to do any of it.
"It's tough when you're home this early," Rice said. "It just feels like it's too early to be packing up."
The Ravens spent Day 1 of their offseason attending one final team meeting with coach John Harbaugh at the Under Armour Performance Center and packing up their belongings.
Some of the players, like Rice, who vowed to come back next year in the best shape of his life, plan to be fixtures at the team complex over the next several months. Others, like offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, middle linebacker Daryl Smith and defensive backs Corey Graham and James Ihedigbo, have no idea what their futures hold, as they are among the Ravens' 13 potential unrestricted free agents (14 including wide receiver Brandon Stokely, who said he will retire).
But a day after their 2013 campaign and their Super Bowl XLVII title defense came to an abrupt end with a 34-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, all the players were in agreement that the offseason was starting way too soon, and the team that took the field Sunday will look dramatically different when it is back together for offseason minicamps.
"It hurts a little bit, seeing guys, knowing that it could be the last opportunity that this same team will be together," said Graham, who voiced a desire to re-sign with the Ravens though he knows the decision isn't entirely his to make. "It's a little rough, but this is how this league is. You just have to go out there get better and find a way to make it better next year."
Finishing the season 8-8, the Ravens became the fourth team in the past eight years to win a Super Bowl and then not make the playoffs the following year. But to many of them, being done with the season this early is an entirely new feeling.
In Harbaugh's first five seasons, the Ravens had made the playoffs and won at least one postseason game every year, the longest such streak in theNFL.
"Like I said, it's tough," said Rice, who finished the season with 660 rushing yards, ranking 30th in the NFL. "It's not normal, especially for me. I've always been in the playoffs every year. … For the last couple of months, we battled, man. It's tough to see it end like this. We could have done some great things. We'll just try and bounce back and get back to where we need to get back to next year."
By now, the Ravens' shortcomings in 2013 have been well documented. On offense, Joe Flacco threw a career-high 22 interceptions, three more than any Ravens quarterback in franchise history, and struggled to get his team into the end zone. The running game never got going, and the offensive line struggled to keep Flacco clean and open up holes for Rice and Bernard Pierce.
On defense, the Ravens allowed far too many big plays, their pass rush disappeared late in the season and they struggled to get off the field late in games when a stop could have been the difference in a win. Even on Sunday against the Bengals, a game in which Flacco threw three fourth-quarter interceptions, the Ravens had the game tied late in the third quarter before the defense allowed a 12-play, 90-yard touchdown drive that lasted more than six minutes.
"I don't know," Ihedigbo said when asked why things just didn't seem to click this season. "You could just sum it up [as a] lack of execution and key game situations — just things to learn from."
As Graham pointed out, there was never a time when the 2013 Ravens were clicking on all cylinders. They were inconsistent one quarter to the next, never mind week by week. They didn't string together three straight wins until late November-early December, when basically every game was a must-win for them if they wanted to stay in the playoff picture.
When their offense was showing some signs of breaking out, their defense was struggling. When their defense was playing dominant football, the offense was unable to move the ball or finish a drive. Even their special teams unit, which became the strength of the team and boasted arguably the Ravens' most valuable player in kicker Justin Tucker, struggled at times early in the season.
Graham denied that the pressure of defending a championship played a role in the team's problems, but other Ravens acknowledged it as a possible factor.
"Everyone is gunning for you when you're a champion," said tight end Ed Dickson, who will also be a free agent this offseason. He said that he'd like to return but he understands that may not be realistic with the Ravens focused on re-signing their top tight end, Dennis Pitta.
"We don't make any excuses for anything and we own our losses and we own our wins at the same time. We just weren't good enough this year. That gives you kind of an edge going into the offseason, knowing that you have something to work for and areas you want to get better at. And you trust that from the top to the bottom, starting with Coach Harbs, we're going to get it right."
In Harbaugh's final 2013 speech to the team, he reiterated that missing out on the playoffs was never going to be tolerated. The Ravens will always have higher expectations, and the work to get back to the postseason would start immediately.
"We'll get back," Rice said. "It's not easy, it's tough. But this is a hard-working bunch. We just have to find things that fit us and we'll get back to being better."
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