Months before they would lift the Lombardi Trophy into the confetti-filled air, the Ravens' top decision makers started to have regular discussions about the future of the organization and the potentially wide-scale changes it would face following the 2012 season.
As early as last October, they knew that a couple of players were pondering retirement. They knew many of their upcoming free agents were destined to leave for more money and more opportunity elsewhere, and they'd have to replace other veterans with players who were younger, cheaper or deemed better fits.
What the Ravens' brass couldn't have known at the time is that they'd preside over one of the biggest roster overhauls that a Super Bowl winner would ever experience. When rookies and select veterans take the field Tuesday, followed by the first-full squad practice of training camp Thursday, the Ravens will be without nine starters from the team that beat the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, to capture Super Bowl XLVII. Until this year, no reigning champion had lost more than five starters before the next season.
Since that Feb. 3 night in New Orleans, the Ravens have added 35 new players to their active roster, a process that has seen general manager Ozzie Newsome and the front office reload for the post-Ray Lewis and Ed Reed era through the draft and mostly under-the-radar free agent additions.
"As Ozzie said at the outset of this offseason, they weren't going to go through what they went through the last time that they won the Super Bowl. They were going to keep the roster green and growing and that's what they've done," said ESPN analyst and former NFL executive Bill Polian, the architect of the 2006 Super Bowl-champion Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills teams that went to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s. "It's difficult to do, but with the goals of that organization, they've done the right thing and at least from my perspective, they've done it awfully well."
Lewis and center Matt Birk retired after playing 31 combined seasons in the NFL, but for both football and sentimental reasons, there was a temptation for Newsome and coach John Harbaugh to bring back as many players from last year's team as possible. However, the established goal, from owner Steve Bisciotti all the way on down, was not to become the first repeat world champions since the 2003-04 New England Patriots. It was to build a young, deep and financially feasible roster that would allow the Ravens to compete for a Lombardi Trophy not just in 2013-14, but in the years ahead.
To that end, they traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin and released Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, key players whose 2013 salaries were deemed by the organization to exceed their projected role and production. They allowed Reed to sign with the Houston Texans without making an aggressive bid to retain the future Hall of Famer. They also watched linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Cary Williams, who all played key roles in the Super Bowl run, sign elsewhere.
Suddenly looking at a roster with myriad holes, Newsome made a couple of relatively modest free agent commitments to defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, linebacker Daryl Smith and safety Michael Huff. He made his biggest free agent expenditure on linebacker/defensive end Elvis Dumervil, signing the former Denver Bronco to a five-year, $26 million deal.
Left tackle Bryant McKinnie was re-signed to solidify the offensive line in front of quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens filled more needs in the draft, grabbing safety Matt Elam, inside linebacker Arthur Brown, nose tackle Brandon Williams and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, among others.
And after all the transactions, the Ravens have about $6 million in salary cap space to address any needs that may arise in training camp.
"They had to do this. I think it was economics that forced them into this situation" said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins and the Houston Texans and now an NFL Network analyst. "I'm impressed with what they did [but] I'm not surprised because they have a great front office. They showed patience and they had faith in their plan all the way. I don't know how many times I heard Ozzie say, 'The season doesn't start until September.' I think in some areas they are better and in other areas, they are not as good."
After the 2000 Ravens rode one of the NFL's most dominant defenses to the organization's first Super Bowl win, the front office vowed to keep the veteran-laden team together to make another run at a title. Future salary cap concerns were ignored and a boatload of veterans had their contracts extended or restructured.
When that run fell short following a 10-6 regular season in 2001 and a divisional round playoff loss to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, the cash-strapped organization had little choice but to launch a massive rebuilding project. Veterans like Shannon Sharpe, Rod Woodson, Tony Siragusa, Rob Burnett, Sam Adams and many more all were done as Ravens.
"When [the playoff loss] happened, I think we realized that we were going to have to pull the Band-Aid off here," said Phil Savage, then the Ravens' director of college scouting. Savage later was elevated to the team's director of player personnel before becoming the general manager of the Cleveland Browns. "We ended up waiting a year and then in 2002, we had 19 rookies on our team. I wouldn't say [it was] lesson learned for them, but I would say it's not the same approach now. We really tried to hold onto everything between 2000 and 2001 and at the end of 2001, we really flushed the place clean with that whole youth movement. Instead of doing it all at the same time, I think this [current] approach allows them to get a little ahead of the curve."
The Ravens didn't rebuild for long. They went 7-9 in 2002 before going 10-6 and making the playoffs the following season. Newsome and his long-time lieutenants decided that they wouldn't repeat the same mistakes again if they won another Super Bowl.
"It wasn't that one day we woke up and decided that we were going to let a lot of really good football players walk away and play for other teams, but we had a plan in place," Newsome said earlier this offseason. "We had to allow the plan to unfold. It unfolded after we won the Super Bowl, which makes it really, really nice, but it also makes it really, really tough when you go to battle with guys and then you have to see them walk away from your organization because we have to prepare for '14, '15 and '16. Steve has put us in charge of making sure that we remain a competitive football team over the course of that."
And a significant part of doing that was making sure to keep the franchise quarterback in place. A month after he completed one of the best postseasons ever for a quarterback by being named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, Flacco agreed to a six-year, $120.6 million deal. The contract made Flacco the highest-paid player in Ravens history and the face of the franchise going forward.
"They are going to bridge some of this gap because they have one of the best quarterbacks in the league," Savage said. "Back then, we had 21 really good players and the question was a long-term answer at quarterback. Now the question is not at quarterback. That is a marked difference between then and now. That really gives you much more versatility in trying to shape your roster."
Youth is served
Led by the 37-year-old Lewis and the 34-year-old Reed, the Ravens had the eighth oldest roster in the NFL at the start of last season with an average age of 27 years and 172 days. The average age of the Ravens' 22 starters in the Super Ball was 28.9 (28.4 on offense, 29.4 on defense). According to Elias, that's the 10th-oldest lineup to play in the Super Bowl and the oldest since the 2002 Oakland Raiders.
However, in a span of a couple of months, nine of the 13 oldest players on that team left the organization. The Super Bowl-winning squad had 10 players age 31 or over. The current Ravens have only three: cornerback Chris Johnson (33), McKinnie (33) and Smith (31).
Harbaugh said Monday that getting younger was only one factor that went into the offseason decision-making.
"You'd have to go case by case," Harbaugh said. "The guys that we lost by salary were all young guys. Age was not a factor for Kruger, for Ellerbe, for Cary Williams. Most of the age guys were guys who were retiring. That's just a fact of life and to me, we're moving on. Two of the guys — Anquan and Ed — were basically salary cap [decisions], so that was financial. Every situation kind of stands on its own two feet."
But according to Harbaugh, adding young talent is a "must the way the National Football League is built.
"It's not like the salary cap era is different than the old days. The salary cap itself demands that you play a lot of young guys. You have to."
It's hard to draw any conclusions when the Ravens still have 90 players on their roster and 51 have two years or less of NFL experience. But with Juszczyk (22) potentially replacing Vonta Leach (31) at fullback, center Gino Gradkowski (24) taking over for Birk and safeties Huff (30) and Elam (21) entering the lineup with Reed and Pollard (28) gone, the Ravens could shed as much as two years off the average age of their roster.
"You can't be better than winning the Super Bowl, but yes, it's entirely possible that age would have caught up to them to some degree and that this year would've been a less than stellar year by Ravens standards had they stood pat and it won't be," Polian said.
Super Bowl champions traditionally opt to keep the winning nucleus together so such significant swings in the average age and makeup of the team one season to the next are rare. The starters on the 2000 Ravens had an average age of 28 years, 281 days compared to 29 years and 130 days the following season, according to Elias.
But the current team's top decision makers knew at some point that they team would have to get younger. Salary cap issues — the Ravens have given out huge deals to Flacco, running back Ray Rice and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata the past two seasons — would force their hand. The normally stout defense also showed signs of age during last year's regular season, when they ranked 17th in total defense and allowed a franchise-worst 122.8 rushing yards per game.
But heading into training camp, three rookies — Elam, Williams and Brown — could be in line to start on defense and one more (Juszczyk) on offense. The Ravens haven't opened the season with three rookie starters since 2002 when Reed, Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Tony Weaver started on defense.
"There's no question, it's difficult," Casserly said when asked about immediately thrusting rookies into starting roles. "They are all good players, good prospects. They're all going to be good players at some point, but how good are they going to be right now? The mistakes you're going to have to live through, but we've seen rookies come in and play really well. It's just hard to predict."
Savage, now the executive director of the Senior Bowl, one of the pre-draft showcases, gave high marks to the Ravens' rookie class. His biggest question is who will assume the leadership roles after the departure of so many vocal and accomplished veterans.
But he thinks the Ravens have already set the right tone with their offseason decision-making, moves that, to him, indicate that the franchise is ready to turn the page.
"One of the things that the Ravens do probably as well as some of the successful organizations, you really have to take each year as its own calendar year," he said. "Whatever happened last year really doesn't amount to much as far as what they do in 2013. They put some people in place that should allow them to be very competitive and give them a chance to win a Super Bowl. To them, it's not about defending a championship. It's about trying to go out and win another one."
Since the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 3 to capture the organization's second Super Bowl title, the team's roster has undergone a significant overhaul. It remains to be seen if the 2013 Ravens will be better, but they'll certainly be a lot younger.
|Key departures||position||age||Potential replacements||age|
|Vonta Leach||FB||31||Kyle Juszczyk||22|
|Anquan Boldin||WR||32||Jacoby Jones||28|
|Matt Birk||C||36||Gino Gradkowski||24|
|Ma'ake Kemoeatu||NT||34||Brandon Williams||24|
|Paul Kruger||OLB||27||Elvis Dumervil||29|
|Ray Lewis||MLB||38||Jameel McClain||27|
|Dannell Ellerbe||ILB||27||Arthur Brown||23|
|Cary Williams||CB||28||Lardarius Webb||27|
|Bernard Pollard||SS||28||Matt Elam||21|
|Ed Reed||FS||34||Michael Huff||30|