Ravens won't sacrifice long-term goals for short-term payoff

If you want to understand what the Ravens have been doing over the past week — other than dismantling a Super Bowl champion — it might be instructive to look back at the final week of the regular season.

The Ravens had a longshot opportunity to improve their seeding for the playoffs, but chose instead to play a pared-down roster against the Cincinnati Bengals to gather their strength for what would turn out to be a wildly successful postseason run.

Did they tank the Bengals game?

Not exactly. They tried to win the game, as coach John Harbaugh promised, but with a group of players that really couldn't be expected to compete at the level that was required to beat another playoff team.

Now, after the braintrust said during the team's end-of-season news conference that the Ravens would try to get back to the Super Bowl but would not sacrifice long-term goals for a short-term payoff, they appear to be taking a similar approach to the 2014 season.

They have taken the opportunity presented by the retirement of Ray Lewis and the potential departure of Ed Reed to do a major makeover on the defense, which may or may not deliver immediate results. The unprecedented purge of Super Bowl champion starting players is a bold move by general manager Ozzie Newsome that may result in a stronger franchise down the road, but the scope of it is sure to remind fans of the rebuilding project the team undertook after coming up short in an attempt to repeat after its first Super Bowl title.

Here's the stark reality of what's going on. The Ravens have taken apart a defense that was showing some serious cracks last season, but it probably will take longer than this draft and free agent period to rebuild it into something resembling what Ravens fans have grown accustomed to over the past 14 years.

Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti may have soft-played their plans early on to avoid raining on Baltimore's post-Super Bowl euphoria, but they definitely hinted at what has transpired over this crazy week.

It would be easy to simply say "In Ozzie We Trust," and wait for him to start filling the large holes that have developed in the roster, but it would make more sense to view this major shakeup in its greater context — for better and worse.

The Ravens' surprising Super Bowl run, which came with the team on the verge of a serious salary cap squeeze, created a golden opportunity for the Ravens to retool. What better time to make some painful sacrifices for the greater long-term good than right after your fans have gotten their parade?

Newsome will have a boatload of picks in this year's draft and he has cleared some cap space to make a few more wily free agent pick-ups, so — just maybe — the Ravens can still make a run at Harbaugh's sixth consecutive playoff berth. They won't be considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender, but they can still sell the concept that anything is possible after the amazing chain of events that carried them through the playoffs and onto the trophy stand in New Orleans.

In that context, this all makes perfect sense, but you've got to scratch your head over at least one of the individual decisions. Dumping go-to receiver Anquan Boldin over $2 million leaves room to wonder if Newsome got blind-sided by the quick departure of so many other key players.

Maybe the Ravens are channeling the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, who liked to say that it's better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late, but we're not talking about just any good player. Boldin was a very important part of the Super Bowl run and a very important part of the Ravens' offensive chemistry, which makes it difficult to see the logic of dealing him for a late draft choice after giving a record $120 million deal to quarterback Joe Flacco.

We'll probably never know if Newsome would have made a different call if he had anticipated that free agent Dannell Ellerbe was going to jump so quickly to the Miami Dolphins, but it's pretty obvious that there was more to this week's roster shakeup than just salary cap relief. The release of hard-hitting, big-attitude safety Bernard Pollard, which resulted in just $1 million in additional cap space, is pretty compelling evidence of that.

The Ravens are in a serious transition phase. The departure of Lewis (and possibly Reed) further rebrands the newly minted Super Bowl champs as a predominantly offensive force and allows Newsome and Harbaugh to establish a more team-centric identity.

Hope it works.

Soon.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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