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It figures to be a fascinating training camp for the Baltimore Ravens as they begin their quest to become the first Super Bowl champion to repeat since the 2004 New England Patriots.
A camp without Ray Lewis. Or Ed Reed.
A camp loaded with uncertainty about new players, and with numerous veteran players coming back from injuries.
A camp with Joe Flacco no longer dogged by questions about his elite status or his contract status.
Of course, only a fraction of the fans who used to watch the team develop daily during training camp are able to these days. The Ravens switched camp from McDaniel College, where it had been held since the franchise moved from Cleveland, to its Owings Mills complex prior to the 2011 season.
For the team, training on-site probably makes sense. Fewer logistical headaches or hassles.
For the players, they're far more comfortable in their normal surroundings.
But for the fans, camp doesn't mean what it used to.
For many, training camp in Westminster is where they first connected with this team.
It's where they got their first look at Lewis and Jonathan Ogden and so many others. Where they watched the last Super Bowl title defense take a big hit when Jamal Lewis blew out his knee. Where they interacted with players and coaches, making memories, collecting autographs and forging a lifelong bond.
Sure, there will be a few chances to see open practices - one is scheduled for Aug. 4 in Annapolis, another for Aug. 11 at M&T Bank Stadium - and a lucky few will hit a lottery and be allowed into the Owings Mills complex. But it's nothing like it used to be, when a few thousand people each day could watch the team stretch, run through drills and, basically, develop into a team under the hot sun.
Of course, here's what they've done since they began holding training camp in Owings Mills: A trip to the AFC Championship in 2011, a Super Bowl title in 2012.
In other words, moving camp to their home base has worked pretty well for John Harbaugh & Co., and, short of a few 6-10 seasons and/or an erosion of the fan base, won't be changing under this administration.
The best part about camp, whether in Owings Mills or Westminster or Timbuktu, is getting a first look at new players. They will certainly be out in force for the new-look Ravens over the next few weeks, mostly on defense.
The biggest difference about the offense in the first (and probably last) full year of Jim Caldwell as offensive coordinator should be Flacco's confidence level, coming off a Super Bowl MVP performance and the signing of a gargantuan contract. The only real concerns are at center, after Matt Birk retired, and at wide receiver, where Torrey Smith and noted dancer/kick returner Jacoby Jones have to make up for the loss of Anquan Boldin, who had a good run with the Ravens including a remarkable performance in last year's postseason before being dealt to San Francisco.
Defensively, everything is different.
How could it not be, with the retirement of Lewis after 17 seasons and the free-agent defection of Reed after 11? (The team also allowed top pass rusher Paul Kruger and inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe to sign elsewhere, but it is the rare player, indeed, who makes much of an impact after leaving Baltimore.)
The Ravens brought in numerous veterans, including former Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, the beefy Marcus Spears, inside linebacker Daryl Smith, and safety Mike Huff. They also drafted some help, picking four straight defensive players to start their draft.
They'll feel almost as if they acquired (or reacquired) three other star players if Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Lardarius Webb can make healthy returns.
The odds are against a repeat, of course. Four of the first 13 Super Bowl winners repeated, but it's been done only four times in 33 years since.
In fact, three of the past seven Super Bowl champions failed to make the postseason the following year. And the other four failed to win a single playoff game.
Can the Ravens buck that trend? That will start coming into focus for fans this week at training camp. At least for the few fans who get a chance to see it.

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