A pretty clear signal that the Ravens' offseason didn't go quite as well as the organization and its fans had hoped came Wednesday when the team waived safety Michael Huff and defensive lineman Marcus Spears, off-season signees of whom big things were expected as the Ravens embarked on a massive rebuild on defense.
When Huff, the seventh overall pick in the 2006 draft who had never lived up to his potential in Oakland, signed in March coach John Harbaugh said, "We are just thrilled."
Safe to say the thrill was gone by the time the season began. Huff started one game before being benched. Spears also started one game. Neither made any impact before being jettisoned as the team brought in younger players that might be able to help on special teams.
Of course, that wasn't the first indication that all is not perfect in Ravensland. The 3-4 record that included not one but two losses to lousy teams kind of gave that away.
They face a game today that will show whether they have a chance to turn things around and become the team most believed they would be before the season started.
They're playing the Browns. They always beat the Browns. The Ravens have won 11 times in a row against Cleveland. That means Harbaugh, Joe Flacco and Ray Rice have no idea what it's like to lose to the Browns.
They're coming off a bye. They always win with an extra week of preparation. The Ravens are 10-1 since 2002 after their bye. They're 5-0 under Harbaugh. That means Harbaugh, Flacco and Rice have no idea what it's like to lose after the bye.
Take heed, however. The Ravens, the team that won playoff games in Denver and New England last January, have been dreadful on the road this season. They're a mere 1-3 away from Baltimore with surprising losses at the always bad Buffalo Bills and at the worst edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers we've seen in years. Those teams are 3-10 against everyone else.
Perhaps Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden was right when he told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer this week, "they aren't the Ravens of old."
Or perhaps he's wrong.
Even getting no help from Huff and Spears, the Ravens' defense has actually played well since the embarrassing opening loss at Denver. Baltimore gave up seven touchdowns to Peyton Manning & Co., but they've allowed only six in six games since. (And one of those touchdowns was actually a pick-six scored against the Baltimore offense.) They limited these Browns to just six points in their first meeting and have played well even in defeat - holding the Packers to their paltriest output of the season (19 points) and giving up only one touchdown in Pittsburgh.
That's not the side of the ball that's been problematic.
The offense ranks 21st in points per game, 20th in yards per game.
Super Bowl MVP Flacco hasn't exactly looked worth $20 million per year seven games into his new mega-contract. He ranks 22nd among qualifiers in completion percentage and passer rating and 21st in touchdown passes while throwing the seventh-most interceptions.
Let's not pin all the blame on Flacco, though. He's not exactly throwing to the group of receivers Manning is. And he has no running game to fall back on.
The Ravens are averaging 74 rushing yards per game - or about what Jamal Lewis used to amass by himself before halftime. They're dead last in gaining a laughable 2.8 yards per carry. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce haven't been totally healthy, but nor did they forget how to run overnight.
The problem has been an offensive line that will be tested even more now that promising young starting guard Kelechi Osemele is likely out for the year with back problems. The line hasn't been able to open holes for the running backs and has allowed Flacco to be pressured into 20 sacks (and numerous incompletions).
Forget the Huff and Spears signings. Forget trading Anquan Boldin. It's looking more and more like the biggest offseason mistake was counting on two very young O-linemen (Osemele and Gino Gradkowski) and one who was already known to be unreliable (Bryant McKinnie).
We'll see today, against a team the Ravens always beat, if this new, patchwork line has the potential to contribute to a season turnaround. Or if the only blocking it will be doing is the team's path to the playoffs.
The crazy part is that, because most of the AFC is so bad, today can't be characterized as a "must-win game." But it will be telling. Oh, yes, it will be telling.

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