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Ravens owner Bisciotti defends Flacco

OWINGS MILLS - Wearing a blue sport coat, loafers and his trademark tan, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti has rediscovered his smile after a devastating AFC championship game loss to the New England Patriots.

That doesn't mean the Anne Arundel County businessman is entirely over a crushing defeat where wide receiver Lee Evans dropped a potential touchdown pass in the final minute and kicker Billy Cundiff flubbed a chip shot field goal in the final seconds.

"No, I'm not over it," Bisciotti said Wednesday during a state of the team press conference. "The more you get into 2012, the more you realize the pain is going away. I don't think any of us are over it, but we have to move on."

When asked what the Ravens need to do to make the Super Bowl, Bisciotti replied quickly: "Hold on to a ball."

Although the Ravens have a hefty workload in terms of offseason business, Bisciotti is encouraged about the future and was adamant that the AFC North champions will remain a contender by locking up quarterback Joe Flacco and Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice to new contracts.

The Ravens might have to use a $7.7 million franchise tag to hold onto Rice, an unrestricted free agent who led the NFL with 2,068 yards from scrimmage.

"Ray's an unrestricted free agent, so obviously, the franchise mechanism has to come into play," Bisciotti said.

Newsome added that the team prefers to sign Rice to a long-term deal as soon as possible rather than designate him as the franchise player.

Although Flacco is under contract through next season, the Ravens intend to sign him to a long-term contract.

Negotiations could prove difficult with Flacco, though, due to differing views between the quarterback and the organization on how much he should be paid.

"With Joe, we're just going to sit down and start grinding out a contract and terms," Bisciotti said. "Ray and Joe Flacco will be part of this football team next year, guaranteed."

The Ravens went 13-5 last season, going 9-0 at M&T Bank Stadium as they advanced to the playoffs for the fourth year in a row and the AFC title game for the second time in four seasons under coach John Harbaugh.

Significant changes won't be in the offing. An overhaul isn't in the Ravens' future.

"When you put up the kind of numbers and the success that we have, then it really comes down to tweaking," Bisciotti said. "And we are forced to tweak regardless. We don't have an opportunity to stand pat."

Flacco endured heavy criticism for his tendency to hold the football too long in the pocket to his quiet demeanor in the huddle.

Bisciotti defended Flacco, who has a new position coach now with former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell hired as quarterbacks coach.

"I think he's going to be extremely successful, I think he's going to have rings," Bisciotti said. "He's got 10 years of his prime to show it. I think that he will be rewarded for his personality in the long run, and I think our fans will, too."

"We're going to stay the course. We believe in him. We believe he is getting stronger mentally and smarter with the ball."Unlike a year ago when general manager Ozzie Newsome made it abundantly clear that Flacco needed to improve, he endorsed the towering New Jersey native enthusiastically.

And Newsome praised Flacco for adjusting to the removal of favorite targets Todd Heap and Derrick Mason prior to training camp last summer.

"There's no doubt that Joe improved," Newsome said. "The thing that I like about Joe, when you're in this business, you are judged on one thing: winning. Joe wins. If he continues to win, if one pass is caught, he'd be in a Super Bowl. And I think he's going to win Super Bowl, a lot of them. And I hope to be a part of them. He has improved. The thing that you cannot knock about Joe is that he's a winner."

The Ravens know that it will be difficult to retain all of their free agents, especially guard Ben Grubbs.

The Ravens invested a five-year, $32.5 million contract in guard Marshal Yanda last August that included a $10 million signing bonus.

Grubbs is expected to be command an even more expensive figure in the marketplace, perhaps as high as $40 million to $50 million in total value.

Ideally, the Ravens would like hold onto him.

"Ben has two major factors that we like: He's a really good player and he's young," Newsome said. "Ben was here in the building just two hours ago, and I had a good talk with him. I think we're at a good spot with Ben, but will Ben keep us from getting and who will we have to let go in order to keep Ben? That's going to be the balance."

The reality is Grubbs' situation could unfold the way it did years ago when the Ravens lost another promising young offensive lineman in center Jason Brown as he signed with the St. Louis Rams.

The Ravens are unlikely to sacrifice several players in order to keep Rice, Flacco and Grubbs.

"I would have to say then, 'Who would we let go to keep those three guys?'" Newsome said. "Because if we decide to let four or five players go, waive them, terminate them, then we could keep those three very easily. It's easy to do if I was to sit here, 'I'm going to cut this guy, cut this guy and cut this guy.' Then, I could sign all three of those guys in two days."

Bisciotti expressed confidence that the Ravens' window to contend isn't slamming shut due to the roster growing older.

"Teams like the Patriots and Steelers are older than we are," Bisciotti said. "I don't see age as being a window-closer, not when you have a franchise quarterback entering his fifth year."

The Ravens will eventually have to replace two defensive legends in middle linebacker Ray Lewis, whose 37th birthday is in May, and free safety Ed Reed. Reed turns 34 next September and dealt with a nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder problems last season.

Both former NFL Defensive Players of the Year played through pain and questions were raised about whether they can sustain their high standard of play.

The Ravens have no clear line of succession for Lewis and Reed at this point.

"We don't know if they're on the roster yet," Bisciotti said. "I don't know that you ever look to replace Hall of Famers at their positions. They didn't find Ray Nitschke's replacement. Thirty-five years later, they've got a great linebacker, but they didn't go out and replace him." I don't think you replace Hall of Famers. I think they show up in different areas, and as long as we're willing to spend the money, we will have four or five Pro Bowlers on our team.

"We don't know where they're going to show up later. So, I don't think you replace them. And then safety and linebacker might not be our best two positions three years from now. They might be rookie or second-year guys, up-and-comers."

The Ravens have gone 44-20 under Harbaugh and are the only NFL team to make the playoffs each of the past four seasons and win at least one playoff game.

Although the Ravens have yet to reach a Super Bowl during that span, Bisciotti is encouraged about the future.

"There's a lot of pride and a lot of disappointment," Bisciotti said. "I am proud of the product we're giving Baltimore."

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