On the eve of the first practice of training camp, Brian Billick's opening message to his players was setting their sights on "the prize."
The trouble is, the Ravens can't get a clear view of anything until the dust settles from a peculiar offseason that won't seem to end.
After getting sideswiped with troubling issues for the past five months - from Jamal Lewis' indictment on federal drug charges to the Terrell Owens trade debacle to Corey Fuller's arrest on gambling charges - the Ravens were greeted yesterday at McDaniel College with the expected absence of cornerback Chris McAlister (contract dispute) and the unexpected season-ending loss of nickel back Dale Carter (blood clot).
"Part of the heritage of this team is that we've dealt with all the issues we're dealing with now," said Billick, who enters his sixth season as the Ravens' coach. "This homegrown team [21 of 22 starters began their careers with the Ravens] has a reference point to draw back on and say, 'We know we don't have to panic because we've been here before.'"
When drawing on history, Billick prefers to point to the period in which the Ravens evolved from the NFL's youngest team in 2002 to a championship contender this season.
The Ravens return all but one starter from last season's AFC North Division winner, including eight Pro Bowl players. For the first time in three years, Billick has dangled the Super Bowl as a viable destination for his players.
"We've paid the dues over the last two years, and now this is our payoff," Billick said. "Given the talent and the cumulative experience we have here, to think in any other terms but as a Super Bowl-caliber team would be hiding from the facts."
The Ravens will have to reach that goal without Carter, a 12-year veteran who figured into the team's nickel package (fifth defensive back).
Doctors diagnosed a blood clot in his lungs earlier this month, when breathing trouble caused him to rush to the emergency room. But it was only three days ago when he found out that he would have to receive blood-thinning medication for the next six months to treat the potentially life-threatening ailment.
"Football is a long way from what I'm thinking about right now," Carter said. "I thank God I'm here today."
The Ravens placed Carter on the non-football injury list and moved Corey Fuller back to the nickel position. Fuller, who was expected to move to safety this camp, will stay in that role unless the Ravens pick up a defensive back when cuts are made before the regular season.
"We want to be supportive of Dale," Billick said. "But he clearly will not play this year."
The status of McAlister, the camp's only no-show, is more unknown. By not reporting yesterday, the Pro Bowl defender is protesting being named the team's franchise player for the second straight year and the inability to get a long-term contract worked out.
Because McAlister hasn't signed his one-year, $7.1 million tender, he isn't under contract and can't be fined for skipping camp.
"It could last for a long time," said McAlister's agent, Mitch Frankel, when asked how long the cornerback will miss camp. "There is no timetable."
Billick said he was "very comfortable with the circumstances" involving McAlister and wouldn't comment on the situation again until he reports.
McAlister's teammates expressed the same understanding.
"Everybody has got to do what they got to do for their family," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "Whenever Chris gets back, I look for us to be the best cornerback tandem in the league."
Other topics covered by Billick:
Lewis' pending trial. "Nothing has changed in regards to the Jamal situation. Our faith in Jamal and his circumstances and his character is unwavering. That process ... will show that. We have no hesitation in supporting him in that."
The health of linebacker Peter Boulware (knee), who will be placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list with backup quarterback Anthony Wright (shoulder) today. The expectation is still for Boulware to be healthy enough to be a 30-snap situational pass rusher. "Can he be ready for the season if all he has done is rehab the entire preseason and not had any contact before the opener? That's something we're going to have to determine," Billick said.
Ravens training camp
When: Today to Aug. 24
Where: McDaniel College