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Ravens' best bet: Curb the enthusiasm


Ravenstown has never been more down than it was at the end of last season. There was genuine disgust for the first time since the team's arrival from Cleveland.

Among the many factors that combined to generate disappointment, none was more important than the overheated expectations for the team that prevailed as the season began. Many observers had the Ravens making the playoffs and possibly going far. Coach Brian Billick had said it was his most talented team, quite a statement considering his 2000 squad won the Super Bowl.

The 6-10 season that ensued was the team's worst since 1998 and amounted to a bucket of cold water thrown on everyone, from the players to the coaches to the front office to the fans.

Before adding veteran quarterback Steve McNair last week, the Ravens had done little to quell the sense that things still weren't going swimmingly. Losing three defensive starters (Maake Kemoeatu, Tony Weaver, Will Demps) to free agency but re-signing Jamal Lewis and adding halfback Mike Anderson and defensive linemen Trevor Pryce and Justin Bannan probably amounted to a wash.

But McNair's addition promises to send expectations into orbit again.

Some of the renewed enthusiasm is warranted and understandable; though 33 and prone to injury, McNair played well enough for Tennessee last year to earn a Pro Bowl selection. He will be more consistent than Kyle Boller, and steady in the clutch. His addition alone could push the Ravens back to .500, and either way, fans should get more bang for their buck.

But at the risk of being a killjoy, it's dangerous to suggest that the Ravens can set their sights on a run into late January just because they added McNair. They still have all sorts of question marks - the same ones that brought them down a year ago. Will the offensive line improve, as it absolutely must? Can Lewis put everything behind him and turn back the clock to 2003? Can Chris McAlister become a shut-down corner again? What about that dubious locker room chemistry?

With all that and more hanging over them, the Ravens are anything but a lock to jump right back into the NFL's upper echelon. Remember, they have lost 11 straight road games and 14 of their past 22 overall. They were 2-7 against teams that finished over .500 in 2005, and they ended the season with an embarrassing effort in Cleveland.

If McNair alone can fix all that, he's worth even more money than he's getting, which is a lot.

But here's guessing that none of that negativity will circulate as the 2006 season nears. Even though the Ravens haven't been here that long, there's already a tradition of letting enthusiasm for the team run, um, a little too wild.

And while it would seem that fans are the prime offenders, they're really just taking their cue from the team.

In 1996, nine games into the Ravens' inaugural season, then-owner Art Modell promised he would have an "elite team" in time for the move from Memorial Stadium to Camden Yards in 1998. (The Ravens went 16-31-1 through their first year at Camden Yards and didn't finish over .500 until their Super Bowl season.)

In 2001, after signing Elvis Grbac in the wake of winning the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., Modell said, "No question, we're a better team now than we finished up in Tampa on paper." (The Ravens made the playoffs but lost in the second round.)

Before the 2004 season, owner Steve Bisciotti said, "My expectations are [making] the playoffs." (They didn't.)

Hey, even after last season's debacle, Bisciotti said, "I heard some commentator say the Chargers were the best team not to make the playoffs, but I think we have as good a chance as San Diego of being back [in the playoffs] next season."

And that was in January, months before McNair was added.

Overall, the team has had a relatively low-key reaction to the quarterback upgrade. No one has made any bold pronouncements about knocking the Pittsburgh Steelers off their perch. Billick has talked a lot about process.

But for whatever reason, this is a team that, historically, doesn't need an excuse to inflate its place in the pro football universe, sometimes to its detriment.

It will be interesting to see how things go as the minicamp season gives way to training camp, the exhibition season and, finally, games that count. The fans are excited, as evidenced by the ovation that greeted McNair when he threw out the first pitch at an Orioles game last week. It would be nice to see the Ravens control the fever, scale back and just play ball instead of talking big, as most winning teams do.

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