Taking their first steps toward a decisive season, the Ravens reported to training camp yesterday, arriving with a new hope and an old distraction.
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata became the latest Ravens first-round pick to miss the start of camp, the result of standstill negotiations. The sides remain far apart in talks, with little hope of a quick resolution. Ngata is in town with his family but is expected to leave tomorrow if no deal is reached.
Despite this traditional annoyance, coach Brian Billick focused his players on the task at hand, delivering a keynote address intended to guide the Ravens back to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
"My mantra is recognize the talent in the room but recognize the job in front of you as well," Billick said. "We have a lot to prove to the league and a lot to prove to ourselves. By the same token, that doesn't mean we can't be extremely confident. This team can have the expectations to go to the playoffs, be a championship-caliber team and go to the Super Bowl."
Talent and cohesion shouldn't be an issue for the Ravens.
They have 13 former Pro Bowl players on the roster, although only two (offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and quarterback Steve McNair) made the all-star event last season.
They also bring back 38 players from last year's 6-10 team, including 19 of 22 starters.
"We're configured for a pretty good two-year window here," Billick said.
The addition of McNair has only heightened the expectations.
He will take the field today for his first training camp practice with the Ravens, eager to show what he has learned since his workouts with the team six weeks ago.
"I'm getting very comfortable with the offense," said McNair, who wasn't traded from the Tennessee Titans until June 8. "It's just putting it on the field."
McNair, though, acknowledged there is more work to be done.
"I'm not saying I'm at the point where I want to be," McNair said. "But that's why you have training camp."
The one newcomer who is not expected to suit up for the first practice is Ngata, the only unsigned Ravens rookie.
His absence is a tough blow for the Ravens because he is scheduled to start at defensive tackle and he already has lost valuable practice time. Because of an NFL rule that bans rookies from attending minicamps until their school graduates, Ngata missed all of the spring workouts with the veterans.
There are no indications that a deal with Ngata will happen anytime soon. A team official said the sides have yet to agree on the framework of a contract (whether the length will be five or six years).
The presumed holdup is the contract signed by the Cleveland Browns' Kamerion Wimbley, which is considered a poor one in league circles. The Ravens likely want to gauge Ngata's deal off Wimbley, who was taken one pick after Ngata, while the agent probably is seeking a contract that better represents the market value of the entire first round.
Ngata's agent, Mike McCartney, did not return phone messages.
The only consolation for the Ravens is that holdouts have not hurt them in the past. The Ravens, who have not signed a first-round pick on time since 2001, have gotten productive first years out of all their recent first-round absentees (Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Kyle Boller and Mark Clayton).
Still, Billick had wanted to start camp without any issue that could weigh down a team.
"We've done everything we can to put the best talent on this team," Billick said. "How do you get better? You eliminate the drag. We're going to try to remove the drag on this team."
"If you can start training camp with all the pieces in place, your chances of getting into that rhythm increases."
Notes -- Ogden, whose father died on Wednesday, was excused from reporting to camp. It is unknown when he will join the team. ... The Ravens signed defensive tackle Remi Ayodele, an undrafted rookie out of Oklahoma who was waived by the New England Patriots on June 16. ... Reed, who received a contract extension this offseason, was the first player to report to camp.