For Ravens, building on '06 easier said than done

The Baltimore Sun

It ended terribly, but the Ravens had a splendid season, their second best since coming to Baltimore.

That means absolutely, positively nothing going forward.

Parity's powerful pull has turned the NFL into a league of abrupt turns, with many teams rising up one year and falling down the next. The Ravens improved by seven games this season. New Orleans is in the NFC title game after going 3-13 in 2005. Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl last February and then missed the playoffs this season.

It's hard to start thinking about what lies ahead, knowing that the Ravens blew a chance to host the AFC title game when they lost Saturday. But life goes on, and the Ravens now face their toughest challenge - endeavoring to join the elite class of teams that avoid the ups and downs and compete for playoff spots every year.

Indianapolis and New England are in the class. Philadelphia can usually be found in the NFC playoff mix. But that's about it.

The fact that the Ravens went 13-3 and won a division title this season doesn't guarantee them anything. They have a lot of veterans and a lot of talent, which should translate into at least one more winning season before age and salary cap issues start catching up with them, but at the same time, they had a lot of breaks bounce their way this season.

They needed late rallies to beat Cleveland, Tennessee and San Diego, blocking a field goal to preserve the Tennessee win and getting help when San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer went conservative too soon. Those three wins could easily have been reversed, resulting in a lower playoff seeding and, well, who knows?

And let's face it, the Ravens' schedule, which looked so tough in September, turned out to be soft. They only played three regular-season games against teams that made the playoffs (San Diego, New Orleans and Kansas City), and their toughest AFC North rivals, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, unexpectedly dropped off.

The same breaks aren't liable to go the Ravens' way next season. They're scheduled to play four 2006 division winners (New England, Indianapolis, San Diego and Seattle) and only six of their 16 games will be against teams that finished below .500 this season. That qualifies as an obstacle to overcome in a league in which the line between winning and losing is eternally thin.

That's why Saturday's loss figures to be even more disappointing in hindsight than it was in real time. The Ravens were perfectly positioned for a Super Bowl run. They had the team to get there. They had home games lined up. The breaks had gone their way. But they blew the opportunity.

Getting back to the same place won't be easy. "We had it. We were there," receiver Derrick Mason lamented. "You never know when you'll be in the same position again."

Who knows what might happen? Jonathan Ogden is contemplating retirement. Adalius Thomas' contract is up. The 11 over-30 players on the roster probably won't raise their games. Quarterback Steve McNair will be in his 13th season.

Make no mistake, it will be tough to reprise 13-3. Ravens coach Brian Billick said yesterday that he wasn't expecting many major changes during the offseason, an understandable approach. But general manager Ozzie Newsome shouldn't stand pat. A proactive offseason set up this winning season. It'll take another proactive offseason to keep things going.

The first move, announced yesterday, was smart - letting Billick continue to call the plays while promoting Rick Neuheisel to offensive coordinator. The offense fared better under Billick. Why change what's working?

But the next moves won't be as simple to execute. Running back Jamal Lewis ran hard this season but isn't what he used to be. It's time for a change.

Billick maximized the effectiveness of the mediocre running game by using it to establish a rhythm as much as gain yards, but in the end, third-and-five situations became too commonplace and opponents boxed the Ravens in. The running game just wasn't explosive. Billick conceded yesterday that improving it would be a focus. That means either drafting a new back or obtaining one in free agency.

More explosiveness in the passing game wouldn't hurt, either. The player capable of providing that is already in uniform - Demetrius Williams. Billick needs to expand his role.

Defensively, it's mostly a matter of grooming the next generation to step in when needed - and also possibly finding another cornerback to replace Samari Rolle.

Things do look good for the most part, but they didn't look good a year ago, and look what happened. It's impossible to predict what's going to happen to any NFL team in any year. That uncertainty is precisely why the league is so popular, and it's also why the Ravens can't just sit back and expect another winning season to unfold in 2007.

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