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Age might be only a number, but it's beginning to add up

The Baltimore Sun

What could have been a night for the ages was instead a night for the aging. And young football fans all over Baltimore collectively lost their innocence. Daddy, why is that man in purple crying?

Geez, these Ravens sure got old fast, didn't they? One by one, we watched a nucleus of veterans fall apart, drifting from the huddle toward the sideline, each clutching a different body part and grimacing.

Ray Lewis strained his triceps and immediately gave a much more dire prognosis than the team doctor, at least in Lewis' unprofessional opinion. Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens' giant anchor on the offensive line, was slowed by a bad toe, of all things. And Steve McNair, he of 1,000 ailments, had to search hard but managed to find a new body part to injure - his groin.

Depending on how you look at it, the injuries suffered in Monday's season-opening loss at Cincinnati could be viewed as either incredibly bad luck or deceptively good: bad because how could one team lose that many important components in a single game, and good because how fortunate are the Ravens that the group of old-timers made it even this far?

Last season was completely dependent on the health of the Ravens' veterans. And for the most part, those three remained healthy and played vital roles every Sunday from Week 1 through the NFL playoffs. What were the odds that fans could expect a second season of such good fortune? I guess, as we learned Monday, not very good.

The Ravens were keeping their lips tightly sealed yesterday on the severity of the injuries, and we probably won't know until later today who might be in or out of Sunday's lineup. But just the fact that these injuries happened - and that they all managed to strike at once, as if coordinated by ill-tempted fate - is certainly cause for concern.

A football team is like any piece of complex machinery - old parts are generally replaced by newer ones, and those that remain in use tend to operate slower and less effectively than they used to. This is why none of Monday's ailments is especially surprising, but it's also why expectations for the season were immediately lowered - yes, after just one game.

Unlike many teams, the Ravens have many vets at vital skill positions, which means they weren't really built to grow and improve as the season progressed. Sure, they would jell, they'd grow together and they'd become more efficient as a whole, but too many of the individual parts - despite still being capable of All-Pro performances - had long ago passed the peak of their respective careers. The Ravens weren't counting on this trio of vets to improve over the course of the season; they just needed to maintain.

And that's probably the scariest revelation from Monday's loss: If they're already grabbing their aching arms and throbbing legs after only four quarters of a new season, what happens after four weeks or -shudder! - four months?

When just a single piece is out of the lineup, you could argue that the team is profoundly affected - on the field and in the locker room. (The Ravens are 12-12 without Lewis in the lineup in the past five seasons and 4-2 without Ogden in that same period.)

Every team has contingency plans, and the Ravens are no different. They like backup quarterback Kyle Boller - as a backup quarterback. They think rookie offensive tackle Jared Gaither will be playing in Pro Bowls - at some point in the future. And they know there are a few guys who could line up as middle linebacker - but who's as influential as Lewis in the locker room and as infectious on the field?

Sure, you can probably plug one gap and get by. But all of them?

You suspect that McNair and Lewis probably will be starting soon, probably Sunday, and if Ogden misses action, perhaps he can return healthy soon enough. But this was just the first week of the season. The bumps and bruises don't typically take their toll until the leaves have started to change colors.

For veterans, it's tough enough to get out of bed Monday mornings; the Ravens already are faced with the reality that some of their best players might not be able to get out of bed on Sunday mornings.

Put simply, if the Ravens' aging stars aren't playing to the best of their abilities week in and week out, fans will be cheering on a shell of a team by midseason.

People get old, and their bodies break down. But an entire franchise's playoffs hopes rest squarely on just a few shoulders, and if those shoulders are wrapped and iced and getting rubbed down by trainers, we might all age quite a bit these next few months.

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