Ravens build high rise of expectations

The Baltimore Sun

A year later, the room felt noticeably different.

It was 12 months ago this week that Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti last joined us in here, showing up at 1 Winning Drive that day to introduce his new coach, an uncovered jewel he pulled from the earth and was eager to show off.

It felt different yesterday. It was again Bisciotti and John Harbaugh sitting behind a table, but the vibe had noticeably changed. The day Harbaugh was introduced, it was a cocktail of hope and optimism with maybe a twist of uncertainty. Yesterday, owner and coach gathered in front of media to discuss the season, the loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday in the AFC title game and the coming offseason. The hope was still there. The optimism was still there. The uncertainty, though, had been replaced by something else.

It took a few minutes to put a finger on it. But Bisciotti nailed it pretty quickly. He kept returning to this idea of expectation. He acknowledged that when Harbaugh took over, Bisciotti told him if the Ravens won only six games but established a coach and quarterback duo to stabilize this team for the future, he would be happy. Harbaugh responded, "I won't be," as telling a statement as has come from his mouth this past year.

"I'm not talking about you; I'm talking about me," Bisciotti recalls telling him. "I want you to know what the owner's expectations are.

"I'm not looking at this year. You're going to build yourself up. I care about what we're going to look like in 2010 and make some long-term decisions going forward."

Needless to say, the plan has been accelerated. And entering the offseason, expectations have risen proportionally. While analysts around the NFL have showered the Ravens with compliments these past several weeks, from Bisciotti's perspective - though he is pleasantly surprised with the rate of progress - there's plenty more work to be done.

"I don't think we overachieved," Bisciotti said. "Everything you do, you're trying to build a champion. We didn't get there, so I think we underachieved."

A problem with the Ravens has been consistency. Not week to week, but year to year. Not since 2003 and 2004 have they posted back-to-back winning seasons. Great one year, bad the next. The team has corrected its course, and the task this offseason is to steady the ship, to strive for consistency.

There are plenty of smaller questions surrounding the Ravens right now: A new defensive coordinator? A new defensive philosophy? Which linebackers can they bring back? How long will players see starched Terrible Towels chasing them in their sleep? But a year ago at this time, a much bigger question loomed, one that had always held the franchise back. And in stepped Joe Flacco.

Now, no one is pretending Flacco has it all figured out.

Bisciotti himself saw the difference last weekend in what Flacco is and what he needs to become. The owner, in fact, said the difference-maker in the Steelers' loss was the other team's quarterback. That isn't meant as a slight to Flacco; it just means he's a guy coming off a good rookie season - a guy who will be expected to do more in the future.

"I'm not going to say he's the quarterback of the next 12 years," Bisciotti said. "I think you know that after three years. I really don't think you say that after one. And the thing is, I think Joe feels that way, too. I don't think he feels he passed the test; I think he feels like he passed a test, and it was the first one."

No doubt, just being able to discuss such things is a luxury after years of turbulence at the quarterback position. It's the key reason optimism has suddenly disguised itself as confidence.

"We're looking forward all the time. Steve and I talked about being satisfied," Harbaugh said. "We're content with where we're at at this time. But we're not satisfied."

What does it take to be satisfied?

"The ultimate is to hand the fans a trophy," he said, "and I'm not satisfied until we hand the fans a trophy."

As they approach the offseason and try to find the missing pieces that might allow them to beat the Steelers at least once, everything the team's brass said yesterday sounded good. They want to upgrade every position. They like all of their players and appreciate all of their free agents.

There will be changes, but an important one has already taken place.

What had years ago been a cocky swagger was replaced last January by uncertainty. In the 12 months since, it has evolved into something else altogether.

It's a calm, confident resilience, underscored by expectations that for good reasons have spiked to new levels.

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