CINCINNATI — After it was finally over, after the Ravens had trudged off the field one final time in the 2015 season, coach John Harbaugh made his way around the locker room.
He sat next to and had extended conversations with some Ravens. Others got a hug or a handshake and then Harbaugh moved on. But Harbaugh, the worst season in his eight-year tenure now over, wanted to make sure that he showed his gratitude to as many players that he could reach.
"This has been one of the most rewarding seasons I've ever had," Harbaugh said after the Ravens' season-closing, 24-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals before an announced 57,524 at cold Paul Brown Stadium.
"It's hard for people on the outside to understand that, but I think if you've ever been part of a team, you would understand that. If you've ever coached or played, you can understand how that could go. These guys will stand forever because of what they accomplished – not in the win/loss column, but in the team column and the family column in sticking together, [showing] character."
Let the record show that one of the worst seasons in Ravens history officially ended at 4:17 p.m. on a cold day in The Queen City. After leading by two at halftime, the Ravens were overrun in the game's final 30 minutes by the AFC North champion Bengals, who outscored the Ravens 17-0 during a stretch than spanned the third and most of the fourth quarter.
It was fitting, with the way the rest of the season went, that even with a depleted roster and even after making a flurry of mistakes, the Ravens got the ball back with 41 seconds to go with a chance to tie the game with a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
However, Ryan Mallett ended any comeback hopes by throwing his second interception of the day on his 56th passing attempt, one more mistake in a season defined by them.
The season is "a failure in a sense, but not a complete failure because in all of these losses, you can kind of see the character of the team and the players, and how good certain players can be," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "It's a losing situation not to be in the playoffs, but it's a winning situation because we know what type of team we've got."
The Ravens' 5-11 record is their worst since the 2007 team also won five games in coach Brian Billick's final season. Adding further insult, the Bengals, who finished 12-4 and have beaten the Ravens five straight times, will face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs this coming weekend while the Ravens will watch, contemplating the series of changes that every offseason brings.
"It's tough," outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw said. "We had plans on winning the division, getting to the playoffs and getting to the Super Bowl. Not to reach those goals, it's tough."
Kicker Justin Tucker might be the Ravens' most prominent free agent, but the team likely will place the franchise tag on him before he hits the open market. Upshaw and left tackle Kelechi Osemele, who won Super Bowls in their rookie seasons, won't get the same treatment and might have played their last games with the team.
Other players, and perhaps some coaches, also figure to be with different organizations next season. That's just the nature of the ever-changing NFL, and the players seemed to understand that as they headed out of the locker room and onto the team buses.
"No matter which way you spin it, this group won't be the exact same ever again," said Tucker, who had accounted for all the Ravens' scoring until Mallett completed a 2-yard touchdown pass to fullback Kyle Juszczyk with under two minutes to play. "Such is life in the NFL when you come to the end of the season."
When the regular-season began about four months ago, the Ravens were viewed as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Neither Harbaugh nor any of his players backed away from those expectations. But a 1-6 start, which featured spotty play and weekly injuries to some of the Ravens' top players, conspired to all-but take them out of playoff contention by midseason.
The Ravens improved in several areas as the season went on. Their 20-17 upset victory over the Steelers last Sunday was testament to that, as was how Harbaugh held his team together without quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Justin Forsett, wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and several other starters.
But Sunday provided another reminder that they are nowhere near good enough. The Bengals took the lead for good on A.J. McCarron's 5-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green less than four minutes into the third quarter, and they were never really threatened again.
"The thing that our guys hopefully learned is what winning football looks like," Harbaugh said. "If we don't turn it over, then it's field-position football."
Harbaugh said that the Ravens "have the guys who can get the job done," but then quickly acknowledged that "anybody can see what the pieces are that we need."
Harbaugh will have one final team meeting Monday afternoon after the players have their exit physicals and clean out their lockers. Owner Steve Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass, general manager Ozzie Newsome and Harbaugh will speak to reporters Thursday in the annual "State of the Ravens" address, this year's version coming far earlier than anybody anticipated.
Then, one of the most important offseasons in franchise history will begin in earnest. Free agency starts on March 15, and the NFL draft will be a little more than a month later. The Ravens will have the sixth overall pick, their highest selection since 2000, when they picked running back Jamal Lewis fifth.
For the next couple of months, you'll hear plenty about prospects like wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (Mississippi), offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley (Notre Dame) and defensive backs Jalen Ramsey (Florida State) and Vernon Hargreaves (Florida).
"We just have to put everything together," cornerback-safety Lardarius Webb said. "Ozzie is going to do a great job in the offseason, bringing great guys in. We'll get some of our guys back. I'm very confident in what we have here. We learned a lot this year."
Rookie tight end Maxx Williams, who had the best game of his otherwise quiet season Sunday, talked about how much "fuel" this season provided going forward. Kamar Aiken, a relative unknown heading into the year who became one of the NFL's more consistent receivers in the second half, was already talking about quieting his doubters and exceeding his 75-catch campaign next year.
Then, there was Harbaugh who stayed positive throughout and was still teaching lessons after the Ravens final pass, final catch and final tackle of the 2015 season.
"I told them that you're going to talk to your kids about it," he said. "It's easy to talk to them about the Super Bowl and the championship and playoff games you've played in. That's all fine. But there's a point in time when your kids are going to come to you and they've been going through a rough time and things aren't going to be going well for them and you're going to be able to relate back to your career and say, 'Let me tell you about 2015 with the Ravens and what we did and what I did and how I handled it.' That's pretty powerful."