When the Ravens left New Orleans some 21 months ago, they had a shiny new trophy and an organizational game plan on how they'd remain among the NFL's elite.
They'll return to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Monday for their first meaningful game there since the Super Bowl XLVII victory with an overhauled roster and a different focus: trying to keep pace in a conference threatening to leave them behind.
Post Super Bowl life hasn't been easy for the Ravens, who again find themselves with little margin of error in trying to get back to the postseason. At 6-4, the Ravens, who face the New Orleans Saints (4-6) on Monday Night Football, are tied for third place in the AFC North and sit ninth in the AFC with the top six seeds qualifying for the playoffs.
"While that Super Bowl team will always walk together forever as winners, as champions, we're writing our own story this season of the 2014 Baltimore Ravens," said kicker Justin Tucker. "Several of us have fond memories of playing a very meaningful football game there in the Super Bowl, but I think this game is just as meaningful. It's important because it's happening right now."
Any opportunity to reminisce leading up to the game was quickly dismissed by the Ravens, a predictable reaction from a group with so much on the line and so few remaining members from the team that beat the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, to capture the organization's second championship.
Just 22 of the 53 players on the Super Bowl XLVII team are still in the organization and just 17 are currently on the active roster.
"I'm surprised it's that many," said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the longest tenured member of the team. "I think they've done a good job bringing in Ravens-type guys in here, and I think right now, the chemistry is starting to gel where we wanted it to be."
The Ravens, though, remain in a precarious position a season after they finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. They haven't missed the postseason in back-to-back years since 2004 and 2005.
But the gap between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos and the rest of the AFC appears sizable. The Ravens were also swept by the Cincinnati Bengals, currently in first place in the AFC North, and overwhelmed on the road against the Indianapolis Colts, the class of the AFC South.
"We'll see if they can get hot at the right time," said former Ravens executive and Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage, an analyst for ESPN. "New England and Denver seem to get most of the publicity. I think Indianapolis will be in that conversation. To think that you're going to have to go and win at those places, you've got to be able to score, defend the pass and rush the passer. And those are all areas where there are probably question marks for the Ravens as we sit here today."
The Ravens are 14-12 since winning the Super Bowl. Fifteen teams have more wins during that span. Few who understand how the league works are calling it a dramatic drop-off since the Super Bowl just yet, but the Ravens are struggling to maintain the pace set in John Harbaugh's first five seasons when the team averaged just under 11 regular-season victories.
"I think there are a lot of clubs that would love to sit there and say that 8-8 was their worst season in the last seven or eight years," said former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, also an analyst for ESPN. "You've got to be able to replace great players — iconic players — and that's so hard to do. Last year, they certainly went through a transition. They missed Anquan Boldin which is why, I think, they signed Steve Smith to replace that type of role. At the same point, there is going to be a transition on how you replace a Ray Lewis or an Ed Reed. How do you replace guys destined for Canton? That takes time."
Even before their surprising Super Bowl run gained traction, the Ravens knew that change was imminent. Lewis and Matt Birk were heading toward retirement. The team had a boatload of pending free agents and general manager Ozzie Newsome knew he needed to sign quarterback Joe Flacco to a contract extension while getting the team's salary cap situation in order.
After they won their first Super Bowl in 2000, the front office restructured or extended multiple contracts, intent on keeping the core of a championship team together. But a year later, the roster was gutted with the organization in salary cap jail. Newsome vowed that he wouldn't make the same mistake again.
Flacco, the most valuable player of Super Bowl XLVII, was signed to a six-year, $120.6 million contract in March 2013, the biggest contract the Ravens have ever given out. But Boldin was traded in a cost-cutting move and numerous key free agents, including linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger and defensive backs Reed and Cary Williams, were allowed to leave with little resistance from the Ravens.
The following offseason, more starters fled with offensive tackle Michael Oher, defensive end Arthur Jones and defensive backs Corey Graham and James Ihedigbo finding lucrative opportunities elsewhere. Their departures left the current Ravens with just seven remaining starters from the Super Bowl team.
"You knew when the organization was going to transition from Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and onto that next period, that was going to be a major transition time," said former Ravens coach and current NFL Network analyst Brian Billick. "It obviously became an offensive-dominated team in terms of you get Joe Flacco and you try to surround him. They've been predominantly a defensive dominated perspective so that was a major transition as well."
Trying to get back on top
The Ravens' rapid roster overhaul the past two seasons is not unique. It's pretty much the way of the current NFL.
The 49ers, the team the Ravens beat in the Super Bowl, have just 20 of the 53 members of their 2012 squad currently on the active roster.
"It's almost like college," Billick said. "It's a transitory league now."
Flacco also wasn't at all surprised when he was informed how few of his Super Bowl-winning teammates will be in a Ravens' uniform tonight.
"It doesn't seem that long ago, but no, I'm not surprised by the changes," Flacco said. "That's every year. This is my seventh year here, and I think there are four or five guys that were on the team when I got here and are still on the team. … It's still shocking, yes, but I wouldn't say that I'm too surprised because I've been through it before."
The organization's established goal, preached from the top by owner Steve Bisciotti and then filtering down to Newsome and Harbaugh, is to challenge for a playoff berth every year.
Last season's team wasn't good enough. Flacco regressed and the offense was a mess. The Ravens lost their final two regular-season games and were never able to capture the late-season momentum that its predecessor rode.
The jury remains out on this season's Ravens, who are improved offensively but still exhibit some of the same flaws and inconsistencies that the 2013 team did. The Ravens' players acknowledged that they have a lot of work to do and that work starts Monday night against the Saints at a place that conjures up so many good memories.
"You're going to have some flashbacks, but nothing beats the real thing," Suggs said. "We did go there in the preseason [this year], but we're facing a different task, a whole different beast right now. There's going to be some memories, but we understand we've got a job to do."