Ravens report to training camp — this time, without the circus

As NFL veterans prepare to begin training camp this week, a national debate rages over the punishment of a star performer, and the league faces questions about its ability to dispense justice.

Sound familiar?


Except this year, the Ravens aren't at the center of the ugly storm. The star in question isn't the team's former running back, Ray Rice.

In fact, the glare of national scrutiny seemed far away Wednesday as familiar faces Joe Flacco and Terrell Suggs strolled into the team's training complex in Owings Mills. They and the rest of the Ravens will begin practice on Thursday, about 400 miles south of the hubbub around the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady, who's facing a four-game suspension.

As fans wondered why Brady allegedly had his cell phone destroyed amid the NFL's "Deflategate" investigation, the Ravens looked forward to a few mundane weeks of reacquainting themselves with football minutiae.

It's a far cry from 2014, when they began camp haunted by the punch Rice threw to his future wife's jaw in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino in February. His arrest was one of five for the team last offseason, most among NFL teams. They were also coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time under coach John Harbaugh.

"It's better this year than it was last year," Harbaugh said a few hours before he'd conduct the first team meeting of the season.

"It's nice, no distractions," said running back Justin Forsett, who took Rice's place last season and made the Pro Bowl. "Now we've got to go out and keep it that way."

How many games would Rice miss? What would he say about the incident? Would fans boo him when he took the field? How much of a distraction would the negative attention be for his teammates?

Those questions hung heavy in the air as the national media descended on Owings Mills to watch the team begin its preparations for last season.


Players, fans and analysts say the atmosphere has calmed considerably in the 12 months since.

"Ray who?" said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing analyst with Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. "The Ravens are back to normal. They handled the Rice situation as best they could, quickly eliminated the problem, and went on to make the playoffs with Justin Forsett ably taking over the ball-carrying role — which helped fans forget about Rice's importance to the team. Now, a full season removed from this controversy, the mess is well behind them."

Consider this year's burning issues: Will rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman replace the departed Torrey Smith as a deep threat? Will the defensive front remain stout with Haloti Ngata in Detroit? Will Flacco mesh well with new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman?

Pretty tame by comparison, and the team's fans are grateful for it.

"It's definitely nice that the cloud is gone," said Arbutus resident Jim McCain, president of the council of Ravens Roosts fan clubs. "It's easier going into the season this way."

"I am so looking forward to this season," said Julie Oldach of Potomac, a finalist in a 2013 NFL contest to determine the league's leading fan. She'll be in Owings Mills for the first practice Thursday after winning entry in a team-run lottery.


Unpleasant as it was last July, the Ravens had little idea how much worse the climate would become in September when TMZ posted video of Rice punching his then-fiancee. The team released Rice (who remains a free agent) within hours. But the move was too little, too late for critics, who spent the next several months questioning the competence and integrity of the franchise's leaders.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell faced widespread calls for his resignation. The nation began an uncomfortable conversation about its attitudes toward domestic violence.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said those weeks easily represented the worst crisis of his tenure. He apologized to fans and sponsors and acknowledged the franchise would need to rebuild trust with the surrounding community.

The Ravens forged a partnership with House of Ruth Maryland to promote awareness of domestic abuse, and Harbaugh said the team wouldn't be as tolerant of off-field mistakes. General manager Ozzie Newsome said he could no longer imagine drafting a player with a hint of domestic violence in his background.

The team tended to stand by its players who were arrested last year, but that was no longer the pattern this offseason. In February, the Ravens swiftly cut defensive lineman Terrence Cody after learning he was under investigation for animal cruelty (he was ultimately indicted by a Baltimore County grand jury). They did the same after running back Bernard Pierce was charged with drunken driving in March.

Skeptics wondered whether the team would react so decisively if a key star faced similar charges. And the Ravens are still awaiting an Aug. 17 court date for director of security Darren Sanders, who was placed on paid leave after he was charged with second-degree assault and a fourth-degree sexual offense for allegedly groping a worker at M&T Bank Stadium.

But the team has generally avoided unwanted headlines since Pierce's arrest and release.

"Last year, it was very uncomfortable," Suggs said Wednesday. "A lot of us hadn't been in that type of situation before. It's good to come into camp with no major negative storyline concerning us."

Bisciotti said in February the Rice situation had neither permanently damaged the Ravens' relationship with fans nor affected the franchise's economic standing.

"I think it's as strong," he said, assessing the bond between team and city. "I think that people can be disappointed or they can be somewhat in disagreement with how you handle it or critical of how you handle something, but they still take things as a whole in the proper perspective. No, I don't see [damage]. I don't think that it's a long-term effect."

It didn't hurt that the Ravens returned to the postseason, hammered the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers in a wild-card game on the road and then nearly toppled the Patriots in the AFC divisional round.

McCain agreed with Bisciotti's take on the enduring relationship between fans and franchise.

"I don't know anybody who pulled away from the team," he said. "We're Ravens fans."