Ravens players cleaned out their lockers after ending their season with a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
As the Ravens packed the contents of their lockers into industrial-sized trash bags Monday afternoon and said their goodbyes to teammates, there seemed to be a healthy difference of opinion on exactly how far away the team was from returning to the playoffs.
The optimistic point of view came from a number of players, including safety Eric Weddle, who believes that had he stopped Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown just shy of the end zone in the final seconds a Week 16 loss, the Ravens would be preparing for a wild-card-round playoff matchup this week as the AFC North champs, not embracing a second straight long offseason.
"We didn't finish the way we wanted to and we didn't get the job done, but that's life. How are you going to react from it?" Weddle said. "We're right there. If everyone takes this offseason and wants it and believes it will be their best offseason yet and carries it over to the season, there is no reason why we can't get there. We were in every game. We got to get better. We got to play better on the road and do all the little things. But we're moving up. It's not going down. We all believe we're moving up."
Ravens veteran strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil took the opposite viewpoint, all but dismissing the question about playoff worthiness.
"8-8? No. We have a long way to go," Dumervil said. "At the end of the day, 8-8 is not close."
Weak-side linebacker Zachary Orr said the Ravens are exactly what their final record suggests.
"No matter how you look at it, with the highs and the lows, we're an average football team right now," said Orr, the team's leading tackler. "We have a lot of potential, but we didn't tap all the way into that potential this year. We have to figure that out this offseason … because this is not fun. This is not fun packing up your things early knowing that there's still weeks of football left ahead, and we didn't make the playoffs."
It's a feeling the Ravens are growing too familiar with. Since winning Super Bowl XLVII in 2013, the Ravens are 31-33 in the regular season and have missed the playoffs in three of four years. That follows a stretch under head coach John Harbaugh in which the team qualified for the postseason five straight times.
When he spoke to his players Monday afternoon, about 24 hours after their season ended with a whimper in a 27-10 road loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Harbaugh reminded them that 30 other teams ultimately will feel as low as the Ravens do.
Nineteen other NFL facilities around the league were filled Monday with players packing their bags and heading their separate ways — in some cases, for good. Four more teams will follow suit after this weekend's first round of playoff games.
"Honestly, we've had one good year that has felt good at the end of it, and that's 2012 and 2013, when we won the Super Bowl," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "Other than that, we all feel about the same as we do now. It doesn't matter that we got to the AFC championship game in that given year. We still lost. At the end of the day, it's really no better than being 8-8. It's all or nothing in this league, and that's the way it feels. At some point, you feel pretty crappy about how your year went, and there is one team at the end of the year that doesn't."
This season, though, stung a little more to other Ravens because of how close the team was to advancing. Had the Ravens held their 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter or a three-point advantage in the final minute against Pittsburgh, they would have gone to Cincinnati on Sunday with a chance to win their first division title since 2012 and host a first-round playoff game.
But they couldn't hold either lead and were eliminated from the playoffs before the final week of the regular season. Their effort against the Bengals was emblematic of a team that had its playoff chances ripped away in agonizing fashion the week before.
"I don't think 8-8 is a good depiction of this team. I think we're a better team than that record shows. I feel like we are right there," Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "You look at that four-game losing streak that we had, and there were a lot of games in there that could have very easily gone the other way, and we're not cleaning out our lockers right now. Or you look at the Pittsburgh game: We were 70 seconds away from winning that game. You have to feel like if we win that game, [Sunday's] outcome would've been a little different as well. This is the time of reflection, looking back. You try not to regret anything, but you just learn from it and you build on it."
The Ravens will be a drastically different team when they reconvene. Wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., who quietly packed up his locker for the final time Monday, said he's retiring after a 16-year career. Five other starters — Juszczyk, right tackle Rick Wagner, right guard Vladimir Ducasse, defensive end Lawrence Guy and nose tackle Brandon Williams — are unrestricted free agents. Key reserves such as wide receiver Kamar Aiken, cornerback Jerraud Powers and special teams ace Anthony Levine Sr. also are expected to hit the open market.
High salary cap hits for a host of veterans, including Dumervil, tight end Benjamin Watson, center Jeremy Zuttah, cornerback Shareece Wright and safety Lardarius Webb, could force the Ravens to make a series of roster cuts to gain more financial flexibility.
"I don't even have any idea what's going to happen on that front," Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta said. "It's a league of change. You anticipate that every year. There's always a lot of turnover with players. There's turnover with coaches. Personally, I'd like to see us have some consistency and stay with the group that we've got. I think we have a lot to build upon, but I'm not the decision-maker, so I don't know."
Harbaugh's coaching staff also is expected to change some. When the Ravens promoted Marty Mornhinweg from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator after Marc Trestman was fired following a Week 5 loss to the Washington Redskins, they committed to having him call plays only through the end of the 2016 season.
"As far as I'm concerned, there isn't really much uncertainty, so I don't really anticipate anything happening," Flacco said.
Harbaugh will speak to reporters Tuesday at his season-ending news conference, and Mornhinweg's status will be a popular topic. It should be the first of many questions for Ravens decision-makers in what is shaping up to be a long offseason.