Michael Pierce always knew the end would come, as it does for every team, whether in Week 17 or after the confetti has fallen on a Super Bowl champion. But the Ravens’ season stopped Sunday, in an AFC wild-card-round loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, and that meant the offseason and all of its speculation had started.
Twenty-four hours earlier, before he cleaned out his locker Monday morning at the Ravens’ facility, the defensive tackle hadn’t considered what a loss would mean for a team that coach John Harbaugh has called the greatest he’s ever been associated with. Now he had to.
"It's tough, man,” he said. “I was at a loss for words even really thinking about this group being gone or, like, partial next year. So I think we had a good season. It's something we can hang our hats on going into next year. But just knowing that we could lose big leaders like that is just tough, so I'm just enjoying my time with them."
Many of those big leaders were unavailable for comment Monday. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, entering free agency after his 16th season with the Ravens, did not visit his locker in the period open to media. Neither did guard Marshal Yanda, a 12-season veteran and another career Raven. Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, maybe the team’s most coveted free agent after his fourth Pro Bowl season in five years, did not speak Sunday or Monday. Quarterback Joe Flacco, whom Harbaugh all but said farewell to after the 23-17 defeat, did not gather his belongings.
That left the team’s other big names and key contributors to assess the end of a season that started out great, went sideways, found new life in Week 11 and crashed upon re-entry into the postseason. They had won the AFC North, had returned to the playoffs for the first time in four years. And yet ...
“It’s the last time you’re going to see your teammates,” said safety Eric Weddle, who plans to either return to the Ravens or retire from the NFL. “We’re not down. I wasted all night getting my sorrows out from the loss and the season ending, and the reality of that. You come back and see your guys, and how much you love and appreciate your teammates and coaches and the job that we did this year — win the division title, No. 1 defense in the league, had [the Chargers] on the ropes for a little bit at the end. ... There’s a lot to look at, a lot to be proud of.”
A lot to build on, too. Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson went 6-2 as a 21-year-old starter after taking over for Flacco, though his last game was perhaps his worst. Tight end Mark Andrews, right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and running back Gus Edwards rated among the top rookies at their positions. Marlon Humphrey developed into a lockdown cornerback in his second year. Pierce and outside linebacker Matthew Judon delivered in game after game, becoming cornerstone players in their third seasons.
But there is only so much money to spend and only so many roster spots to fill. Harbaugh, who is expected to speak later this week, told the team Monday morning that “uncertainty abounds, but the vision remains the same,” kicker Justin Tucker said.
“Knowing the business side of this league, it can be like the Wild West out there come March, and free agency and the draft,” said Tucker, an All-Pro selection along with Yanda and Mosley. “I think what we’ve built this year is a really solid foundation really three years in the making. Keeping key pieces intact is always important for any team.”
Among the pending free agents who packed their belongings and stuffed their garbage into trash bags, there was unanimity: They wanted to be back in Baltimore. That was not surprising; such hopes, earnest or not, are part and parcel of every team’s clean-out day.
But even the players who had bore the brunt of the Ravens’ midseason offensive makeover said this season was different, even special. Wide receiver John Brown, highly productive in the early weeks of what could be his first and only season in Baltimore before falling off late, said “this was the most fun I’ve had in my career.”
“I was able to be myself,” he said. “I was able to talk to the coaches when I wasn’t feeling right about certain things. It’s just the whole locker room, all the players, everyone was on the same page and communicated.”
Maxx Williams, who will enter free agency along with friend and fellow tight end Nick Boyle, said he would miss the in-season dinners the team's tight ends held and the relationships they've built. Boyle compared the Ravens to “kind of like your first love.” The suddenness of the season’s end, and the possibility of a new start elsewhere, had not been fully reckoned with.
“You go from being on a schedule seven days a week to having nothing to do with the snap of a finger,” Boyle said. “I’m sure I’ll think about [my future], have talks and stuff, but I really haven’t thought about it too much.”
There is still much to decide — and much time for team owner Steve Bisciotti, first-year general manager Eric DeCosta and their staff to decide it. Free agency begins in March. The draft is in late April. Rookie minicamps are held the month after that.
The players who filtered in and out Monday knew they could control only so much. Judon said the team’s roster construction wasn’t a video game, subject to his whims and desires. Otherwise, he’d try to keep everybody. But “that’s not how it works,” he acknowledged.
“It’s never going to be the same,” Judon said. “That’s how this game works.”