On the eve of the Ravens' first training camp practice in late July, coach John Harbaugh stood before players, coaches and other team personnel in a packed auditorium at the Under Armour Performance Center and outlined his expectations for the 2017 season.
The speech was typical Harbaugh. He emphasized toughness, togetherness and discipline. He verbalized his vision for what he hoped his team would become. He also issued a challenge of sorts, reminding his players that the organization's patience had its limits. Players who weren't developing and couldn't consistently stay on the field would get left behind.
If the players didn't get the message that day, they've since had it reinforced in some fashion. Nobody from the organization has publicly labeled this a watershed season for the Ravens. Everybody at the team facility, though, seems to understand what's at stake whether they're saying it or not.
"At the end of the day, if you don't win, if you don't get into the playoffs — especially here — things are going to happen. Whether that's coaches or that's players, if we don't win, a lot of us will be gone," safety Eric Weddle said. "So you just try to take it for what it's worth and give it all you've got for this season, because next season is not guaranteed. You definitely think about it, not so much the coaches or the organization but just the players and this team. Let's win and keep everyone together."
The Ravens have been one of the most stable organizations in the NFL, and their brain trust, consisting of owner Steve Bisciotti, president Dick Cass, general manager Ozzie Newsome, assistant general manager Eric DeCosta and Harbaugh, has long been one of the most respected. As another football season begins, there is more pressure on those men than perhaps ever before to steady an organization that has lost its winning touch.
Since Super Bowl XLVII, a glorious victory that reaffirmed the Ravens as one of the elite organizations in the sport, the team has gone 31-33 in the regular season and made the playoffs once in four years. It hasn't won the AFC North since 2012, and the gap between the Ravens and the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, the measuring stick for AFC contenders, has widened significantly.
If the Ravens don't return to the playoffs this season, it would be the first time since the franchise's early years in Baltimore (1996-1999) that they have missed the postseason in three consecutive years.
"If you want to be good at anything or great at anything, you better be working at it — no matter what you do," Harbaugh said. "So you don't go to the playoffs for two or three years, and you are supposed to have a sense of urgency? But you win the championship, and they are asking [Patriots coach Bill Belichick] about his sense of urgency? Maybe — as you quoted it — 'the outside world' looks at it differently than NFL players and coaches do, but I highly doubt that. I think most successful people understand that you better be urgent every single day about what you do."
Navigating rough waters
The Ravens had a rough summer. During a two-month stretch, they lost 10 players who likely would've been on their 53-man roster to a season-ending injury, suspension or retirement. Quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Breshad Perriman missed the entire preseason. The team's top decision-makers were skewered nationally for their public flirtation with polarizing free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Amid the tumult, players insisted it was business as usual as they readied for the season. During his tenure, Harbaugh has done some of his best work steadying his team through adversity while not allowing outside distractions to seep in.
This summer, he's seemed as resolute and determined as ever ahead of a season that some believe could be crucial to his long-term future in Baltimore. In late August, Bisciotti added another year to Harbaugh's contract, extending him through the 2019 season. Nobody inside the organization ever indicated Harbaugh was on the hot seat heading into this season, but the extension should keep the outside speculation at bay - at least for a while — if the Ravens struggle.
"You've got to understand, we're used to a certain standard here," Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We expect to go deep into the playoffs and contend. That sense of urgency is on all of us to get back to the playoffs. That's definitely here but not because of any job insecurities. It's just the standard."
Harbaugh, 54, has helped cement that standard. He's led the Ravens to the playoffs in six of nine seasons. The team's 95 wins since Harbaugh took the helm in 2008 are more than every team except the Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers. Even Harbaugh's most vocal critics have to acknowledge that several of the Ravens' primary problems in recent years, such as overwhelming injuries, underwhelming drafts and some players on big contracts who have come up small, can't be put on the head coach.
But Harbaugh, the NFL's sixth-longest-tenured coach, is entering his 10th season in, by and large, a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. Sixteen teams have better winning percentages than the Ravens since their Super Bowl victory.
"There's a theory out there that a head coach in the NFL, particularly nowadays, may have a certain shelf life. It's like, 'OK, it's the same message. It's just couched in different words, or it's the same philosophy, and we're sort of bored of hearing that.' That's just human nature," said former Ravens executive and Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage, now an analyst for SiriusXM NFL Radio. "I know Brian [Billick] was always cognizant of that when he was the head coach there.
"While I never worked with John, it's been a long run. As a neutral observer, that's probably something that will be monitored in terms of the reaction of the team. What's the overall effort — win, lose or draw. People say playoffs [or bust], but what happens if you win 10 or 11 games and for some reason, you don't make it? There's some nuance in there in terms of how the team plays and the response from the players on the field and the response from ownership and leadership off the field."
Less than two weeks after the 2016 season ended, Bisciotti acknowledged that the "pitchforks are out." He said he was concerned with fan discontent and the empty seats at M&T Bank Stadium late last season. However, he didn't criticize his general manager, head coach or struggling franchise quarterback, nor did he foreshadow any sweeping organizational changes if the Ravens don't make the playoffs in 2017.
The questions about when Newsome, 61, will retire and turn the keys to the front office over to DeCosta have become an annual rite of the offseason. It's unclear whether Newsome's status is, in any way, intertwined with that of Harbaugh. DeCosta is annually mentioned as a top candidate whenever a general manager job opens elsewhere.
In 2007, Bisciotti fired Billick just weeks after the owner told the head coach, who had three years left on his contract, that he would remain in his position. Otherwise, he has chosen stability over any significant changes and relied heavily on the opinions of his brain trust.
"I think that between Steve and Dick Cass and Ozzie in particular, they're always going to lean more toward stability than trying to make some dramatic move," Savage said. "I don't think any of those guys are really wired that way. The organization is not set up like that either."
By all accounts, the relationship between all of the Ravens' top decision makers remains as strong as ever even as the pressure seemingly has ratcheted up.
"I think the biggest part about the whole thing is the partnership that we have here," Harbaugh said the day after his contract extension was finalized. "We have been at this for going on 10 years now, with this group together, which is pretty rare and pretty special – pretty amazing. That is something that you want to hold on to, because I think it is a formula for success. We have a bunch of good people that work together."
Former Houston Texans and Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly said he believes the organization has the right people in place to turn things around.
"They've had a tremendous amount of injuries. They've had some things happen to them," said Casserly, an analyst for NFL Network. "Sometimes you go through periods like this. You don't plan on retirements, sudden ones. You can only plan so much on injuries because you're trying to build depth, but if you get multiple injuries and too many of them, no one is going to have that kind of depth in the league right now."
Going back to their roots
Former NFL head coach and current ESPN analyst Herm Edwards pointed to how other successful organizations, including the Steelers who missed the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, and the New York Giants who recently had a four-year playoff-less run before they made a coaching change, have handled modest playoff droughts.
"When you say the Ravens, you go, 'Well, they're a playoff team.' When that doesn't happen one year, you go, 'That's OK.' And if it's two years, you go, 'Oh.' And then three years, you go, 'We're concerned,' " Edwards said. "The problem is they've lost a lot of those players that have been in the playoffs. The guys that come in, they can't assume, 'I'm on the Ravens, we're getting to the playoffs.' It's about performance."
The Ravens only have nine players on their 53-man roster that were in the organization for the Super Bowl season in 2012.
"Ozzie and obviously ownership — I know them all — they've had their discussions. No one is going to panic," Edwards said. "They're not going to let outside voices influence anything they have to do. They haven't been successful that way. They've been successful with a plan."
It was not lost on Edwards and other NFL pundits that the Ravens seemed to return to what's always made them successful this offseason. They loaded up on defense, giving Brandon Williams the biggest deal ever for a nose tackle and signing one of the top available safeties, Tony Jefferson. They then used their first four draft picks — and five of seven overall — on defensive players.
Predictably, the defense shined in the preseason while the Flacco-less offense struggled. In this season of great importance, the Ravens can take some solace in knowing that formula has worked for them before.
"When you don't go to the playoffs, it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Whether it is one year removed or two years removed, it doesn't matter. Just not going the season before hurts," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "Everybody knows what it is. We are focused. We have to get some guys back, but once they come back, we will be fine. And even if they don't, we will be fine."
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Baltimore Sun reporters Mike Preston and Childs Walker contributed to this article.