Ravens looking for a bit of redemption after disappointing 2013 season

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Don't bother asking the Ravens about redemption. They're not interested in framing the 2014 season that way.

In fact, they'd just as soon not discuss last season — 8-8 record, no playoffs, lousy statistics for big-money players, off-field embarrassments — at all.


"That is for you guys to talk about," wide receiver Torrey Smith said, summing up the general outlook. "Last year was last year."

But with a team built largely around the same core of star players and decision-makers, the Ravens know questions loom. If they're to get back to the playoffs, where they expect to be, the same old parts have to hum in a way they rarely did in 2013.


From coach John Harbaugh to quarterback Joe Flacco to running back Ray Rice, the 2014 team is rife with key figures eager to rewrite their stories from last season.

"It sucks," said 12th-year outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, in a rare reflection on last year's disappointment. "It sucked to watch teams compete and teams that you played get the opportunity to win a championship. It sucks. It sucks, and it's definitely something we don't want to feel again."

It's not just that the Ravens failed to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007. Flacco was named the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player, signed a $120 million contract and followed up with the worst season of his six-year career — 22 interceptions against 19 touchdown passes.

Rice injured his hip, and his production fell so precipitously that he became a mordant punch line for fantasy football players across the nation. In February, he put himself at the center of a much graver controversy over the NFL's handling of domestic violence when he appeared in a video, dragging his unconscious then-fiancee from an elevator in an Atlantic City, N.J., casino.

The star running back was one of five Ravens arrested for various offenses in the offseason.

In 2013, problems came in all shapes and sizes.

The offensive line, a quiet strength for much of the team's history, suddenly became the worst run-blocking unit in the league. The once-stout defense set an unwanted franchise record: most fourth-quarter points allowed.

For the first time in his six-year tenure, Harbaugh couldn't find a way to make his team peak as the playoffs approached.


Yet the Ravens' brain trust of Harbaugh, general manager Ozzie Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti did not respond to the disappointments with an overhaul. In fact, they did far less roster tinkering than they had after the team's Super Bowl run the previous season.

Save for wide receiver Steve Smith, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and maybe rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, this year's team is built on the same foundation as in 2013. The decision-makers are largely counting on the old parts to function better.

"The fundamentals are still there," Harbaugh said of the transition from 2013 to 2014. "As we say, the principles are written in stone, but the methods are not, and so we changed some methods."

His theme for the preseason — "All In" — speaks more to enduring commitment than any kind of radical reform.

Which leaves Baltimore fans with plenty of questions as the Ravens prepare to open today against the AFC North's new kingpins, the Cincinnati Bengals.

Can Flacco make safer decisions while still hitting the long completions that propelled the Ravens to a championship? Can Rice rehabilitate not only his game but his public image? Can the offensive line, backed by Kubiak's running-game acumen, become functional? Can the team's defensive stars sustain a high level through 16 games?


It's quite a list of uncertainties for a team that still views itself as a playoff contender. But you wouldn't know it from talking to the principal characters, all of whom have radiated serenity during training camp.

To hear the Ravens tell it, they put 2013 behind them within days of their final defeat in Cincinnati. It's the athlete's credo: Don't dwell on old defeats or old victories. Prepare for what's next.

That message, rammed home by Harbaugh, has remained steady.

"I'm echoing what we hear from him," said guard Marshal Yanda, the most experienced member of the offensive line. "It's a new season, a new start. Every season is a new start. Good or bad, you put it past you, go to work today and focus on what's important today. You can't look too far down the road in this business."

Added Torrey Smith: "We have a brand-new offense, so for us to worry about things that happened last year when we have a brand-new offensive coordinator, [and] the defense is doing things a little bit differently … the past is behind us. It's all about going forward and improving from here on out."

'I'm in a great place'


No Raven could be more eager to change his narrative than Rice, the onetime NFL total-yardage leader and community hero who has lived in infamy the past six months.

No one faces a steeper road ahead.

Though he avoided trial in New Jersey by entering an intervention program and accepted a two-game NFL suspension that critics regarded as light, Rice knows many fans will remain wary of him. Beyond debates about the NFL's initial handling of Rice's domestic violence case, he knows he faces doubts on the field after he averaged barely 3 yards a carry in an injury-marred sixth season.

But if all this is weighing heavily on Rice, you wouldn't know it from his upbeat demeanor in practice or his words about the coming season.

"I'm in a great place," he said, smiling and speaking softly in a recent interview. "I'm in a great place mentally. I'm in a great place physically. Just overall, my whole life is where it needs to be right now."

Rice said he lost 5 pounds through diet and hard workouts in the offseason. He feels healthy and has run like a new man in training camp. He married Janay Palmer after they stuck together through the firestorm of the video's release and subsequent domestic-violence charges.


He said he feels reborn in Kubiak's new offense, almost like a rookie.

"It's not like you're doing the same thing over and over," Rice said. "It's just totally different. … What clicks for me is it's straight to the point. You get good at something by doing it over and over and over and over. That's what his offense is. You rep it, you hear it, you rep it. It becomes muscle memory, and the way he teaches it, he makes everybody feel involved."

Rice's critics might not want to hear him waxing cheerfully about the games ahead. But the emotion seems real for him. Football wasn't always fun last season, when he played hurt and sniped back at those who picked apart his performance. Now he views the sport as a release.

"Just to play free," he said, describing his outlook. "Just going out there and playing free this year without any burden on my shoulders. Just going out there and playing football — that's what I've been good at my whole life."

The grunts

Hand in hand with Rice's trying 2013 season, the Ravens' offensive line performed well below expectations, with Bernard Pierce faring no better behind its blocks. After ranking 13th in yards per carry in 2012, the Ravens plummeted to last in 2013. The line also allowed more sacks than all but four teams in the league.


Offensive line was the one area the Ravens overhauled. They traded for left tackle Eugene Monroe midway through last season and made re-signing him a top priority in the offseason. They let right tackle Michael Oher go and replaced him with second-year player Rick Wagner. They also acquired Jeremy Zuttah in a trade to take Gino Gradkowski's job at center. Add in a healthy Kelechi Osemele at guard, and the unit will look very different from the way it did at the start of 2013.

Offensive line coach Juan Castillo took sharp criticism for the group's performance in his first season with the Ravens. But Harbaugh stuck with him in the offseason. Castillo said his linemen inevitably take the criticism personally.

"I think the important thing is that all of them are competitors; they all want to be better," he said. "We have some different guys here, too. So I think last year is last year. This is a new year."

Yanda, the dean of the group and a three-time Pro Bowl selection, said he had little trouble letting go of 2013.

"If you stew over something, it just won't be good for you," he said. "Good or bad in this business, you always have to go to work the next day. No matter how many times you do it good, you have to keep doing it. If you don't do it good, you've got to get it good."

The offensive line looked better in the Ravens' first two preseason games before struggling in the third. But Yanda doesn't see much use in offering bromides based on that small sample.


"In the preseason, talk is cheap," he said. "It doesn't matter what I say right now. It doesn't matter what any of us say right now."

Good to great

On the other side of the ball, the defense hardly struggled last season, finishing 12th in both yards and points allowed. That was actually an improvement over 2012 but still not up to snuff for a franchise accustomed to top-10 defenses.

"I'm not saying that we're bad, because we weren't bad," said defensive coordinator Dean Pees. "But the fact of it is we have to be dominant, and that's what we're trying to do now, is be a dominant defense, get back to where we belong up there in that top five or top three and have people fear coming in here and playing us. I don't know that we had that last year at times."

On paper, the Ravens have every component they need — Suggs and Elvis Dumervil rushing from the outside, Haloti Ngata plugging the interior, Daryl Smith and the promising Mosley sweeping the middle of the field, Jimmy Smith blanketing the best receivers.

Yet in 2013, they struggled to play well in the fourth quarter and allowed 75 points in two must-win games to close the year.


With stars such as Suggs, Ngata and Dumervil likely past their physical primes, are such letdowns inevitable?

Not if you ask Suggs, who said he feels like a young man despite his long tenure in the NFL.

"When we all left, we all felt like we let each other down," he said of the ending to last season. "We didn't like that feeling. Just [from] talking to the guys this offseason and [with the] things that happened, it was like: 'You know what? We need to rededicate ourselves to our purpose and to the standard and the things that we're used to achieving around here.'"

'Joe's always Joe'

Combine all the criticism thrown at Rice, the offensive line and the defense in 2013, and it still might not equal the heat Flacco endured. That's reality when you're the quarterback, especially when you're the one who just signed a franchise-record contract.

Though his demeanor rarely changed as the disappointments mounted, Flacco felt the pain of his first real NFL failure. He'd never missed the playoffs in his career.


"It definitely sucked just because we weren't playing," Flacco said. "I think that was the miserable thing. You had to watch other teams playing for what you fought for last year. It still felt pretty close. I had never not had a chance to fight for that trophy. That was definitely tough."

As he began working with Kubiak in the offseason, however, they agreed tweaks were needed, not a total reboot. Flacco has devoted particular attention to improving his footwork.

He has reason to be optimistic, and not just because of Kubiak. With Anquan Boldin traded away in a salary dump, Dennis Pitta felled by a dislocated hip and Rice playing hurt, the Super Bowl MVP suddenly found himself low on reliable targets as 2013 unfolded.

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That, combined with the weak running game, led him to make too many risky throws. His 22 interceptions last year exceeded his previous career high by 10.

This year, he'll start with Torrey Smith, a healthy Pitta and Steve Smith, a five-time Pro Bowl selection who looked sensational in training camp. Add Marlon Brown, reserve tight end Owen Daniels and second-year fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and Flacco's options seem a good deal more robust.

Of course, no player embodies the Ravens' move-on spirit more than the perpetually unruffled Flacco. Another down season could cast him as an overpaid disappointment. But he seems chill as ever, backed by the confidence of his teammates.


"Joe's always Joe," Pitta said. "He doesn't let those kind of things faze him."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.