When the Ravens last went 5-11, they returned the following year with a new head coach and a new quarterback
When the Ravens last went 5-11, they returned the following year with a new head coach and a new quarterback. With John Harbaugh calling the shots and Joe Flacco making the throws, the 2008 Ravens went 11-5, advanced to the AFC championship game and jump-started the most successful stretch in franchise history.
Eight seasons later and now three plus years removed from winning Super Bowl XLVII, the franchise appears to again be nearing a crossroads.
They have failed to make the playoffs in two of the past three years after winning at least one postseason game in each of Harbaugh's first five seasons. Their roster is still led by a nucleus of players mostly in their 30s, many of them coming off significant injuries. Recent drafts haven't produced the number of high-impact players that the organization was accustomed to finding. A team with a foundation built on a punishing running game and a quarterback-harassing defense had neither trait last season.
The circumstances have created a rare outside feeling about the state of the Ravens, who open the regular-season Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. Few project the Ravens — normally one of the favorites in the AFC — to make the playoffs this season.
"Teams don't want to say it. Nobody wants to use the 'rebuild' word or 'retool.' They say, 'We reload.' Everybody says the same thing, but I think clearly, this is a transition year for the Ravens," said Brian Billick, the team's former coach and now an analyst for NFL Network. "I don't know if that means they can't win the division. I think they can, but it's clearly a transition year."
Last year's Ravens went from a trendy preseason Super Bowl pick to a team that started 1-6. This year's team is dealing with modest outside expectations, a rarity for them. Most pundits have them finishing no better than third in the ultra-competitive AFC North, a division they haven't won since 2012.
The questions about the 2016 Ravens – and there are many – range from whether their prominent players can stay healthy to do they have enough playmakers on either side of the ball to match up with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. The preseason provided few answers as Flacco, who is coming off a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, and pass rusher Terrell Suggs played very little, while wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. and pass rusher Elvis Dumervil didn't play at all.
"When I was going through them in the spring, I found about every position was a question mark," said former Houston Texans and Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, now an analyst for NFL Network. "Flacco is fine, but whether it's outside linebacker, inside linebacker – [C.J.] Mosley did not play well last year. Can Lardarius Webb play safety? Who is the cornerback opposite Jimmy Smith? Can Jimmy Smith bounce back? They have a new left tackle, a new left guard. There are injuries at a lot of positions. I think they have more questions than any team in the league."
Turning the page
The Ravens insist they've long moved on from the disappointing 2015 season, which featured 20 players going on injured reserve and the team losing nine games by eight points or fewer. By the time training camp began, Harbaugh was done answering questions about the team's ability to rebound.
"Either we're going to be good or we're not," Harbaugh said. "It's what we do, not what we say. We can talk about it all we want. I have reasons for optimism, and I have reasons for pessimism. It's just going to matter how well we coach, how well we play."
The Ravens didn't stand pat, a clear sign acknowledgment that their issues last year went beyond the plethora of injuries to the team's top stars. Harbaugh added well-respected defensive assistants Joe Cullen and Leslie Frazier to his staff. He also revamped the team's training and recovery programs.
The Ozzie Newsome-led front office fortified the team in the present and for the future. More active than normal in free agency, the Ravens added three-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle and veteran pass catchers Mike Wallace and Benjamin Watson. (Watson is lost for the year after injuring his Achilles in the team's third preseason game). They signed Flacco and prolific kicker Justin Tucker to contract extensions. They also brought in an 11-man draft class after trading back twice in the second round to get more picks.
Accumulating five fourth-round picks in April's draft was "a substantial statement," Billick said. "Typically, you'd have a tough time with five fourth-round picks making the roster, just because the roster is that deep. To have eight picks in the first four rounds, that tells you that they're saying, 'Yeah, we've got to retool a little bit.'"
To be clear, Billick isn't suggesting the Ravens are punting on this season.
"The team has the pedigree because of its championships. They embrace it and they should be proud of it," he said. "They still have the anchor at the quarterback position with Joe Flacco. That's a huge advantage. I think any teams that have a legitimate quarterback, they're always going to think they're in it, that they can always be a potential playoff team."
The Ravens have experience at most positions, and they're far deeper than they were last year. Ultimately, though, the team's success will hinge on the development of its young players, former NFL coach Herm Edwards believes. Since winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens haven't received much production from early-round picks as players such as Matt Elam, Arthur Brown, Terrence Brooks and Breshad Perriman have struggled with either injuries or inconsistency.
The organization typically allows talented free agents to go elsewhere while replacing them with draft picks, but that model breaks down when the top picks don't develop into front-line players.
"Ozzie has done a really good job over the years of drafting good guys that come in and play. What happens is when they don't, all of a sudden, there's a void," Edwards said. "The league is made up of young players. You need some game changers. They are drafting good players, but none of them have stepped up to be that guy."
It happens to everybody. Well, everybody but the New England Patriots who have posted 15 straight winning seasons and have gone to the playoffs in 13 of those years. The Steelers missed the playoffs from 1998 to 2000 under Bill Cowher, and had back-to-back 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013. The Green Bay Packers missed the playoffs in all but one season from 2005 to 2008. The New York Giants have had back-to-back losing seasons and haven't been to the playoffs since they won the Super Bowl in 2011.
Are the Ravens, playing in arguably the toughest division in the sport, headed for a similar drought? And would a second consecutive losing season prompt owner Steve Bisciotti to authorize a significant shake-up of the team's personnel?
"When you think of the Baltimore Ravens, words like 'transition' and 'rebuilding' never come to my mind," said 2002 league MVP Rich Gannon, an NFL on CBS analyst. "They are a perennial playoff-caliber team when you look at what Ozzie and John Harbaugh and the rest of the organization has done. I still believe when the dust settles, the Ravens will be right there in December as is usually the case."
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Domenik also doesn't see this as a "make-or-break" year for the Ravens.
"I don't think it's at that point. The standard is really high in Baltimore as it should be, but I do feel like this is a team that has the pieces in place and the right coaching staff to make a run," said Domenik, an analyst for ESPN. "I could never write this team off or say it's 'make or break.' When you look at the organization from ownership on down, the Ravens can sustain some tough years and still have a great foundation."
Harbaugh, who enters his ninth season, is secure. However, regardless of how this season plays out, there could be some changes. Newsome, the architect of two Super Bowl-winning teams, is 60 years old, and rumors that he'll step down and hand over the keys to the front office to long-time lieutenant Eric DeCosta are an annual rite of the offseason.
Smith Sr. is 37 and likely retiring after the season. Suggs and Dumervil are 33 and 32, respectively. Several other starters, including wide receiver Kamar Aiken, right tackle Rick Wagner, defensive end Lawrence Guy and nose tackle Brandon Williams, are heading into the final year of their contract.
"Believe me, this league will leave you behind and forget about you like that," Flacco said. "You've got to stay on top of your game year-in and year-out. When you don't have a good year, you want to make sure it doesn't happen again. It's a big year."
Suggs was one of the few Ravens to admit last year's "terrible" season is serving as this year's motivation. He also believes the Ravens have the talent to prove last season was an aberration.
"Since our Super Bowl year and the year before, the 2011 team, I think this is the best we have looked since then," he said.