The Ravens capped the 2012 season by beating the San Francisco 49ers to win Super Bowl XLVII. Despite the pending loss of numerous veterans, Ravens officials vowed to reload and build a roster that would compete for the Lombardi Trophy year after year.
One season later, the Seattle Seahawks throttled the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl XLVIII. Following the victory, the Seahawks spoke of winning multiple championships, behind a dynamic young quarterback and a suffocating defense.
The two teams have since traveled divergent paths into Sunday's matchup at M&T Bank Stadium. At 4-8 and riddled by injuries, the Ravens are on pace to miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons and are likely headed for another roster shakeup in the offseason. The Seahawks are 7-5, distancing themselves from a poor start by winning five of their past six games, and establishing themselves as one of the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl for a third straight year.
"I understand that as they line up to play, the two teams are in very different spots," said Joe Banner, the former Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles top executive who is now an analyst for ESPN. "But I don't think most people in football don't think of the Ravens as still a very, very smart, well-run, successful operation."
Still, it's the Seahawks who have been able to maintain a perennial playoff team. Since winning the organization's first championship, Pete Carroll's squad is 19-9 in the regular season and was a yard away from beating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX in February — before Russell Wilson's late interception — and entering this year looking for a three-peat.
Meanwhile, the Ravens are just 22-22 in the regular since 2012 with one playoff win. With one loss over the next four games, the Ravens will be assured of their first losing season in John Harbaugh's eight-year tenure. If they lose out — and a run of injuries and a tough closing schedule make that a possibility — the Ravens will tie the inaugural 1996 squad for the worst record in franchise history.
"The way that they've dealt with this season — and the schedule they faced early and the challenges of it, and the injuries that have come up and the toughness and the fortitude that they've demonstrated — their season could be easily flip-flopped," Carroll said of the Ravens. "We know what that's like, and we have tremendous respect for them. It's all that kind of stuff. I think the way that they've put teams together, the way that they've reconstructed stuff, they've been so straight up and so stout for so long."
Rebuilding and reloading
When they each won the Super Bowl in back-to-back years, the Ravens and Seahawks were in different phases as organizations. The Ravens had one of the oldest Super Bowl-winning teams ever with a lineup that included Matt Birk, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Quarterback Joe Flacco was in the final year of his contract and was about to cash in following a Super Bowl MVP performance. The Ravens were making the transition from a defense-dominated team to one led by the offense.
With a host of free agents and little salary cap space, the Ravens were forced to turn over their roster in recent years, moving on from Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee and Corey Graham, while replacing many of them with inexperienced players.
The Seahawks had a mostly young nucleus in 2013. Wilson, a third-round draft pick in 2012, was on his rookie contract — his base salary is just $700,000 this year — and that gave Seattle the salary cap space and flexibility to build a young and talented roster around its multi-threat quarterback.
"They had a lot of guys that were at a very young age of their careers, when they first got really good in Seattle," Banner said.
Carroll and general manager John Schneider haven't been able to re-sign everybody, losing wide receiver Golden Tate and cornerback Byron Maxwell, among others. However, they've kept most of the team together, agreeing to contract extensions with running back Marshawn Lynch, wide receiver Doug Baldwin and defensive standouts Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
They also had the financial wherewithal to add free-agent pass rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.
"Even with Marshawn getting hurt this year, most of those guys are still all there, but for the Ravens, they're not," said Steve Tasker, now a CBS analyst after a 13-year playing career. "I think that's the crux of it — the roster turnover. The Seahawks have more of those guys still playing for them than the Ravens do at this point."
A familiar formula
The Seahawks' model for sustained success should look familiar to Ravens fans — find talent in every round of the draft, including in rookie free agency; develop it with a strong coaching staff; and keep as many of the core players around for as long as possible.
"You get the right mix of young players that blend in well with the established superstar veteran-type guys and you can be pretty good for a while," said CBS analyst Steve Beuerlein, a longtime NFL quarterback. "Both the Ravens and Seahawks have done that."
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome built a perennial playoff team with sound drafting, although recent drafts have contained far more early misses than usual with players like Matt Elam, Arthur Brown, Terrence Brooks and Breshad Perriman struggling to make an immediate impact.
Not only have the Seahawks hit on first-round picks like Thomas and offensive tackle Russell Okung, they've found difference-makers in the middle to late rounds. Wilson, Chancellor, Sherman and K.J. Wright all were taken in the third round or later. Seattle's current roster also includes a league-high 24 undrafted players, including rookie running back Thomas Rawls who has four 100-yard rushing games this year in place of an injured Lynch.
"The Seahawks seem to have hit a formula for evaluating young guys and projecting them forward," Tasker said. "That is the critical characteristic of your personnel department. If they can do that, you'll be pretty successful."
Carroll said that the organization's philosophy all along was to focus on drafting and developing players.
"We have always believed in young players, and we've played a lot of young guys from the start," he said. "… That lends itself to the roster balance. It allows you to compensate the guys that have done a lot of good for you. So, we're trying to put a really interesting formula together over a real long period and show that you can maintain. That's what we're in the middle of right now."
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In July, the Seahawks signed Wilson to a five-year, $88 million contract, which includes $60 million in guaranteed money. The deal locks up one of the game's top quarterbacks, but presents a challenge to the Seattle's front office in building its roster going forward.
The Ravens, meanwhile, have to address the six-year, $120.6 million contract that Flacco signed about a month after Super Bowl XLVII. Despite an outside perception that Flacco's deal has hamstrung the Ravens ability to build a strong supporting cast, the quarterback's cap hit this year is $14.55 million, which ranks 12th among quarterbacks. However, it jumps to $28.55 million next year, untenable for a team that suddenly has a host of needs.
"They've got some age in certain spots, but they also have that quarterback there," Tasker said. "I think the Baltimore Ravens can reload. I think they'll be a pretty good team next year, but it will probably be as steep of a hill that they've had to climb in quite some time."
Banner agreed, citing the team's injuries as one of the primary reasons for the down season. The Ravens will face the Seahawks without at least six offensive starters, including Flacco (knee), running back Justin Forsett (back) and wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. (Achilles).
"You can take whatever time frame you want, and say, 'Well, they've missed the playoffs in two of three [years],' or say they've made it six of seven," Banner said. "You can frame it how you want. But they're a very, very well-run organization and frankly, there aren't that many in the league. The ones that are that way have some ups and downs. They're not immune to it. The whole system is built keep everybody as close as they can. But those organizations tend to bounce back really well from any tough period that they have, especially when so much of the season was affected by injuries."