So many of them refer to that night — Feb. 3, 2013 — as the apex of their professional lives.
The preceding 12 months had not passed smoothly. From a staggering playoff disappointment in New England to internal tensions between team leaders and coach John Harbaugh to the December losing streak that got offensive coordinator Cam Cameron fired, their mission had seemed in danger several times of careening off the rails.
But there were miraculous moments as well — Ray Rice’s 29-year scamper to pull them out of the fire in San Diego, Joe Flacco’s heave to Jacoby Jones in the thin air of Denver. And through all of it — right up to the unprecedented Super Bowl power outage and a last, desperate stand against the swift, hungry San Francisco 49ers — they’d leaned on one another with absolute faith.
So when the 2012 Ravens celebrated the franchise’s second Super Bowl title by dancing into the New Orleans night, their satisfaction felt deep and earned.
“It was truly the ultimate feeling,” says nine-time Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed.
With five years of perspective, however, we can say that night was not just a culmination but the end of something. Eleven Ravens played their final NFL game that night and seven others played their final game with the franchise. That group included two of the most important players and leaders in team history — Reed and linebacker Ray Lewis.
The Ravens planned to move forward with a new identity built around Harbaugh, the tough-minded coach who’d never failed to steer them to the postseason, and Flacco, the newly minted Super Bowl MVP and soon-to-be $120 million man.
But that design, approved by owner Steve Bisciotti and orchestrated by widely revered general manager Ozzie Newsome, has not produced the desired results.
People don’t realize what that city had with that team.
Ray Lewis, Ravens middle linebacker, who retired after the Super Bowl victory five years ago
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The Ravens have gone 40-40 in the regular season and made the playoffs just once since they won the Super Bowl. They’ve failed to build a consistent offense around Flacco or a defense as stifling as those led by Lewis and Reed in their primes. They’ve coped with off-field controversies, including Rice’s downfall due to domestic violence and players kneeling in protest during the national anthem. This season, even as the team fought for a wild-card berth, disillusioned fans left swaths of seats empty at normally raucous M&T Bank Stadium.
Their disappointment only deepened when the team’s playoff ambitions vanished on a stunning fourth-down defensive lapse, and the Ravens responded by keeping their power structure — once lauded for its stability but now dinged for its stagnancy — largely intact. Newsome will step down after the 2018 season, but he’ll be replaced by his long-time lieutenant, Eric DeCosta.
“I don’t think we’re stagnant at One Winning Drive,” Bisciotti said Friday in his annual State of the Ravens address. “I think we’re as enthused as we’ve always been. Disappointed, embarrassed and determined, but not stagnant.”
Organization leaders, players from the 2012 Super Bowl team and outside analysts offer a variety of reasons for the malaise hanging over a franchise that was frequently lauded as one of the smartest in the NFL.
“People don’t realize what that city had with that team,” Lewis says. “What I was able to be around, to help build, that was chemistry. That was being able to play with people that understood the entire culture of what being a Raven meant. When you go through that big of a hit after 2012, you lost some of the strongest personalities in football. If you go back historically, remember the Chicago Bulls and when Michael Jordan left that city, the Bulls have never been back.”
Lewis gushes about C.J. Mosley, his successor at middle linebacker.
“Then you see everything else around him,” he says. “It’s just the mix of old, young, wisdom, youth. That mix is kind of what makes great teams. I don’t know if we’ve found that total mix yet.”
Others argue that periodic dips are inevitable for almost every franchise.
“Truly, there are no more dynasties except for New England,” Rice says. “I have a lot of respect for everyone there — the owner, the coaches, everyone there. But when you look at it, some things you can’t control. I know they’ve been injury-plagued for the last couple of years. Then the one year they made it back [to the playoffs], Gary Kubiak was there. But, man, it’s hard. It’s hard to make it back to the Super Bowl. They’ve been faced with some adversity.”
The concern raised most frequently by former Ravens is the disappearance of strong, independent voices — Lewis, Reed, wide receiver Anquan Boldin — from the locker room.
“Harbaugh could’ve done a better job, but he’d rather have guys that are yes men instead of men who were going to step out there and go to war,” says Bernard Pollard, the safety who helped set a hard-hitting tone for the 2012 team. “I believe deep down inside, he broke up something that was truly special when he shouldn’t have done it. You could tell me otherwise, but I know it’s killing him and eating at him because he could’ve been a guy that benefited from two or three Super Bowls rather than just one and losing seasons after that.”
He’s the sharpest critic of Harbaugh, but others share the same general outlook.
“Of course you see something missing,” says Reed, who sometimes butted heads with coaches but was also revered as a powerful influence on younger teammates. “Leadership means a lot, leadership and communication. That’s huge. Of course you can see something missing, the way guys carry themselves.”
It’s a line of criticism that frustrates Ravens coaches and executives. They’ve retained linebacker Terrell Suggs, an outspoken personality who learned to lead at the knees of Lewis and Reed. They’ve also brought in veteran alpha dogs such as receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Mike Wallace and safety Eric Weddle.
Bisciotti sees little validity in the argument that the Ravens have jettisoned strong voices. “You can’t replace Hall of Famers,” he said Friday, referring to Lewis and Reed. “You can try.”
Far easier to pin down than questions about culture are the team’s offensive woes from recent seasons. Flacco earned his record contract and his status as the team’s franchise player with his remarkable play during the Super Bowl run. By the numbers, he’s been an above-average quarterback just once since then, in 2014. Not coincidentally, that was also the lone season the Ravens made the playoffs in the last five years.
With Kubiak designing the attack and a near-prime Smith leading a receiving corps that also still included Torrey Smith, the 2014 Ravens finished 12th in total offense. But Kubiak departed to coach the Denver Broncos after that season, and the Ravens haven’t moved the ball consistently under his successors, Marc Trestman and Marty Mornhinweg. The team’s 2015 No. 1 pick, Breshad Perriman, was projected to replace Torrey Smith as a deep threat but has been one of the great draft disappointments in franchise history. Meanwhile, veteran receivers Steve Smith, Jeremy Maclin and Wallace struggled with injuries, inconsistency or both.
Pollard compares the targets Flacco worked with in 2012 to his current options: “He had guys that he could go to when he needed big-time catches or he just wanted to methodically work his way down the football field. He could do that. You look at the types of guys that he has now and I’m not going to put it all on those guys because Joe could make some better decisions, but nevertheless, when you look at the cast that he has around him, I don’t think that he has a true No. 1 receiver. No knock against any of the receivers they have right now, but he doesn’t have a true No. 1 receiver. He doesn’t have a guy that can move the chains like Anquan did, that’s violent with defenders.”
Reduced options aside, Flacco has also struggled to play up to his contract because of inconsistent mechanics, iffy decison-making in the pocket and injuries to his knee and back.
After the Ravens again fell short of the playoffs in 2017, Harbaugh acknowledged their desperate need for big-play threats. Meanwhile, fans grumbled about his decision to bring Mornhinweg back for another season and about the postseason successes of receivers the Ravens passed over, namely Pittsburgh Steelers rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster and former Maryland star Stefon Diggs.
The inability to draft an effective pass catcher speaks to greater concerns about the team’s once-vaunted scouting apparatus, created and nourished by Newsome. The Ravens have blown two first-round picks — Perriman in 2015 and safety Matt Elam in 2013 — since the Super Bowl. But their record on second- and third-round picks has perhaps been more damning. Over the past five years, defensive tackle Brandon Williams stands as their only clear triumph from 12 picks in those two rounds.
They haven’t drafted a skill-position player who made the Pro Bowl since Rice in 2008.
The Ravens didn’t even try to bolster their offense in last year’s draft, using their first four picks on defenders and not a single one on a wide receiver, tight end or running back. Their lack of offensive star power is striking, especially when they’re constantly compared to the archrival Steelers, who have potential Hall of Fame players at quarterback, receiver and running back.
The lack of punch from the draft has forced the Ravens to fill holes with veteran free agents and in turn, they’ve fielded some of the oldest rosters in the league and entered each offseason with minimal salary-cap flexibility.
For most of the team’s history in Baltimore, fans proudly spouted the phrase “In Ozzie We Trust” to convey their belief in Newsome. The Ravens general manager is just as admired by peers around the league. But even Newsome no longer escapes criticism from those concerned about the direction of the Ravens.
Those familiar with his front office note the long list of sharp evaluators lost to other teams in recent years. For example, four Ravens alumni work on the player-personnel staff of the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles.
“We were blessed with a lot of continuity in the years that I was there. A lot of us had worked together in Cleveland, made the transition to Baltimore. It’s really tough to create a scouting culture where you really understand and know your people,” says former Ravens director of player personnel Phil Savage. “It really is hard to do in the modern era of the NFL right now because as soon as someone shows any degree of availability, they get snagged by another team and move on. There were a lot of guys that contributed to that success that are scattered around the leagues. It’s tough to stay ahead of the curve.”
Frustrated fan base
Ravens team president Dick Cass acknowledges that the five years since the Super Bowl have been the most challenging since he joined the franchise in 2004.
He’ll never forget arriving in New Orleans for the big game and glimpsing the sea of purple in the French Quarter. “When you walked the streets that weekend, it seemed Ravens fans outnumbered 49ers fans 8-to-1,” he says. “I think a lot of our fans went there without a ticket. They just wanted to be there.”
Contrast that with images from last season, when the Ravens technically sold out every home game but no-shows routinely left swaths of M&T Bank Stadium empty — a highly visible demonstration of the fans’ frustration. Ticket prices on the secondary market plummeted as did the resale value of permanent seat licenses that have long been key to the team’s business model.
The fact that 12 Ravens knelt in protest during the national anthem before the team’s Sept. 24 game in London contributed to fan alienation, Cass wrote in a late-season letter to season-ticket holders. But anthem-related frustrations did not lead to mass no-shows in other NFL cities with similar demographics.
Cass says the fundamental problem is simple: The Ravens aren’t winning at the rate fans expect.
“I think fans are concerned about our record. They view us as a mediocre, average team, and they’re not satisfied,” he says. “We have to demonstrate to our fans that we can win consistently, and until we do that, they’re going to be less engaged with us than they have been in the past.”
It’s also impossible to tell the team’s post-Super Bowl story without a significant chapter on Rice, the star running back who was expected to help Flacco carry the team into the future. Instead, video emerged of Rice striking his then-fiancee at an Atlantic City, N.J., casino. The Ravens abruptly released one of their most popular players and were thrust into an uncomfortable national conversation about the NFL’s lax handling of domestic violence.
The team responded by bolstering its support of local nonprofits that fight violence against women. “I think we and the country and the league learned a valuable lesson where, because of the video, domestic violence became front and center,” Cass says.
But the story loomed over the 2014 season, even as the Ravens made their only playoff run of the past five years.
Rice, who hasn’t played a down in the NFL since the tape was released, now speaks to college and professional teams — including the Ravens — about avoiding the mistakes he made.
“It’s not even what they learned,” he says of the Ravens. “It’s what everybody learned. I hold myself responsible for that. The one thing I learned, obviously there’s that no-no of a man should never put his hand on a woman. But when you’re under that public microscope, everything is magnified. My situation shed a light on how horrible domestic violence is, and I think that in terms of a whole general aspect, everybody — the NFL, the world — is trying to get better by it, to do better by it.”
No matter what came after, Rice and his former teammates cling to that night five years ago in New Orleans and the parade that followed, their last true chance to celebrate what they had built in Baltimore.
“It didn’t hit me until the ring ceremony, where you’re missing certain people and it was like, this team is never going to be the same again,” Rice says. “The one thing I remember about that group is we had a bunch of guys where we got to a point in the season when we didn’t care about stats or anything but winning. I’m sure the other teams that’ve gone all the way understand that feeling. You’ve got to have strong-willed, strong-minded individuals. But you’ve got to also have great leadership. No disrespect to the coaches, but I think we were playing for each other, and I think that’s what jelled that group together.”