Ravens coach John Harbaugh expressed understandable pride in his team on Tuesday for the way it weathered a year of off-field adversity to get back to the playoffs, but — in that respect — the best thing about the 2014 season is that it's over.
The Ray Rice situation is now largely in the rear-view along with four other Ravens who faced charges and helped fuel the team's negative offseason. The only question remaining is whether the lessons that should have been learned last year will resonate enough during the upcoming offseason to keep the Ravens out of the scandal websites and off the police blotter.
Harbaugh acknowledged during his season-ending news conference that the disciplinary landscape has changed in the NFL and the threshold of tolerance for bad behavior inside the Ravens organization is likely to be lower in the future.
"I think it has changed, without question, and I told the guys that,'' he said. "That's something that they need to understand and I don't think that's a bad thing at all. It's a privilege to play in the National Football League. It's a privilege to be a part of the Ravens. There's a standard to uphold that we expect of them, and we've always expected them to do that, but I would think that there will be a little bit shorter leeway, maybe, than it's been in the past."
Maybe it's naïve to think that several dozen young men with money in their pockets are going to behave like choir boys during their time off between seasons, but the Ravens need to burnish their battered image after spending much of the past year as cannon fodder.
The Rice arrest was followed by incidents involving Deonte Thompson, Jah Reid, Lorenzo Taliaferro and Jimmy Smith, spaced out in such a way that it seemed like the Ravens were dealing with some form of player misbehavior from February to the start of training camp.
So much national media attention was paid to the Rice situation that it probably should be obvious to the players throughout the NFL and other professional sports that their teams are no longer going to be able to protect them from themselves.
Harbaugh said as much on Tuesday, but he still did his share of exit counseling to make sure everyone understood what's at stake.
"As we left the building, I think it was enough to remind the guys that how we handle ourselves is always important,'' he said. "Our name is the only name we've got. At the same time, there's a different conduct code in place for all of us, coaches, players, front office personnel. Everybody's going to be under a different type of scrutiny from here on out, and that's a good thing. Understand that it's real, it's serious, and they need to be aware of that."
It's not a new message. The Ravens certainly have had their well-publicized issues in the past and the NFL was on the defensive about player behavior long before the second Rice elevator video and and the Adrian Peterson child endangerment scandal combined to create a public relations firestorm last fall. But league policies regarding player conduct have been evolving rapidly because of all that recent outrage and attention.
"We've had NFL-mandated and team-sponsored counseling-type sessions throughout the course of the season,'' Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh clearly was frustrated by the embarrassing string of arrests last year and figures to have little patience with anyone who adds to it over the next few months. He was hesitant to speak for the organization, since the topic of player behavior is expected to be discussed during upcoming organizational meetings with owner Steve Bisciotti in Florida, but Harbaugh said he suspects the Ravens will take a harder line in the future toward conduct detrimental to the team.
"That's an organizational decision, so it's hard for me to stand up here and say that my threshold is the determining factor, because it's not,'' he said. "It's something that we all get together and talk about as a group. The landscape has changed without question.
"We haven't had that conversation yet, but I bet that's something we talk about when we go down to Florida, and that will probably be laid out. We'll have that conversation and we'll talk about all that. I know Steve believes that. Ozzie does, too, and Dick does, too. I don't really want to speak for anybody else, but I'm saying the answer is probably yes to that."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.