Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti made one thing fairly clear on the afternoon of the State of the Ravens news conference eight months ago.

On his golf course, you don't get two mulligans.


The Ravens organization was just waking up from its first nonplayoff season of the John Harbaugh era, so it must have seemed like a harsh assessment when Bisciotti told The Baltimore Sun's Mike Preston in a separate interview that a second season like the Ravens' 8-8 Super Bowl encore would not be tolerated.

"I have to be patient to let people fail, but I don't have to be patient enough to let people repeat failure," Bisciotti said.

Maybe that was just some heat-of-the-moment steam escaping from a guy who has grown used to great success, but Bisciotti generally doesn't talk just to hear his voice. Though everything he has said since has been positive and supportive of the efforts that the front office has made to upgrade the team and the coaching staff, it would be a mistake to believe he has spooled out much slack heading into the 2014 season.

It might be just the opposite. The comments Bisciotti made in January came before the flurry of off-field misbehavior that kept the club in an almost constant state of damage control throughout the offseason. The Ray Rice domestic violence incident certainly can't be blamed on anyone at The Castle — except Rice — but it combined with several lesser headlines to create a narrative that has put even more pressure on the Ravens to start changing the subject this week.

Of course, it's not as if they've been standing still the past eight months. The front office moved decisively to restructure the offensive coaching staff and install a new system that should make the team more efficient and explosive. General manager Ozzie Newsome and his staff spiced up the receiver corps with fiery veteran Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels, and acquired center Jeremy Zuttah to shore up the offensive line. And for the second year in a row, the Ravens put a heavy emphasis on restocking a storied defense that didn't have quite the same swagger last year that it did during the Ray Lewis-Ed Reed years.

Still, enough questions remain to keep everyone guessing through what will be a critical first quarter of the 2014 schedule.

How often does an NFL team open the season by playing two tough division rivals in five days and all three division rivals in succession? The Ravens will do that, and face the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers while Rice serves his two-game suspension.The quirky September schedule could turn out to be a good thing if the Ravens win both of those games at home, because they'll have the equivalent of half a bye week going into their first road game, against the Cleveland Browns, but a lot will depend on whether they have enough depth at several key positions.

The defense took some big hits during training camp and the preseason. The loss of defensive ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Brent Urban to season-ending injuries pushed some inexperience up the depth chart and thinned the overall depth of the defensive line. The scary chest injury that knocked Jimmy Smith out of the preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys only focused more attention on the team's cornerback problems, with Lardarius Webb sidelined for several weeks with a back injury.

The running back situation might actually be one of the lesser worries for Harbaugh and new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, because Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro had solid camps.

Still, in light of the uncertain injury situation, it can't be too surprising that the Ravens are being viewed with some skepticism by the oddsmakers, who rate them below the Steelers and Bengals in their consensus odds to win the AFC title and the Super Bowl, even though the Ravens' strength of schedule (based on the 2013 winning percentage of this year's opponents) ranks 28th among the 32 NFL teams.

For the first time in the Harbaugh era, the Ravens are in a position to benefit from the league's standings-based scheduling system, which — at least theoretically — promotes competitive balance by giving each team two conference games against nondivisional opponents based on their mutual 2013 divisional finish. The Ravens also picked much higher than usual in the draft because they finished third in the AFC North last year.

That just adds another layer of expectation to a team that already lives by a higher competitive standard than most NFL franchises. Lest anyone forget, the difference between last year's disappointing 8-8 record and a sixth straight postseason appearance was a fourth-quarter meltdown against the Bengals in Week 17.

In such a parity-driven league, the line between success and failure can be a very fine one, but one year removed from the Super Bowl title, Bisciotti wasn't in the mood for fine distinctions.

Bisciotti has said he is on board with his team's new direction, but that doesn't mean his admonitions last January are necessarily open to new interpretation.


"I'll be more apt to get my way next year if their solutions don't change the problems," Bisciotti said then. "That's fair. That's where I am as owner."

In other words, the heat is still on … but Harbaugh would be the first to tell you that it always is.



Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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