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2015 Ravens Attempt To Mentally Deal With Losing

January 15, 2016

As the Ravens' regular season wound down, cornerback Lardarius Webb sat in front of his locker, looking both tired and perplexed.

It had been a season of change for Webb and his teammates. He had been gradually moved back to free safety, a tactic that seemed to acknowledge declining speed and coverage ability brought on by various injuries during his seven-year career. And the entire squad was absorbing the sting of a sub-.500 campaign, the kind the franchise had not endured since 2007.

The Ravens' 5-11 record marked the first losing season under eighth-year head coach John Harbaugh, a third consecutive third-place AFC North finish and the second year in the past three without a playoff appearance.

The lost season, taking place in what could have been a more celebratory homage to the team's 20th campaign, also featured three multi-game losing streaks for the first time since 2002 and an unprecedented five home defeats.

The failures of 2013-15 followed a run of success matched by few teams in the salary-cap era: nine postseason trips in a 13-year span, a gold mine of prosperity that included four division titles, four conference title game appearances and two Super Bowl championships.

"It's been a long season, man," Webb said in mid-December. "Long season. You can take that how you want it. It's been a long year."

Ravens 2015: Lardarius Webb (Week 3 vs. Bengals)
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

When the Ravens, a squad tabbed by some national observers of having Super Bowl-caliber talent, stumbled instead to a franchise-record worst 1-6 start, it set analysts abuzz over the appearance of a sudden lack of talent, as well as the team's lack of depth, propensity for allowing big plays on defense and an outrageously high number of injuries to front-line stars.

But what nobody could fathom, at least not right away, was the mental toll such a high degree of losing could have on a team and a franchise accustomed to success.

Linebacker Elvis Dumervil felt the hurt as much, if not more, than most. 

As a Denver Bronco, Dumervil became one of the league's most feared sack artists and appeared in the playoffs on two AFC West division-winning teams, one of which gained the conference's top playoff seed, a milestone the Ravens have never reached.

But in the wake of the Week One season-ending Achilles injury to rush mate Terrell Suggs, Dumervil had to not only switch sides on defense -- playing over left tackles who were mostly bigger and more physical than right tackles -- but he had to accumulate more snaps per game, which is never easy on any 31-year-old, talent level notwithstanding.

"It was just a season of grind," Dumervil said. "Did some good things, some things we didn't do good enough. We've just got to get better.

"I think everybody as a team, collectively, gave it their best shot. That's why we play football. We love what we do. It just didn't work out the way we wanted it to, so we've got to come back next year stronger."

Quiet strength and leadership by example is personified in quarterback Joe Flacco, a durable Super Bowl MVP and playoff road warrior who, after 122 consecutive regular-season starts, did not escape the team-wide injury bug when he went down in Week 11 with multiple knee ligament tears.

Yet, as is his habit, Flacco accepted the team's fate as part of the up-and-down inevitability that goes with the normal course of events in the NFL.

Ravens 2015: Joe Flacco (Week 8 vs. Chargers, both hands on football)
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

"I think no matter what you've dealt with, even though we've won a lot around here, you still deal with things that are tough on a weekly basis," Flacco said. "This year was no different, and I think you can see the kind of locker room that we've had. 

"I think, more than anything, you can kind of look at this locker room and be proud of the way that we've handled ourselves and the way we've gone out there, and we've never given up; you can see that when you watch them on TV."

While Harbaugh drew some derisive critiques from area broadcasters from stating that 2015 was "one of the most rewarding seasons" of his career, Flacco's point is a salient one.

As they lost nine of 11 games by eight or fewer points -- with several games coming down to the final play -- the never-say-die Ravens often managed to look like a semblance of those editions who went to the playoffs and competed for championships.

But in a bottom-line business, 5-11 makes them resemble former contenders instead. 

"We did some things, [but] we didn't do enough," linebacker and 12-year veteran Daryl Smith said. "We made a big jump there late in the year, a big push, [but] we just kept working and stuck together and believed in what we were doing. Hopefully … that's something we can build on.

"We fought through to the end and stuck together, and that was important."

Center Jeremy Zuttah agreed, as he lauded his teammates for not turning on each other in the manner in which the Ravens seemed to do during the 2004 and 2005 seasons, which also featured the team staying home in January.

"I think it's encouraging as a team that nobody started pointing a finger, nobody turned on each other," Zuttah said. "[We] just kept working, and I think in the situation that we were in, that's really all you can do. Obviously, nobody's making excuses; nobody's doing any of that. 

"It's unfortunate [that], myself included, a lot of people just weren't able to make it through the season. So, you evaluate why and get back to it and try to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Zuttah was one of a club-record 20 Ravens placed on season-ending injured reserve; physically, a lot of players, literally, did not make it through the season.

But while 2015 will not be looked back upon fondly or referred to at all by many Ravens fans or outside observers -- especially if another long spate of playoff appearances begins -- it should be noted that in the harsh world of the NFL, its delicate balance, for once, tipped the Ravens over onto the wrong side.

The franchise landed hard on its head, but it is hard-headed enough to think that things can change for the better, and quickly.

"Yes, I'm optimistic," Harbaugh said. "I don't feel like I am a [glass] half-full guy, so to speak. I like to think that I can see reality most of the time. 

"[But] I'm excited about the core of our football team. We have a lot of good football players that will be here [in the spring when we reconvene]."

The real hope for 2016 is not just a better record. It is for none of the Ravens to look -- or feel -- as despondent as Webb did in 2015.

Joe Platania has been covering professional football since 1994.

Issue 217: January 2016