Baltimore's Hungry Veterans Thinking Super Bowl Or Bust
By Joe Platania
Right now, there are some NFL teams with mere pipe dreams about playing in a Super Bowl. In about a month or two, that pipe will come crashing down on their heads.
Right now, there are teams harboring thoughts about participating in the playoffs. With at least five new teams earning berths in the 12-team field in each of the last 14 years, it's not an unrealistic goal.
Right now, John Harbaugh believes his Ravens can win a Super Bowl.
|Anquan Boldin and Ray Lewis (Sabina Moran/PressBox)|
But, who are we kidding? For the third-year coach, who will attempt this year to be just the fourth coach since 1990 to make the postseason in each of his first three years with his new team, right now is every day.
The intensity and earnestness Harbaugh brings to the job is justified. He has good reason to be optimistic. The Ravens are coming off a decade that saw them make the playoffs six times (tied for third most in the AFC), including an unprecedented three-in-four-year stretch. And with 21 returning starters and 17 players on the roster that have been to at least one Pro Bowl (10 of them as Ravens), not to mention a consistently-outstanding defense and more offensive weapons for a young, developing quarterback, this team appears loaded.
The expectations placed on the Ravens by fans and media mean nothing to most coaches for whom winning isn't just a goal, but something on which their livelihood depends. Harbaugh understands the expectations. But he takes them to the next level, putting them in nosebleed territory 24 hours a day, something he's done since he took his first head-coaching job here in 2008.
"I thought [my first year here] we were going to win the Super Bowl, and I thought the second year we were going to win the Super Bowl," Harbaugh said as training camp opened at McDaniel College late last month.
"And we were pretty disappointed when we walked off that field in Pittsburgh after the first year. I know we were pretty disappointed last year when we walked off the field in Indianapolis without that win. So, in that sense, I think expectations are exactly the same as they always are."
It doesn't matter if everyone else is expecting a championship in February. Harbaugh doesn't usually think that far ahead. He is expecting perfect practices, perfect game plans and overall excellence.
And he wants things done right, right now.
The 2010 defense has the same kind of lean, hungry youngsters as the team with the best single-season unit in NFL history, with at least eight key contributors having joined the team in 2006 or later. In particular, where the 2000 Ravens had an imposing defensive tackle tandem (Tony Siragusa/Sam Adams), this year's team has the potential for the same kind of interior fortress (Haloti Ngata/Terrence Cody).
The Super Bowl Ravens also had something any historically-great defense must have: a nasty attitude. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison thinks this year's unit possesses the same trait.
"I love the attitude of this defense," Mattison said. "I think they have great confidence. This defense feels very strongly about each other, and it always has here.
"When you go in a Ravens defensive room, you know you have an obligation to play up to the standard that’s been set over the years, and nothing’s different this year. They came in with that attitude, and I love -- I love -- the way they bounce. I love the way they fly around. They have fun together, and that’s what we want to do."
Both the 2000 and 2010 Ravens also feature these commonalities:
• A strong running game (Jamal Lewis vs. today's three-headed monster of Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain)
• Well-placed veteran pickups (Sam Gash, Shannon Sharpe and Rod Woodson vs. Anquan Boldin, Cory Redding and Donte' Stallworth)
• A youthful coach early in his first job (Brian Billick won the Super Bowl in his second year while Harbaugh is entering his third season)
Another reason for optimism: the Ravens are much stronger at quarterback now than they were 10 years ago.
Baltimore fans will always remember and revere Trent Dilfer for what he did for the 2000 unit after replacing Tony Banks midseason. However, there can be no disputing Joe Flacco is more of a prototypical signal-caller than anyone the Ravens have put under center since Vinny Testaverde.
Flacco has posted slightly above-average numbers, but the only stat that matters is wins at clutch times. He is the first rookie quarterback to win two straight road postseason games.
“Well, I think Joe has done the hardest thing in his first two years, and that’s learn how to win," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Most young quarterbacks don’t have the opportunity to come in the league and learn how to win. Well, Joe has learned how to win football games."
And Flacco has done it in a laidback, workmanlike style all his own, the kind Baltimoreans appreciate. Experience has brought forth some outward emotion, but not too much.
"I don’t make a conscious effort to be excited," Flacco said. "When I get excited, I’ll get excited. And, if not, then I won’t be excited. I get excited more than you guys think, it’s just … I have my own way of doing it. I don’t run up and down and all over the place. It just never, never was part of me. I always looked at the kid that was doing that and kind of laughed at him."
It will be no laughing matter to the Ravens' front office, players, coaches or fans if they make that long walk off the field at the end of a playoff game with the realization no Vince Lombardi Trophy will be coming home with them. And if this season concludes with another fruitless playoff quest, there will be several logical reasons why.
First, the youthful, speedy, pass-oriented game now prevalent in the NFL doesn't seem to favor the Ravens, given a look at their current roster. As of the start of training camp, Baltimore had the league's fifth-oldest roster, averaging 26.6 years of age, with 13 players making up their "Over-30 Club," up from nine last year.
Part of that is a direct correlation to the players the Ravens brought in to help boost their air attack. The team's four main offseason acquisitions are all 29 years old, and two of them happen to be highly-touted wideouts Boldin and Stallworth.
>> Continued on Page 2
Issue 152: August 2010