Some label it parity while others believe it’s mediocrity, or even just plain luck, but it’s clear to see why many claim the NFL actually stands for “Not For Long.”
How else do you explain the Miami Dolphins—owner of a 1-15 record in 2007—winning the AFC East in 2008? Or on the flip side, is it just a coincidence that every Super Bowl loser this decade—except for the 2006 Seattle Seahawks—has failed to even make the playoffs the following season?
With few exceptions, the NFL is a league of transient success and reversible frustration.
It was only a year ago that a certain NFL team entered Week 1 with a rookie third-string quarterback—pressed into action due to injury—and a new head coach that had never even held a coordinator position (offensive or defensive) at the professional level. On top of that, the team’s best player was unsure if he’d be able to play due to a debilitating injury, and the offense was in need of not one, but two, reliable offensive tackles.
It looked as though a 7-9 season would be grounds for a city-wide celebration with the number of questions surrounding the organization.
Fast-forward a year and that same team—minus a couple of key departing players and a defensive coordinator—has a second-year quarterback coming off a historically-successful season (the first rookie to win two playoff games), an inspiring young coach, one of the best young offensive tackle duos in the league, and, of course, Super Bowl aspirations.
Of course the team to which I’m referring is the Baltimore Ravens, and the expectations now compared to a year ago when the Ravens were an underdog at home—against the Cincinnati Bengals of all teams—entering Week 1 are night and day.
Even with the departure of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, Pro Bowl linebacker Bart Scott, and safety Jim Leonhard, the sky is the limit for the Ravens. John Harbaugh has command of the locker room, field general Ray Lewis is still going strong at 34, and young Joe Flacco appears ready to take the next step in becoming a legitimate franchise quarterback.
Naturally, there are questions that must be addressed, but the same can be said with any team in the league. The wide receiver position continues to linger in flux, and key members of the defense are another year older, but there are no major obstacles that appear to be blocking this team’s chances of taking the next step from last year’s AFC Championship appearance to a trip to Miami in early February.
Life is good in Baltimore, especially compared to the thoughts of a year ago, right?
“We have got our eye on something, and everybody sees that,” Lewis said. “When one guy wants to take a day off from practice, there’s 10 to 15 guys picking him up and saying you can’t. The vibe is different this year because everybody has this taste [of redemption] in their mouth.”
The problem is that as quickly as the Ravens turned things around last season, circumstances can again turn south without warning in the NFL.
It was only two years ago when the Ravens, coming off a 13-3 season in 2006, were led by Brian Billick and had similar goals to what we’re hearing right now. Injuries decimated the team, the locker room crumbled, and the Super Bowl-winning head coach was dismissed after a 5-11 season.
Will it happen again? Everyone in Baltimore says no—including this writer—but you just never know with the NFL. A couple of key injuries to a Derrick Mason or an Ed Reed, a handful of questionable coaching decisions, or even a few missed field goals by an inexperienced Steve Hauschka can turn a playoff team into a miserable loser.
Despite being considered one of the best organizations in the league, the Ravens have failed to enjoy consecutive winning seasons since 2003-2004. Owner Steve Bisciotti and Harbaugh will attempt to break the trend this year—and then some.
“We’re both trying to build something special,” Harbaugh said. “We’re both not afraid to say we’re trying to build a dynasty here. We’re trying to create something that the NFL’s never seen before, where people are going to look back and say, ‘That’s the standard. We want to be what the Ravens were for that period of time.’”
Lofty goals for sure, but the Ravens will first need to prove they can sustain that high level of success beyond a single season.
As you proudly wear your purple this week and daydream about Festivus Maximus while firing up the grill on Sunday, just think back to that subdued, uncertain feeling entering the season a year ago and smile, but also remember the worm can turn very quickly.
We’ve seen it before here in Baltimore.
One game at a time, and one season at a time.
But, above all, enjoy the unpredictable ride.