The most painful reality of an NFL season coming to an end is knowing that particular team will never be together again.
When the Ravens walked off the field in Foxborough following a gut-wrenching loss in the AFC Championship, they had not only narrowly missed out on a trip to the Super Bowl but they knew they would be saying goodbye to important components of a division-winning team.
Though a handful of veterans — Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Ray Rice, Haloti Ngata, Matt Birk, and the injured Terrell Suggs — were absent this week, the Ravens took the practice field in Owings Mills as a team for the first time, welcoming fresh-faced rookies and other newcomers while missing former teammates such as Jarret Johnson and Ben Grubbs — defensive tackle Bryan Hall has taken No. 95 while rookie Gino Gradkowski now wears No. 66.
The inevitable question was asked, especially after a difficult off-season in which the Ravens lost several key players in free agency and the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year for at least the first half of the season due to a partially-torn Achilles tendon.
After such a disappointing finish to their 2011 season, are the Ravens worried about a hangover in 2012?
“I would probably not use that term. Take two Aspirin, that’s what you usually do, right?” said coach John Harbaugh, drawing laughs from the media. “I don’t think we have that problem. I don’t think it’s an issue. You go back to work; it’s a new season. Our guys, they’re in great spirits, so we’re excited. We’ve got lots of things to accomplish, things that we have yet to accomplish.”
The off-season has been anything but smooth with Rice and quarterback Joe Flacco seeking long-term contracts and Reed recently questioning whether he was 100-percent committed to playing this season. In addition, a limited amount of salary cap room led to only modest additions to the roster, leaving uncertainty at vacated spots at left guard and linebacker. In reality, returning to the field might be the perfect remedy to block out all other distractions.
And to move past the pain of the most disappointing loss in the careers of most players on the team.
“Obviously, it hurts and it stings, but you have to get back out here,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We are all tough guys and understand that that kind of thing happens sometimes. I think time is one thing, and getting back out here and running around and realizing that it’s not the end of the world. We have to come out here and we have to become ready to play so that we can get right back there and have the same opportunity next season.”
No one fazed with absences of Rice, Reed
While the absence of Rice was expected considering the Pro Bowl running back has yet to sign his franchise tender and is not under contract, plenty of questions were directed toward Harbaugh and Rice’s teammates on how his absence would impact practices.
Rookie Bernard Pierce and second-year backs Anthony Allen and Damien Berry all saw action with the first-team offense with Rice nowhere to be found in the first week of OTAs. Rice recently expressed confidence that he will be in optimal playing shape whenever he does report to the Ravens — which may not occur until training camp if a long-term agreement isn’t reached by July 16.
“I know we have a lot of good, talented guys that are working hard that are very good players,” Harbaugh said. “Who’s the next great player? We never heard of a lot of stars before they came out and became what they are. A lot of these guys that you don’t really know about right now are going to become great players. That’s just all around the league.”
Given the voluntary nature of the OTA, the 33-year-old Reed being absent shouldn’t be surprising, but the timing of his interview with Sirius XM led to questions about the All-Pro safety’s desire to continue playing. Considering Reed has made similar comments in the past and immediately backtracked in the hours following the interview, the Ravens fully expect Reed to be ready for his 11th season.
“Ed is a guy that I really trust and really, really care about and believe in,” Harbaugh said. “There has been no indication that he’s not going to play this year, as far as I am concerned. I don’t worry about Ed.”
Considering only seven players were missing from this week’s workouts — the six veterans and fifth-round pick Asa Jackson since Cal Poly still has classes in session — the Ravens were pleased with attendance, but Flacco downplayed the significance of such key contributors being missing this week.
After last year’s lockout prevented players from working out at the team’s facility and wiped out the OTA schedule, the Ravens never missed a beat on their way to a 12-4 record and their first AFC North title since 2006.
“We’re professional football players. No matter what, we know how to play football,” Flacco said. “These [OTAs] are good for us, no doubt. We get a lot of work done. We have a lot of young guys, and that’s who it is really critical for. The young guys we had last year weren’t able to get that.”
Eyes on outside linebacker, offensive line
Fourth-year linebacker Paul Kruger and rookie Courtney Upshaw lined up as the starting outside backers, but the two were lined up in the opposite way that many anticipated.
Kruger told reporters he has worked primarily at rush linebacker while Upshaw worked at strongside linebacker. Though Upshaw played a position at Alabama with responsibilities very similar to those of Suggs in the Baltimore defense, he will be asked to set the edge and drop more in pass coverage to fill the void left by the veteran Johnson.
“He’s a very smart player – very football-knowledgeable guy,” Harbaugh said. “He has been very well-coached down there. He understands the game, he works hard. He has been everything that we anticipated he’d be so far.”
There was even more movement along the offensive line as Gradkowski and Justin Boren took reps at center with Birk absent and 2012 second-round pick Kelechi Osemele took an overwhelming majority of the work at left guard. However, offensive lineman Jah Reid told reporters he played extensively at left guard on Tuesday as the two are expected to compete for the job in training camp.
The Ravens used Reid at right tackle on a few occasions with the starting offense, shifting Michael Oher to the left side, but Bryant McKinnie received most work at left tackle.
With the selections of Gradkowski and Osemele back in April, the Ravens opted for versatility on the offensive line with players capable of playing more than one position.
“[You] just play where the coaches tell you to play, obviously,” veteran right guard Marshal Yanda said. “When you’re a young player, any way that you can get out onto the grass and get out and start in the NFL, you want to play wherever they put you and where there’s a spot open. Left guard is open right now, so obviously, those guys are going to be plugged in there and see what they can do one day at a time.
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