Go back to August and think about the state of the NFL. The Eagles were building the dream team. The Jets were ready to take the next step past the AFC title game. The Packers would be the favorites in the NFC. Teams with new coaches, like the 49ers, would be hamstrung by the lockout. Remember all that?
The Ravens? Well, they had a chance but questions were plentiful. They were the only team in the league to appear in the playoffs three straight seasons but they couldn’t get past the Steelers to win their division. Baltimore couldn’t get past them in the playoffs either. The Ravens still relied on the old-school formula of “run and stop the run.” Soooo 20th century.
To make matters worse, the front office had a plethora of roster moves to make but couldn’t until the lockout was over. When it ended, the questions just piled up.
Derrick Mason was released. Could Torrey Smith, the second round pick from Maryland, make it in the NFL?
Le’Ron McLain was released. Willis McGahee was signed away by Denver. How would the ground game thrive again with two-thirds of it being replaced?
Todd Heap was released. Who would make big catches over the middle and in the red zone?
Kelly Greg was released as well. I remember the outcry vividly. Not Buddy Lee!
The O-Line had some missing parts and how would they gel quick enough to keep the quarterback upright? Josh Wilson left for DC and Domonique Foxworth was injured before the season started and was shelved to IR after week two. All the sudden, there were two veteran corners with a total of 5 career starts between them and a rookie 1st round pick in Jimmy Smith, who injured his ankle in the first quarter of the first game and missed significant time.
Could a team with so many questions finally take the step up to division champions?? Let alone another Conference Title game or(dare I say it) Super Bowl appearance?? I mean, they had won 11, 9 and 12 games the previous three seasons. They were bound to take a step backward in 2011, right?
The answers came fast and furiously. Yes, Torrey Smith can succeed in the NFL. All-Pro Fullback/human battering ram Vonta Leach signed on August 2nd and Ricky Williams signed up to eat up the carries usually reserved for McGahee. Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, who had only three professional starts, are both legitimate tight ends. Gregg wasn’t missed as the defense ranked 2nd in the NFL against the run. The offensive line was bolstered with cast-offs Bryant McKinnie and Andre Gurode (who filled in for injured starters Matt Birk and Ben Grubbs). The corners held up. Webb was near Pro-Bowl caliber. Williams did an admirable job and is third on the team in tackles. The defense finished the season third in yards allowed, fourth against the pass and tops in red-zone defense.
Any trip to the conference title game comes with its share of hardships over the course of the four-month season. This team has persevered and survived where 28 other teams have failed. This should be a celebration week and I think, for most of the fans, it is. The complainers will be satisfied only one way…by winning on February 5th in Indy. The players, I’m sure, feel the same way. They just aren’t going to complain about things because they know how special and rare these opportunities are.
Established NFL teams get kicked off their perches every year. See the Colts and Eagles and Jets this year. Of the up and coming playoff contenders like Cincinnati, Detroit, Houston and Atlanta, I’d bet at least two of them don’t make the post-season next year.
That’s what makes the Baltimore Ravens four-year run so impressive. NFL does, in a sense, stand for “Not For Long”. So enjoy it people! Show some love. Call into to the radio shows and voice your happiness. Squeeze the bitterness off the air waves and let the city and the Ravens hear your excitement. I have heard some of you. It sure is refreshing. It makes me smile. The complainers make me want to turn the station or pop in a CD. I want more positivity! More smiles. More good will. And who knows, if things go well Sunday, we can do it all over again for two more weeks.