Upon learning that Ray Rice had agreed to a five-year contract with the Ravens just minutes before the franchise tag deadline last week, my thoughts weren’t of the Pro Bowl running back or quarterback Joe Flacco, who’s next in line to receive a big payday.
Instead, I couldn’t help but think John Harbaugh was breathing a sigh of relief after the most trying offseason of his tenure in Baltimore. Knowing his best offensive player would be present for the start of training camp was a far more welcoming piece of news than the possibility of a lengthy holdout dragging into the preseason — or even longer.
Frankly, he needed the good news after an offseason that provided more disappointment than good in the eyes of many observers.
The only head coach in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first four seasons, Harbaugh has faced little adversity compared to most peers in the challenging and impatient world in which an NFL head coach tries to survive. Other than maybe the select few who own a Super Bowl title, you won’t find an individual with more job security in the league and rightfully so.
Harbaugh has done an outstanding job since coming to Baltimore in 2008, but the last six months have been anything but smooth for the defending AFC North champions.
Headlining the list of misfortune was the partially-torn Achilles tendon suffered by 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs. The Pro Bowl linebacker has vowed to return to action this season, but whether he can provide any significant impact remains in serious doubt. To make matters worse, the same injury struck defensive end Michael McAdoo, who was far from a sure thing but represented an intriguing project to provide some of the pass-rushing void left behind in Suggs’ absence.
A salary-cap crunch led to the departure of Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs and other contributing veterans such as Jarret Johnson, Cory Redding, Tom Zbikowski, and Haruki Nakamura in free agency. And despite general manager Ozzie Newsome stating the need to upgrade the offensive line as a top priority, the Ravens managed only to add 35-year-old guard Bobbie Williams while drafting a pair of talented but unproven linemen in Kelechi Osemele and Gino Gradkowski.
Ed Reed’s decision to skip mandatory minicamp and cryptic comments regarding his desire for a new contract have left everyone wondering what his frame of mind will be if and when he reports for training camp this week. The head coach didn’t even receive a heads-up from the All-Pro safety of his intentions to skip the three-day camp in early June, so you just don’t know what to make of Reed at this stage of his career in Baltimore.
And, of course, this all came under the shadow of what transpired in the final seconds of the AFC Championship game in January.
The Lee Evans drop in the end zone.
The Billy Cundiff miss from 32 yards.
Even the law of averages is working against the Ravens as they’re the only team in the NFL to have made the postseason in each of the last four years. That run is bound to end at some point in the not-for-long nature of the league.
Are the Ravens in danger of experiencing a hangover in 2012?
“I would probably not use that term. Take two Aspirin. That’s what you usually do, right?” said Harbaugh in late May, drawing laughter from gathered 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.”
Yes, the Ravens go back to work full-time this week, but the challenges faced over the last six months make it all the more difficult to turn their backs on how close they came to advancing to the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years. The margin for error is so small in advancing to that stage, and all it takes is a key injury or a couple plays swinging in the opposite direction to derail the journey back to that same point.
If anyone is equipped to handle such a position, it’s Harbaugh, whose biggest strength is managing people and providing exceptional leadership. His motivational tools and phrases to unite his players may not always be home runs — in the same way a comedian won’t bat 1.000 with all his jokes — but the Baltimore locker room has been united from the first day he arrived over four years ago.
Even so, as players hit the practice field in the summer heat of Owings Mills this week, it’s only human nature to look around at who’s missing — Suggs and the departed veterans — and think back to that Sunday in Foxborough six months ago, even if only for a moment or two.
They’re bound to wonder if they missed their chance.
“We’ve got lots of things to accomplish, things that we have yet to accomplish,” Harbaugh said. “The team that won the Super Bowl last year, it’s a new year for them, too, and they have a lot to accomplish this year, too. No matter what you did in the past, you have to go to work the next year, and that’s what we do. We’ve done it every year.”