Where will we be this time NEXT year?
The Ravens’ playoff run for the 2008 season hasn’t been over for 48 hours and they are already forging ahead at Owings Mills in preparation for 2009.
A suggested theme: “Let’s play one more game”.
After all, in 2008, the MAXIMUM amount of games a team could have played — 20. The Ravens played 19.
If only they could have played one more game.
Maybe next year.
But, there will be a lot of action, a lot of news and a lot of changes next year in Baltimore. Those changes are both obvious and subtle, but equally important. Some might be changes for the better. Some might not.
We won’t know until this time next year.
The most glaring of the changes will be the departure of Baltimore’s long-time defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. Rex was not only a fixture here, but he takes with him to New York the one intangible that every coach in any sport craves to own — his players enjoyed playing for him.
Forget about the money. Forget the “contract year” stuff. Dismiss styles, schemes, etc.
Almost to a man in Owings Mills, the players played for Rex Ryan first and foremost.
He will be missed. The players knew his departure was inevitable. But that won’t make it any easier when training camp rolls around next July. Will the new defensive coordinator command the same respect as Rex? Only time will tell.
When a coach leaves, other’s follow. Players look around the room and say, “that was MY guy…maybe the next coach won’t appreciate me the way Rex did.” Some might head out of Baltimore with that thought in mind. A few players have openly talked about Rex in New York and wondered aloud if perhaps their career trail might lead them to the Jets and a stint in the Big Apple.
While the Rex decision didn’t fall at the feet of the Ravens, the Ray Lewis decision most certainly will be one they make on their clock.
It will go down as the hot-button topic of the off-season, without a doubt.
It appears as if Ozzie’s summer of ’08 gamble to let Ray play out his contract is going to come back to haunt Steve Bisciotti where it hurts the most – at the bank. Ray kept his mouth shut all year and played football. At a high-level. And when Baltimore trotted out of the locker room on Sunday night in Pittsburgh, they took to the field in large part because of #52’s fearless competitive streak and his Hall-of-Fame performance in 2008.
Ray deserves to get paid.
Someone in the league WILL pay him.
It would be grossly unfair if it weren’t the Ravens.
But that’s THEIR decision now. They have a variety of options. They can re-sign Ray and give him some sort of staggering signing bonus in the vicinity of $20 million for a 4 or 5 year deal. They can slap the franchise tag on him and extend him one more season – but Lewis will most likely bristle at that option since he’ll say he played 2008 “in good faith” and the franchise tag is looked upon by most players as a method the club uses to duck out of their obligation to reward a player. They can also apply the little-used transition tag on Ray and allow him the chance to go out on the open market and secure his best deal – and then the Ravens can match it, and keep him, or let him wander off to (insert team here).
As Ray goes, so will the rest of the off-season.
Baltimore has a number of key players getting to roam around sniffing for a new deal. If Ray signs, where does that leave Terrell Suggs? What about Bart Scott? Jim Leonhard? Jason Brown?
Who is going to catch the football for Baltimore in 2008? Isn’t it time for the franchise to make a dedicated commitment – like they did with the QB position last April – to the passing game by adding a couple of quality, reliable, wide receievers who can endure the tough AFC North? It would appear that the triple threat of Mason-Clayton-DWilliams isn’t going to get the job done. That’s not to say that one or two of those players can’t fill a role on next year’s team, but Baltimore needs an upgrade at the receiver position. No hard feelings.
The secondary is in need of an overhaul and a move toward youth. Perhaps no department on the team battled injuries like this year’s secondary and on the “heart meter”, it zooms past 10 and goes straight to the top. But, as we saw Sunday night in Pittsburgh, you can have all the heart in the world but that doesn’t matter to Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes. The Ravens need to add experience, speed and strength in the secondary. Better ball hawks. Better tacklers. Better players. That’s what they need back there if they want to beat the Steelers next year.
George Kokinis will be heading off to Cleveland to take over as the Browns’ GM and the Ravens will lose a high-quality front office mind. He’s a behind-the-scenes guy at Owings Mills that very few people know. I’ll sum up Kokinis for you in about 50 words. Do you like Jim Leonhard as a player? Justin Bannan? Fabian Washington? Those are three important parts of the ’08 team that were all signed off on by Kokinis and handed over to Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh. Kokinis will be missed.
There’s little doubt that chemistry and personal affection for one another – to a man – had as much to do with Baltimore’s success in ’08 as any element of on-field play with perhaps the exception of the new quarterback from Delaware.
There’s an old saying: “you can’t catch lightning in a bottle…twice.”
How will this team come together next year? New people. New personal agendas. New philosophies.
It might be better, of course.
But, it might not be.
Joe Flacco will be better. So will Jared Gaither. Most of the young players who played a role this year have plenty of upside. It’s the team experienced corps of veterans who are starting to show the inevitable wear and tear. But those veterans also comprise the heart and soul of the locker room. Dan Wilcox is a lion and a player that every man in that locker room looks up to — and he might be moving on if the Ravens elect to not sign him to a new contract. What happens if Ray Lewis doesn’t get rewarded like he believes he should? Who steps in for him and becomes the team’s beating heart?
That’s why losing on Sunday was so damaging.
This team – this exact gathering of men – will not be back for a second go-round next season.
These chances don’t come along very often.
And that’s why Sunday’s loss hurts.
But, teams lose coaches and players every year and they all stay in business and they all do their best to rebound and move on to the next challenge.
For the Ravens, though, the next challenge will come with different people in place.
We trusted the folks in charge of the challenge this year.
It will be hard to replace those that have departed or will move on in the next month or so.
Let’s hope we don’t learn a hard lesson in 2009.
2008 was just too much fun.
And, after all, we’re only asking for the team to play one more game next year.