One and done or one of many?
That's the question looming for the Baltimore Ravens after the last balloon has popped and the final bits of confetti have been swept up. The Super Bowl buzz has given way to the drama of the offseason, a time of year filled with too many figureheads covering too little news. The resulting coverage asks more questions than necessary, but it brings an inevitable cloud over the Ravens this time of year -- a doubtful one about whether or not the champs can repeat.
It's not about the Ravens one way or the other. Every team faces a set of questions once the furor begins over NFL free agency and roster moves. It happens every year, and 31 other teams would be happy to wrestle with the question facing Baltimore. But there are concerns hanging nevertheless, and fans want to know if they can do it again or whether the undertow of roster transition will prove too much.
If you read the headlines, you might think the glass is half empty in Baltimore. While Joe Flacco just got paid a record amount to remain the fixture at quarterback, the team has several holes to fill, none larger than the one vacated by team icon and potential Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis. In addition, offensive anchor Matt Birk retired after a 15-year career that deserves more notice than he's received.
In addition, the team has suffered tremendous losses to its nucleus and overall depth. Besides Lewis and Birk, the team watched Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed walk to the Houston Texans and that came after the other starting safety, Bernard Pollard, left for the Tennessee Titans. Cornerback Cary Williams went to the Eagles, leaving the defensive back unit rather thin after the championship.
Just in front of the secondary, the linebacking corps lost both Paul Kruger to the Cleveland Browns and Dannell Ellerbe to the Miami Dolphins. When you include the loss of Lewis in the mix, the linebackers look as thin as the secondary.
That's not to mention the various free agents who are also out there waiting to be signed. Bryant McKinnie is not likely to return to the offensive line. Defensive linemen like Arthur Jones and Ma'ake Kemoeatu are also still out there. Whether or not the Ravens bring them back will help answer questions of depth, but further losses would only give the team that much more to replace on the market or in the draft.
Every team goes through this cycle of loss and gain in the offseason and the Ravens haven't sat idly on the sidelines regardless of how many recognizable players seem to have left the team. Remember with the elevated status of Super Bowl winner, suddenly every free agent is that much more valuable -- read: bloated -- than before and you're recognizing the names of guys you might not on other teams simply because they are "former Ravens." In other words, the loss of a Bernard Pollard isn't actually big news, for example, since this is his fourth franchise since 2008.
But note that the Ravens have not lost any significant players in the trenches. That's where general manager Ozzie Newsome is smart and will keep the Ravens fortified where it matters. Names like Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata still anchor a defense that will remain formidable. In addition, the team has replaced veteran favorites with significant free agent acquisitions, including the signing of former Broncos pass rusher Elvis Dumervil.
Dumervil brings the team a pass rusher to set opposite Suggs and makes the team even formidable against opposing quarterbacks than last year. Remember Dumervil missed the entire 2010 season and was just rounding into form in 2011 when he had 9.5 sacks. Last year, he was fully healthy and started all 16 games for the Broncos. The result was 11 sacks alongside Von Miller and six forced fumbles.
It might be hard to believe, but the Ravens did not have a single player in double digit sacks during their Super Bowl run. Dumervil gives the team another threat off the edge that it needed, and it should be noted that Dumervil is likely playing with a chip on his shoulder after being released by the Broncos and then publicly scolded. Let's also not forget that the team also brought in Chris Canty and Marcus Spears this offseason to further bolster the front seven.
In addition, it's important to remember that the team already has nice young players in development -- from Courtney Upshaw and Josh Bynes to Terrence Cody and Jimmy Smith. Each of those players will develop with more playing time and elevated roles on the field. The cupboard is certainly not bare.
For all of the fuss made over the Ravens losses, the Ravens recently crowned quarterback Joe Flacco as the highest paid player in football with his recent extension that includes $52 million guaranteed. You don't pay a player that much without christening him at the same time. It was with that official signature that Flacco became the official face of the franchise. This is now Flacco's team.
This is a significant change for the Ravens to grow into. For years, a fearsome defense has defined them and, as we've already noted, that facet is still intact. But like Tom Brady's Patriots or Aaron Rodgers' Packers, these are now Joe Flacco's Ravens. In the last months of the season, Flacco played like it and now he's being paid like it. That size of a paycheck completely changes the tenor of the team, and Ozzie Newsome and company realize this.
Flacco is entering his prime and hitting his stride at the exact same time. The Delaware product just turned 28 and has never missed a single start in his five full NFL seasons -- that's 80 starts with another 13 postseason starts. He's already helping offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell retool the offense this offseason, and it's clear he's ready to be the leader. With such experience, durability and growth, Flacco is ready for a real run if he has the talent around him.
The Wizard of Oz
It is Ozzie Newsome, more than any other, who matters the most, since the team's general manager is the architect of the pieces in place. Time and again, Newsome has found his man picking at the bottom of each round. Each position features some player with which Newsome struck gold, and as long as he's given the keys to Steve Bisciotti's kingdom, then the Ravens will be just fine. Perhaps no executive in the game right now has a track record like Newsome.
The Baltimore Ravens have key decisions to make, but so does every other team in the National Football League. They will absorb significant losses. They will deal with injuries, face questions and struggle with high expectations. Yet the leadership on the coaching staff, the talent pool Newsome has collected and the young leadership still emerging will be more than enough to dream of another ring.