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How the Ravens quickly went from Super Bowl champs to an afterthought

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The organization's reputation has taken a hit, all while it's stuck in salary cap jail with no easy way out.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Peyton Manning have dominated the last 15 years in the AFC. But there was a time when the Baltimore Ravens appeared to be breaking into the ruling class.

The Ravens qualified for the playoffs every season from 2008-12, with their run of excellence culminating in a Super Bowl XLVII win over the San Francisco 49ers. Joe Flacco was Herculean throughout that postseason run, posting a quarterback rating of 117.2 and throwing 11 touchdowns without an interception.

It seemed as if a new era was on the horizon for the Ravens following that Super Bowl victory. The defense, which was the backbone of their club for so many years, was wholly mediocre -- finishing 20th against the run and 17th against the pass. With Ray Lewis and Ed Reed set to move on, this was now Flacco’s team. He appeared to be blossoming into an elite passer just as he was reaching his prime and John Harbaugh had staked his claim as one of the best coaches in the league. It was unlikely that Harbaugh and Flacco were ever going to reach the heights of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but they were worthy adversaries to New England. The tandem compiled postseason wins against the Patriots in Foxborough in 2009 and 2012.

But since then, the Ravens have largely been marked by off-field turmoil and a prolonged stint in salary cap jail. There has been some success -- such as a playoff berth in 2014 -- but a once promising future now looks uncertain. Three years ago, the Ravens were widely regarded as a role model organization that was on the cusp of an extended run of Super Bowl contention. And now, they’re a franchise with a tarnished image that’s fighting for respectability.

So what the hell happened?

Ray Rice scandal exposes dark truths

For decades, the NFL disregarded its domestic violence crisis and fans were more or less complicit in the league’s ignorance. From 2000–2014, 48 players were considered guilty of domestic abuse, and 88 percent of them weren’t suspended or only sat out one game. But then TMZ published a video of Rice knocking out his then-fiancee in an elevator, and everything changed.

Rice was charged with assault in February 2014 after he beat up his now-wife, Janay, inside of an Atlantic City casino. TMZ released harrowing footage of Rice dragging an unconscious Janay out of an elevator a couple of days later, and a grand injury indicted him on third-degree aggravated assault.

Even with the accompanying video, the Ravens and NFL appeared intent on minimizing Rice’s culpability. The running back was accepted into a pretrial intervention program, which is typically reserved for nonviolent crimes, and married Janay less than two months after the incident. That May, the Ravens trotted out Rice and Janay for a charade of a press conference, in which she apologized for her role in the incident.

(Screenshot via Heavy.com)

Commissioner Roger Goodell announced in late July he was suspending Rice for two games, sparking outrage across the country. But the league moved forward, and Rice even drew standing ovations from Ravens fans when he took the field at training camp that summer.

Then TMZ posted the film of what had actually transpired inside of that elevator, and once the video of Rice clocking Janay with a right hook was released to the public, the NFL could no longer obfuscate the ugly truth about its negligence on domestic violence. And in this case, their passiveness was reportedly driven by the Ravens.

ESPN’s Outside the Lines published a damning expose on the league’s handling of the incident, which said the Ravens led a campaign to encourage Goodell to be lenient on Rice. Though Goodell claimed he never saw the tape -- a statement that was thrown into question when the Associated Press reported the video had been sent to NFL headquarters -- the OTL story says the Ravens knew exactly what was on it. But instead of looking to acquire it themselves, they reportedly embarked on a mission to ensure it never saw the light of day.

Given the suffocating popularity of the NFL, it’s difficult to determine if the Rice incident has harmed the Ravens financially. But there’s little doubt that the reputation of the organization was sullied. Their first instinct wasn’t to scrutinize Rice, but rather protect him.

Since the blowback, the Ravens have avoided players who have had any history of domestic violence.

"I think the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL did not really treat domestic violence with a degree of seriousness and severity that the issue deserves," Ravens president Dick Cass said last year. "And that was a mistake, and that was wrong. And I think the league has recognized that. We’ve certainly recognized that, and that’s an offense that will be treated very differently going forward."

And they have gone out of their way to avoid off-field drama in general.

Last year, they cut three players who were arrested for various incidents (Terrence Cody, Victor Hampton and Bernard Pierce), and also parted ways with Will Hill this offseason after the NFL handed him a 10-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

In this year's draft, the Ravens passed on selecting offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil after a video leaked of him smoking a bong -- they instead picked OT Ronnie Stanley. They also released offensive lineman Eugene Monroe this spring, and while injuries and salary certainly played a role in that decision, it's possible his advocacy for medical marijuana played a factor, too.

Joe Flacco's elite pay, not elite play

Following the 2012 campaign, there was little doubt that Flacco was being positioned as one of the new faces of the franchise. Lewis retired, and the Ravens opted to jettison Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Bernard Pollard in free agency. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil, lineman Chris Canty and safety Michael Huff were brought in to plug some of those holes on defense, but Flacco was expected to lead the Ravens into their next era of championship contention.

That plan has failed so far.

Flacco’s playoff performance four years ago earned him a six-year, $120 million extension. But ever since signing his new deal, he's completed just 61.5 percent of his passes and averaged a QB rating of 82. In other words, his performance hasn't improved -- at all.

Despite his mediocrity and recently torn ACL, the Ravens re-signed Flacco to a three-year, $66.4 million extension this March. They had little choice, though, due to the structure of his previous deal. Flacco’s cap hit was slated to soar from $14.6 million last season to $28.6 million in 2016, essentially making his old contract a three-year agreement with a guaranteed extension afterward (his cap hit for this season has been trimmed to $22.5 million).

Given the astronomical dead money charges on Flacco -- $47.3 million in 2017 -- he's locked in to be the Ravens' starting quarterback for the next couple of years. He was also the highest-paid player in football until recently, when Andrew Luck signed his new deal with the Colts. And it’s much more due to circumstance than talent.

Salary cap jail

Following their Super Bowl victory, the Ravens had just $7.2 million in cap space. Their predicament hasn’t gotten any better over time.

In addition to Flacco’s albatross contract, the team has had to carry several veterans with hefty salaries and disappointing performances. Lardarius Webb, who was a mess at cornerback last season and has moved to safety, will carry a $9.5 million cap hit in 2016. The Ravens had to restructure the contracts of cornerback Jimmy Smith and guard Marshal Yanda this offseason to give them more spending room as well.

This dire cap situation has forced the Ravens to part ways with several key contributors over the last couple of years. Perhaps most egregiously, they traded away receiver Anquan Boldin to the 49ers in 2013 for a sixth-round pick because he wouldn’t take a pay cut. Boldin has averaged 79 receptions per season in San Francisco.

In addition, the Ravens dealt nose tackle Haloti Ngata to the Detroit Lions in 2015, freeing up $8.5 million in cap space. Monroe also carried a cap hit of $8.7 million before he was released.

None of these moves over the last couple of years created enough financial wiggle room for the Ravens to retain wide receiver Torrey Smith -- signed a five-year deal with the 49ers in 2015 -- or promising young offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, who inked a five-year, $60 million deal with the Raiders in free agency this March. Recently, the Ravens have been engaging in a game of catchup, trying to shed salary before they’re able to improve. It’s given them a thin roster with little work with, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

Baltimore still hasn't replaced Rice, finishing just 26th in rushing last season. Flacco was also forced to play with an exceptionally shallow receiving corps in 2015, though injuries did play a role in that.

The injury bug

It’s usually lame to cite injuries as an excuse for a team’s struggles, but the Ravens have been hit exceptionally hard in recent years. Their starters missed 37 games in 2013, with the offense suffering the biggest losses. Tight end Dennis Pitta missed the season with a hip injury and Osemele was absent for nine games after back surgery. Wide receivers Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown were out for a combined six contests.

But that’s nothing compared to what transpired last season. Baltimore placed a record number of players on injured reserve in the Harbaugh era, including Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Steve Smith, Monroe and Canty. With all of those injures, it’s no surprise that the Ravens limped to a 5-11 finish in 2015.

Bad drafting

The best way for teams to skirt around inflexible salary cap situations is by drafting young and cheap talent. But the Ravens have largely been unable to do that as of late.

The nucleus of the Ravens’ 2012 championship team came through the draft. General manager Ozzie Newsome selected Suggs, Flacco, Rice, Ngata, Yanda, Oher, Pitta, Kruger and Webb from 2003-09, with arguably his best work coming between 2006-08. But Baltimore has struggled to bring in high-impact players since then.

Linebacker C.J. Mosley is the only player drafted since 2010 who’s been selected to the Pro Bowl, and his performance regressed significantly in his sophomore campaign. None of the players from the 2012 class are still with the club and last year's first-round pick, wide receiver Breshad Perriman, missed the entire season with a knee injury.

The core of most successful football teams is built through the draft. The Ravens have failed in that regard over the last half decade, which is the biggest reason for their tenuous on-field future. Perhaps that will change with this year's well-regarded class, but the Ravens won't get out of NFL purgatory until their draft picks prove themselves on the field.

* * *

If Ravens fans are holding on to a glimmer of hope, they can take solace in the fact that nine of Baltimore’s 11 losses last season were by one possession. The team still seemed to play hard for Harbaugh, meaning his message still appears to be resonating in the locker room.

But even so, there's no denying that the Ravens have failed to build off their Super Bowl win. They backlogged Flacco's extension in 2013 due to salary cap constraints and have been handcuffed ever since. It's been years since the Ravens went through an offseason with the intention of improving their roster without simultaneously trying to cut costs.

There isn't another powerhouse in the AFC besides the Patriots, so there's an opening at the top of the conference. But the Ravens, with a battered brand and thin roster, aren't in position to take advantage.