Six weeks after celebrating their Super Bowl title, the Baltimore Ravens watched another parade. This time, it was the long line of starters leaving the team's facility.
The Ravens have already parted ways with six Super Bowl starters, a record for dismantling a championship football team. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no Super Bowl winner has lost more than five starters from its team before the next season. Baltimore could almost double that number before training camp begins.
Time to write off the Ravens, right? The Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers are the new golden teams a little over a week into free agency. The Ravens are clearly in rebuilding mode. It's easy to say that when more Ravens fans can name Jacoby Jones' dance partner than the team's most experienced safety on the roster (that would be James Ihedigbo).
But it would be a mistake right now to underestimate Baltimore. Sure the Ravens don't look like a playoff team. Their recent history, however, says otherwise.
Two years ago, the Ravens lost eight starters, including wide receiver Derrick Mason, tight end Todd Heap, nose tackle Kelly Gregg and both starting cornerbacks. Baltimore had less than a month to fill those voids because of the NFL lockout that year. The result: The Ravens went 12-4 and won the AFC North.
"We’ve had this kind of turnover really every year for the last five years to one degree or another, pretty much more than anybody in the league," coach John Harbaugh said at the NFL owners meetings. "We know how to deal with it and Ozzie [Newsome, general manager] does a great job with it.”
To simply say the Ravens will reload the way they did in 2012 is naive. Outside of putting together this team after the move from Cleveland, these next few months represent the biggest challenge facing Newsome and the acclaimed Ravens front office.
The greatest obstacle in the way of the Ravens' title defense is replacing the toughness and leadership of Ray Lewis, Anquan Boldin and Bernard Pollard. The Ravens will be faster and younger without them. Whether they're better without them is highly debatable.
The Ravens have major holes at wide receiver, both inside linebacker spots (Dannell Ellerbe signed with Miami and Jameel McClain still hasn't been cleared from his spinal cord injury) and both safety positions (especially if Ed Reed signs elsewhere). The last time the Ravens won a Super Bowl, the only major change was going from Trent Dilfer to Elvis Grbac at quarterback.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti doesn't feel the Ravens will get any sympathy from teams when they bring back Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice, wide receiver Torrey Smith, guard Marshal Yanda, linebacker Terrell Suggs, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and cornerback Lardarius Webb. Perhaps this is why the Ravens are still considered a top-10 team, only slipping to No. 8 in ESPN.com's pre-draft power rankings.
"If you talk about the losses, it sounds like a lot," Bisciotti told The Baltimore Sun. "If you look at what's left and fill in around it, it really isn't any different than we've had the last few years, and we've been able to regroup and build a playoff-caliber team in every one of those years."
Whether or not the Ravens win a playoff game for the sixth straight season, they should be commended for not being afraid to go against conventional thinking.
Most Super Bowl winners try to keep their teams intact at any cost. The 2010 Packers lost one starter, and the 2009 Saints didn't bring back two starters, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But sticking with the same starters rarely leads to the same results. The past seven Super Bowl champions have failed to win a playoff game the following season.
And if the Ravens brought back the same team, they wouldn't repeat either. It was time to retool the defense after it finished No. 17, the first time a Ravens defense ended up outside the top 10 in a decade. The Ravens also ranked an uncharacteristic 20th against the run. Baltimore was going to have to fix its defense, whether it was this year or next.
“Baltimore had a plan, they didn’t take any hits," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "They drafted guys that they are going to put in place to fill their voids. It wasn’t a surprise to them. They knew at some point they weren’t going to be able to pay all of those guys at the top of the ledger and at every spot. Probably [Joe] Flacco threw a monkey wrench into it, but the plan was in place.”
The rebuilding part of that plan hasn't been revealed yet. The only free-agent additions have been defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, who will upgrade the run defense. With roughly $10 million in salary-cap space, the Ravens will add a safety, perhaps Reed or free agent Michael Huff, as well as a veteran pass-rusher like Elvis Dumervil, James Harrison, Osi Umenyiora or Dwight Freeney. The Ravens will also replenish the roster with an AFC-best 12 draft picks, which could be used on an inside linebacker like Georgia's Alec Ogletree or LSU's Kevin Minter.
In other words, Baltimore has some ground to make up on the Broncos and Patriots in the AFC. You could argue that the Ravens have fallen behind the Bengals in the division. But knowing how quickly the Ravens can rebuild, it would be foolish to write off the Ravens in March.
"You can’t feel sorry for yourself; nobody’s feeling sorry for you,” Harbaugh said. “We have to move on to next year. We’re disappointed about it. It’s tough. We’ve had a lot of conversations … about that part of it, the emotional part of it and balancing the emotional part with the business part. I don’t think you can walk away from that. It’s real. We’ve got friendships with these guys. Their families have been around. Our kids play together. We’ve been through a lot together. They were involved in every decision we made every single day. That’s tough. That’s something we’re going to have to figure out going forward.”