In losing seven starters from their Super Bowl championship team, the Baltimore Ravens know they can fill the spots left by the likes of inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, safety Bernard Pollard, cornerback Cary Williams and center Matt Birk.
But there is no replacing safety Ed Reed or linebacker Ray Lewis. Baltimore will get someone like Michael Huff to start at Reed's free safety position and the team will find another inside linebacker to take over for Lewis. It's just impossible for the Ravens to replace what these two future Hall of Fame players meant to the franchise.
When Reed agreed to terms with the Houston Texans on Wednesday night, the Ravens didn't just say goodbye to another key piece to a championship team. With Reed gone and Lewis retired, this marked the end of an era for the Ravens. This move defines a Ravens offseason where the focus has been on the future and not the sentiment of the past.
Reed and Lewis were cornerstones of the franchise. They were the emotional leaders. They provided the confidence and the swagger. They got into the heads of quarterbacks and running backs alike and provided game-changing plays when the Ravens needed it the most. For most of the past decade, teams knew they couldn't run on No. 52 in the middle and couldn't throw deep against No. 20 patrolling the secondary. It's hard to imagine the Ravens without either Reed or Lewis, much less both.
There was always a comfort level knowing the best linebacker and the best safety of the generation was suiting up. The Ravens defense has had Reed or Lewis on the field for the past seven seasons. Over the past 11 years, the Ravens played just five games without both of them, and went 1-4 in their absence.
The Ravens knew there was a chance Reed could sign elsewhere. The team treated Reed's free-agency situation the same way it did with Lewis three years ago. Reed was allowed to test the market to see if he could find a better deal. Unlike Lewis, Reed didn't come back.
The Ravens will miss Reed's leadership more than his play on the field, which is ultimately why they didn't outbid the Texans. This isn't to say Reed failed to make an impact, because he did affect games. His presence changed the way offenses attacked Baltimore. In the playoffs, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning avoided throwing to Reed's side of the field. Reed added an interception in the Super Bowl.
But Reed, who will turn 35 in the first month of the season, isn't the same playmaker from a few years ago. That's why teams weren't lining up and opening up their checkbooks for him. He is a liability when it comes to tackling. He missed 15 tackles last season, and that doesn't include the two times that a player leapt over him. Reed also has had four or fewer interceptions in three of his past four seasons.
What hurts the Ravens the most is losing Reed's locker-room presence. While everyone saw Lewis motivating teammates in a pregame huddle every week, many players felt Reed was the more influential leader. He preferred to speak to players behind the scenes.
It's amazing to think that Reed came close to never playing for Baltimore. In fact, the Ravens didn't target Reed in the 2002 draft. Team officials were hoping linebacker Napoleon Harris would fall to them. The Raiders took Harris (who ended up playing for four teams in seven seasons) one spot ahead of the Ravens. Even after that, owner Steve Bisciotti thought the Ravens should taken cornerback Lito Sheppard over Reed.
In the end, the Ravens chose Reed with the 24th pick of that draft and the rest is team history. Reed will be remembered for making plays all over the field by taking risks, whether it was jumping a route or haphazardly lateraling the ball. He's picked off 61 passes, the most interceptions in the NFL since 2002 and 11 more than anyone else during that span. He is the NFL's all-time leader in interception-return yards, recording the two longest interception returns in NFL history (107 and 106 yards). Reed has scored 14 touchdowns in his career (including playoffs), reaching the end zone off interceptions (eight), blocked punts (three), fumble returns (two) and a punt return (one).
The Baltimore defense isn't in total shambles. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and cornerback Lardarius Webb become the new foundation. The aura isn't the same, however, because none of these players carries the same legacy of Reed or Lewis.
This is new territory for the Ravens. The top players in franchise history, Lewis and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, were Ravens for life. It won't be the same storybook ending for Reed, and maybe that's the way it should be. Lewis and Reed leaving the Ravens at the same time.
The Ravens' 2013 season isn't simply about defending their Super Bowl title anymore. It's the start of a new chapter for the franchise and its defense.