Deep run may be last for this Ravens unit

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

PITTSBURGH -- Rex Ryan's eyes were red and glassy. He smiled at the question, and although he uttered only three words, a melancholy tone was evident.

The Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator probably won't be back next year. As the team's airplane rolled on the tarmac after Sunday's night's 23-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game, rumors were circling that Ryan might already have agreed to become the New York Jets head coach.

For Ryan, the defeat was an emotional one.

"It always is," Ryan said in the locker room, his voice trailing off at the thought of leaving some great players behind.

Asked to elaborate, he smiled again.

"I'd rather not think about it, to be honest with you," Ryan said.

Not only did Sunday conclude a fabulous season, leaving the Ravens just short of the Super Bowl, but Ryan almost certainly will be saying goodbye.

So, too, will some players from an elite defense that was ranked No. 2 in the NFL.

Linebackers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott are all unrestricted free agents. So are defensive backs Jim Leonhard and Corey Ivy. Defensive tackle Brandon McKinney and defensive backs Dawan Landry and Evan Oglesby are restricted free agents.

The team's longest-tenured player, kicker Matt Stover, is also unrestricted. His career could be over. The Ravens brought in rookie Steven Hauschka for kickoffs and long field goals.

Ravens pro personnel director George Kokinis has been linked to the Cleveland Browns' general-manager vacancy. Ryan could lure some assistants to the Jets.

"We don't know our future," Scott said. "It's just the way the business goes. If it's the last time, it's the last time. You just hold onto the memories that you have."

Sports seasons turn rosters into mini families, but they never stay the same. Free agency, the salary cap, injuries and retirements cause teams and players to part ways. Sunday may have marked the end of the road for this gang. Their chance to win it together might be over.

"These are all your brothers and your cousins no matter who they are," said Ravens defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, "because when you spend as much time as a professional football team spends together, you get know each other as much more than just teammates. We become friends, family."

Familiar faces will be missing from next year's team photo. They will be replaced by rookies, free agents and practice squad graduates.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome will have several difficult decisions to make over the offseason.

"That's the business of the NFL," Pryce said. "If you know that, then you're mentally prepared for it. If you don't know that, then it becomes a problem. My first few years, I didn't understand that. I want the same guys on the team, and every year there were five or 10 new ones."

These are the processes that prevent us from accurately projecting next year's winners and losers. The variables begin to accumulate, the question marks mount.

Without Ryan, the defensive patriarch, the Ravens will lose a significant part of their soul. He has been with the Ravens for a decade.

"Ten years," Ryan said. "That's an eternity. It's special people."

In that time, he has helped the Ravens become the standard by which all defenses are measured. From the time Ryan joined the Ravens in 1999 as defensive line coach, through this season, they rank second in total defense, first in run defense, first in points per game allowed, first in takeaways, first in third-down conversions and fourth in sacks.

This year's defense was one of Baltimore's best despite losing a slew of contributors.

"This group of guys overcame so much this year," Ryan said. "I know we had more injuries on defense than any team in the NFL. Yet we kept competing. We used everybody we had.

"It's the unit. It's the strength of the unit that keeps us going, not the individual. That's how this team played."

Much of the credit, of course, goes to Lewis, the perennial Pro Bowler and first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.

"He's a once-in-a-lifetimer," Ryan said, "not just as a player, but as a person, as a leader. He's just tremendous."

Lewis brushed off reporters in Baltimore's locker room. He didn't want to talk.

The face of the franchise indicated Friday he wants to come back for a 14th season, but he hasn't said much more than that, stating it would be selfish to talk about his contract rather than focus on the Super Bowl.

Lewis performed Sunday like a man with plenty left to give. He finished with a game-high nine tackles (unofficially) and forced a Willie Parker fumble.

Scott said Sunday night the loss was too fresh to even consider next season.

"Nothing you can say," Scott said. "We lost. Just go on vacation. Forget about it."