Time for a return to glory?

Parity gives Ravens real shot at crown ...


September 07, 2006|By RICK MAESE

The beauty of the NFL can't be found in Tom Brady's smile, the dressing room of the Carolina Panthers' cheerleaders or John Madden's RV. It's simpler than that, and you'll see exactly what I mean before the 2006 season is barely a few weeks old.

More than any other sport, pro football is ruled by parity, which makes accurate predictions nearly impossible and makes reckless ones absolutely essential.

With that in mind, it's pretty easy to see that nearly every scenario this season is realistic for the Ravens, including the dream sequence - spending next offseason snuggling each and every night with the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

If you dare mention this possibility to a Pittsburgh Steelers or New England Patriots fan, he'll figure you also believe in Santa Claus. But let there be no doubt: Yes, Virginia, there is a chance for a championship this season.

For the sake of perspective, let's revisit the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl run - or more accurately, let's revisit those days leading up to Week 1 of that season. No one outside Maryland was talking about the Ravens having any shot at the title.

Most analysts had the Ravens walking into an 8-8 season, maybe 9-7. Maybe they could sneak into the playoffs as a wild card. But the Super Bowl? No one would utter something so ridiculous, mostly because we forget that preseason educated guesses are backed by more guesswork than education.

By January, it was a different story. And this season, even if everyone else wants to fawn over Seattle and Pittsburgh right now (um, those were the best teams last January), they have to at least recognize that the top half of the league is a series of interchangeable parts.

(It might be worth noting that the past five Super Bowl runners-up failed to make the playoffs the next season. Last year's champs, the Steelers, were just two seasons removed from a 6-10 season. How's that for parity?)

From year to year, you can be dead in January and a contender by September. The 1-15 Cowboys were just a couple of seasons away from annual ring-fittings. The Rams went from 4-12 to a championship. And, oh yeah, those 8-8 Ravens of 1999 entered the next season with little expectations.

If you can use a past champion as a blueprint or a gauge, then it's safe to say the current lineup of Ravens looks a lot better than the one that started the 2000 season. That one had no quarterback, a rookie running back and question marks all over the place.

This year, the offense looks to be in the best shape since the team moved to town more than a decade ago. Even if Jamal Lewis shows early on that he has reached the downside of his career, Musa Smith and Mike Anderson are competent enough to fill the role. Steve McNair has great targets in Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Todd Heap.

Even the offensive line will be better, though still shouting distance from great.

And the defense could actually be better than - or at least, as good as - one season ago. While some analysts suggest that the unit is aging, they forget that it was still a great squad last year, despite Ed Reed and Ray Lewis missing a combined 16 games.

The Ravens' schedule is perfect for a team that's still growing. Their first four opponents should give them time to work out the bugs in their offense before the competition - and expectations -pick up.

But you want an even better clue? Look no further than the poker faces all around the team's practice facilities. They're stifling their optimism. There's no bluffing going on this year.

A year ago, you heard Brian Billick declare: "I think this could very well be the best football team I've had since I've been here." (They finished 6-10, in case you needed a reminder.)

This season, there are no such proclamations. It reminds you of that 2000 season, when players were fined for even mentioning the word "playoffs."

That year, the Ravens were listed by oddsmakers as a 50-1 long shot to reach the Super Bowl. This year, they're 40-1.

Parity is what makes the NFL so special, casting hope in so many cities year after year. In Baltimore, the optimism is well-placed this season.

Starting in the middle of the pack puts a team in prime position to shoot to the top by January, regardless of what the so-called experts are saying. It's a history lesson that Ravens fans witnessed in 2000 and could see again over the next five months.


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