Ravens' clock is ticking

With aging core, team aims to end playoff drought

September 07, 2006|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun reporter

With 13 former Pro Bowl players on the roster, there's no doubt that the Ravens have talent. With 18 returning starters, there's no concern about cohesion.

When debating whether the Ravens will end their two-year absence from the playoffs, the question that has to be asked inside the locker room is this: Do the Ravens have a strong enough sense of urgency to return to the postseason?

Despite high expectations every year since 2003, the Ravens have made the playoffs just once since then and have yet to capture a postseason victory.

Now, four years since ripping apart their championship team to begin anew, there is talk that their window of opportunity could be closing again.

The cornerstones of the franchise - linebacker Ray Lewis and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden - are nearing the ends of their careers. Their new quarterback, Steve McNair, will turn 34 after the season. And coach Brian Billick is already a popular figure on the national media's hot seat.

"I think we're going to have a great season," receiver Derrick Mason said. "Whatever they choose to do after that, that's upper management's decision. But we're going to make it very hard for them to dismantle this team."

The average age of the Ravens' starters is 28.1, which is a full year older than the starting group from the 2000 Super Bowl championship team. The Ravens also have eight starters over the age of 30, more than any other AFC North team.

The players have to wonder if this is their best year to make a Super Bowl run before age and the salary cap catches up to them.

"When I made phone calls to my teammates [this offseason], I was like, `Look, man, the Super Bowl is all that's on our minds,'" Lewis said. "And if you're not playing in that game, you ask yourself a simple question: Did you have a good season?' "

The biggest move of the offseason was trading a fourth-round draft pick to the Tennessee Titans for McNair, the most decorated quarterback to ever start for the Ravens.

While McNair is the major reason to believe the Ravens can rebound from last season's 6-10 season, there are other reasons for optimism.

The Ravens have a loaded backfield with Jamal Lewis, Mike Anderson and Musa Smith. They have playmakers in the passing game with Mason, Mark Clayton and Todd Heap. And they have one of the most talented defenses in the NFL with six former Pro Bowl players in the starting lineup.

This defense has had to replace three starters from last season (nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu, end Tony Weaver and safety Will Demps). The Ravens added two rookies to the starting lineup (defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and safety Dawan Landry) as well as veteran end Trevor Pryce from the Denver Broncos.

The Ravens' offense comes back nearly intact, with the major exception being McNair taking over for Kyle Boller.

"I think every guy from last year's team has a chip on his shoulder. We're a better team than what our record indicated last year," Mason said. "[The experts have] already written us off anyway. [They say] Cincy and Pittsburgh are going to win the division even with the addition of Steve.

"So you've got to come in here with something to prove. That has to be a motivational factor. We have to prove that last year was a fluke, and we did have some injuries. But now we're fully healthy, and we've made some additions to our team. We're going to be a much better team than our record indicated last year."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Crystal ball

Where various publications are predicting the Ravens will finish in the AFC North:

Sports Illustrated -- Second

Sporting News -- Third

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