End of year likely ends era as well for Ravens

December 31, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

This was The End, in so many ways. Ravens-Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium yesterday was it, for an awful season and for an awful losing streak.

And, possibly, for an era, for better and for worse.

When the Ravens' 27-21 victory concluded - their only win in the season's final 11 weeks - the players and coaches talked about relief, that the nine-game skid was over, and the season, too. You can make a case for this being the worst season the team has experienced since it left Cleveland. Even with the win, the atmosphere was as bleak as the franchise has seen in a season finale: too many empty seats, Terrible Towels, soaked spectators and Pro Bowl players wearing jackets and ski caps.

You could also make a case for this team looking a lot different next opening day. The signs were all over the building. On the field immediately after the gun, Jonathan Ogden was surrounded by cameras. In the locker room - which emptied faster than the stands in the second half - Rick Neuheisel gave a farewell address and Troy Smith was grilled on whether winning a glorified preseason game has, or should have, any bearing on his future as an NFL quarterback.

Brian Billick, meanwhile, acted and spoke after the game as if nothing were any different. Billick isn't even the elephant in the room; he is the room, the only decision about this team's future that matters, because what happens to him triggers everything else. Reportedly, the coach was a major topic of discussion between the owner and his people and the players the past few weeks.

We'll know by Wednesday what develops from that, and whether the oft-stated contention that Billick is coming back was true.

Regardless of how much or how little Billick deserves to stay, know this: Good and bad, this is what we've gotten used to around here for a long, long time. It will be a shock to the system to have someone else calling the shots after nine years of the glory and frustration that have punctuated the Billick era.

There won't be any divided feelings from the fans about Ogden. "This city and me," he said, "we've grown together with this team. So I'm just grateful to have been a part of it." No matter how many times this season a different player has been at left tackle, when it becomes permanent, it's going to look really strange - as strange as it looked yesterday to see Nick Greisen where Ray Lewis is always standing. That day can be only so far off, too, by the way.

Neuheisel's tenure, though, will be a footnote in Ravens history, and as much as he praised the team for giving him a second chance as he left for his new gig at UCLA, he'll likely view Baltimore as a steppingstone, too. As for the offensive coordinator position he vacated, his replacement will surely have far, far more on his plate than Neuheisel did. He'd better.

Since we're talking about coaches, Rex Ryan's next offseason of head coaching candidacy has now begun. Hard to believe he'd slip through without being hired again.

As for the roster, this season all but demands that it look different next year. No one should assume Steve McNair will ever appear in a Ravens uniform again, for instance.

But speaking of McNair - when the story of this dreadful campaign is told, injuries will always be part of it. Especially when the players themselves tell it, understandable because they were the ones dropping like flies by this final week.

"Goodness gracious, there were so many empty lockers," Derrick Mason said, echoing many of his teammates. "I'm not accustomed to that, and I know a lot of guys are not accustomed to that."

But c'mon, blaming this mess, the losing streak, the horrendous road showings, the late-game meltdowns, the embarrassing blowouts, on injuries is so Pollyannish, isn't it?

"The core of this team is good," Bart Scott insisted. "It's improving. There are always two or three things you can get better at, two or three holes you can fill, things you can fix with free agency."

So there is the silver lining: get healthy, tweak and find whatever magic happened in 2006 that evaporated in '07.

Truthfully, it's hard to believe that even the players expect that. The chances are a lot better that what you saw this year, and what you've seen for the better part of a decade, you saw yesterday for the last time.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele Tuesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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