Not-so-golden oldies

Ravens Insider

August 30, 2008|By MIKE PRESTON | MIKE PRESTON,mike.preston@baltsun.com

After the collapse last season, the Ravens hired coach John Harbaugh to change the culture and breathe some life into the team. Instead, the Ravens have gotten worse and are limping to the starting line for the 2008 season.

It's not Harbaugh's fault. The decay of the Ravens started a year or so before he got here. He inherited an old team, one that is now young on offense but older and a step slower on defense.

There are no lofty expectations for this season, just the last hurrah for some veterans who probably won't be around much longer. If the Ravens could, they would tear this team apart now, but they can't because of future salary cap concerns.

There has been enough evidence this preseason to suggest that the Ravens might not win six games, and they should be thankful they are in the AFC North.

The Ravens went into training camp with a lot of questions and leave with even more, including who the team's starting quarterback will be Sept. 7 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

But that's not the most pressing issue. Of serious concern is the health of the players in the secondary. Last season, injuries forced starting cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister to miss most of a 5-11 season as the Ravens allowed 24 points a game.

The Ravens expected Rolle and McAlister to come back healthy this season, but so far that hasn't happened. And there is a good chance it won't.

Every time McAlister practices, his knee swells, which means there is still something wrong. Rolle has been in and out of practice with knee problems.

And there is safety Ed Reed. Yesterday, he said a nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder might cause him to miss the opener, and there is no timetable for his return. Combined with the knee problems of defensive tackle Kelly Gregg, the Ravens are worse off defensively than they were at the end of last season.

The Ravens can't afford to struggle defensively. The defense has been the backbone of the franchise since 2000. But those eight years have taken a toll on a lot of the veteran players.

The Ravens lost some of their veterans on offense. Offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and quarterback Steve McNair retired several months ago. Center Mike Flynn went into semi-retirement before signing with the New England Patriots a couple of weeks ago.

The Ravens have a young, athletic offensive line loaded with potential, but it needs playing time together. Actually, the first unit looked good against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night.

Of course, it was only the Falcons, but you saw the tackles and guards working combination blocks. The overall technique was better than in previous weeks.

Another good sign is the development of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. His arm strength has always been there, but he's processing the game faster. Flacco just needs some time to digest a bit more.

He might have to start the opener against the Bengals out of necessity, but he's not ready. Harbaugh will be playing this cute little Bill Belichick game of deciding who the No. 1 quarterback will be, but Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis doesn't care.

He's going to blitz six, seven or eight players. He's even going to blitz the water boy. He's going to hit Flacco with every scheme in the defensive playbook.

So, if possible, I would prefer the Ravens start Smith or Boller, who have clearly outplayed the rookie in the preseason. But there is a reason for optimism because the Ravens might have found their quarterback of the future in Flacco, and they have a great coaching staff. At training camp, there was some quality teaching going on.

Fans need to be realistic. The Ravens lack some things, like healthy cornerbacks. They don't have a go-to receiver who can stretch defenses or a quarterback consistent enough to get him the ball.

You had to be fooling yourself to think there wasn't going to be a period of transition of at least one or two years with a new coach and some sour old veterans who aren't used to working hard.

By the end of this season, Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome will have a list of veterans who will be salary cap casualties, and also ones that aren't Harbaugh's types of players.

During the previous three years, in the back of our minds, we all kept wondering when the Ravens would start losing the battle to Father Time.

It was inevitable. The Ravens hired Harbaugh to breathe some life into this franchise, but for now he's trying to get as much out of them as possible.

And there isn't a lot left.

Season opener: Bengals @Ravens, Sept. 7, 1 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13

Radio: 97.9 FM,

1090 AM

Line: Bengals

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