For team, signs of progress despite disappointing loss

January 19, 2009|By Rick Maese | Rick Maese,rick.maese@baltsun.com

PITTSBURGH - In the locker room, the rookie head coach didn't bother shedding tears. He didn't lament effort, performance or dumb luck - though he certainly could have. It shouldn't surprise us by now, but after the most disappointing defeat in this most surprising of seasons, John Harbaugh did what he does best: He looked ahead.

"This is our beginning," Harbaugh said, fresh off the night's painful 23-14 loss to the Steelers in the AFC title game. "This is not an ending by any stretch."

Harbaugh doesn't have confidence in chance or tolerance for luck.

Behind closed doors, with his family, his friends and his players, he likes to talk about providence. In football and in life, Harbaugh sees both obstacle and opportunity sprinkling destiny's path.

So there were the Ravens late last night, at the crossroads of pigskin perdition and providence. Why they were there and how exactly they got there had football analysts scratching their all-knowing heads. No one expected the Ravens' season to stretch into the AFC title game - the last stop before the Super Bowl - but most maddening last night was how they could have been so thoroughly dominated, yet still have a chance at victory. That's all Harbaugh has ever really asked for. "If you work hard, do a good job and you're loyal," Harbaugh has said, "providence takes you where you're supposed to go."

By every indication other than the scoreboard, the Steelers were blowing out the Ravens last night. But the Ravens trailed by only 2 points with five minutes remaining. Should any of us have been surprised? By this point, after all we'd witnessed the past 12 months, probably not.

Providence had brought Harbaugh to the Ravens. And providence brought the Ravens to Pittsburgh. And providence gave the Ravens one final shot.

But at the most inopportune time, the window of opportunity slammed shut. When it counted the most, the Ravens rookie quarterback - oddly, and for the first time in weeks - looked just like a rookie quarterback And the offense, as it had been for most of the night, was anemic and uninspired.

First down - Ray Rice stopped after two yards.

Second down - Joe Flacco sacked for a loss of five.

Third down - An interception by Troy Polamalu returned 40 yards for a touchdown.

It was the death knell. The Steelers move on to Tampa, Fla., and Super Bowl XLIII. And on a cold snowy evening in Pittsburgh, the Ravens packed their bags for the season, forced to accept that on this night and in this season, providence did not include champagne, trophies and celebration.

Despite the disappointment - in execution and in result - the season-ending loss stands as an antithesis to the 18 games that preceded it. Not only did Flacco turn in one of his poorer performances, the defense never came up with the momentum-turning play, the signature it had stamped on so many big wins this season.

Instead, the Ravens watched as the Steelers quarterback played deliberate and error-free, and as the Pittsburgh defense came up with bruising hits, key tackles, dominant stands and the turnover that punched a ticket to Tampa. As the Steelers receivers dropped passes, as the officials granted generous rulings and as the Steelers gave the Ravens favorable field position, the Ravens treated opportunity as obstacle. When it was over, Flacco, who hadn't turned the ball over once in the playoffs, had thrown three interceptions. The offense couldn't convert a third down. And the defense, riddled with injuries, had run out of warm bodies.

Despite the dismantling of a dream - a four-hour drama broadcast across the country - four quarters should not overshadow 4 1/2 months.

One year ago today, this franchise turned the proverbial corner when it introduced Harbaugh as head coach. On that day, he laid out a plan that lacked in specifics. The goal, however, was never in doubt. He was absolutely confident that he could put the Ravens in position to play for a championship. He knew then what we all know now: If you do the little things right, if you take advantage of opportunities and slip past obstacles, providence will make itself known.

"There are three important things in putting together a football team," Harbaugh said that first day on the job. "No. 1 is the team, the second-most important thing is the team and the third-most important thing is the team."

A year later, that guiding philosophy hasn't changed.

"Couldn't be more proud of them," Harbaugh said. "Couldn't be more proud to stand with them in victory and today in defeat."

When the hurt from last night wears off, there are many questions that need answering. Will Ray Lewis play again as a Raven? Will Terrell Suggs or Bart Scott? Is defensive coordinator Rex Ryan bound for a head coaching job? And will he take many Ravens assistants with him?

Time will provide answers, but you get the feeling that Harbaugh isn't too worried. That's not his style.

Crushing defeat does not detract from unexpected accomplishment.

For the Ravens, their optimistic head coach and their bright future, providence isn't simply celebration. It's progress.

And by that measure, the disappointment of losing the conference title - no matter how unacceptable, how painful and how infuriating - says more about the team's future than anything else.

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