John Harbaugh said his team will improve next season and it will have nothing to do with free agency or the draft.
The Ravens coach is looking at the return of such injured starters as nose tackle Kelly Gregg, guard Marshal Yanda and safety Dawan Landry to help the team take the next step to the Super Bowl.
In research compiled by The Dallas Morning News, the Ravens won 11 games and earned a playoff berth despite their starters missing the equivalent of 64 games to injuries. That was the fourth-highest total in the NFL and first among teams in the postseason.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had the second-most games lost by injured starters with 53.
"By those guys doing a great job in the offseason of getting healthy, getting themselves back to where they can be durable throughout the course of the season next year, we're going to be a better football team right there," Harbaugh said. "That's before free agency, before the draft even comes around. That's encouraging. That's exciting."
The Ravens never made any excuses about their injured players. They just replaced them.
When Gregg didn't play a snap in the regular season because of a knee injury, Justin Bannan stepped in to start 15 regular-season games. (He had 10 starts in his previous six seasons.)
When Landry suffered a spinal cord concussion in the second game of the season, Jim Leonhard replaced him for 13 games (which nearly doubled his three-year total of seven career starts).
When cornerback Chris McAlister was placed on injured reserve after six games, Fabian Washington took over and had the best season of his four-year career.
And when Yanda went down after five games, Chris Chester switched back from tight end and quietly had a solid season.
"We exceeded even our expectations, and we had high expectations," center Jason Brown said. "Our goal was to go to the playoffs, but did anyone actually think we would be in the conference championship game? It starts with everyone working together."
The Ravens expect that all the injured starters will be back by spring minicamps or training camp.
Landry, though, has yet to be cleared for contact since colliding head-on with the knee of running back Jamal Lewis four months ago. He said he still has tingling sensations in his neck.
Harbaugh said the team is "confident" that Landry will play next season.
"Everything I've been told is that he'll be able to play next year," the coach said. "There's nothing that we've heard that he won't be able to."
Injuries weren't an issue only in the regular season.
During the postseason, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs played through a shoulder sprain, and tight end Todd Heap did the same with severe back pain.
The Ravens had to play the AFC championship game without cornerback Samari Rolle, who had a partial tear of his hip flexor.
"It wasn't a surgery-type situation," Harbaugh said of Rolle's status. "We were rehabbing him like crazy. We'd been very hopeful to get him back for the Super Bowl, and I think there was a chance to do that."
But the Ravens fell short of the Super Bowl, which probably provided the most pain of all.
Notes: Ravens quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson reportedly could interview for the San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator position. The 49ers met yesterday with former NFL head coach Dan Reeves, who is considered the favorite for the job. ... Because the Ravens lost the AFC championship game, their staff will coach the AFC in the Pro Bowl. "It's a good honor for our staff, and it's a great opportunity for the families," Harbaugh said. "Hopefully the other bowl will be the one that comes up the next time around." ... Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti was asked what would have been the team's fate if Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett accepted the offer to become the Ravens' head coach. "We'd be 5-11," Bisciotti said with a laugh. "I'm teasing. I have no idea how that would have gone. I really don't. It wouldn't be fair [to speculate]." ... Linebacker Ray Lewis will be featured in a SoBe Lifewater commercial that will debut during the Super Bowl. The 3-D commercial, set to air immediately after the second quarter, will feature Lewis dancing in a "skintight white leotard alongside fellow players Justin Tuck and Matt Light," according to a SoBe statement.
playing through pain
Ravens starters missed 64 games because of injuries, which was tied for the fourth-highest total in the NFL and was the most by any playoff team:
Team GL IR '08 finish
Cincinnati 84 6 Third in AFC North
Seattle 72 6 Third in NFC West
Denver 65 3 Second in AFC West
New England 64 4 Second in AFC East
Ravens 64 4 Lost AFC title game
GL-equivalent number of games lost by starters because of injury
IR-number of starters who finished the season on reserve lists
Source: The Dallas Morning News