Restocked Ravens Ready To Hit The Ground Running

July 26, 2009|By Peter Schmuck

The Ravens will begin arriving at the Best Western Hotel in Westminster on Monday to open training camp for the 2009 NFL season, and I've got only one thing to say:

I'm still wacko for Flacco, though I'd feel a lot better about the whole situation if Derrick Mason decides that he is, too.

The Ravens are coming off a terrific first season of the John Harbaugh era. They reached the AFC championship game with a rookie coach and a rookie quarterback and served notice that they could become a Super Bowl team at any moment, but they also experienced the kind of rapid turnover during the offseason that leaves you to wonder whether the same hungry team will show up this year.

Well, it might still be hungry, but it isn't going to be the same team. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is now the coach of the New York Jets, and he took two of last year's heart-and-soul players - Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard - with him. The Ravens also lost center Jason Brown to free agency and now must ponder the possibility that Mason was serious about his abrupt retirement announcement.

It's kind of funny, actually. When the Mason news first broke, it was dismissed by a lot of people as nothing more than a contract ploy. Now, after Harbaugh's recent conversations with his most productive receiver, the Ravens don't think it is and probably wish it were.

We'll all know soon enough, but the Ravens are moving forward in their typical "next-man-up" fashion. They just added veteran Drew Bennett to beef up the wide receiver position, and Harbaugh is saying a couple more evening prayers that Demetrius Williams still has big-play possibilities after missing most of last season with a bad ankle.

The draft seemed to go well again, with the addition of talented offensive tackle Michael Oher in the first round, and general manager Ozzie Newsome quickly filled the void left by Brown's departure with the signing of free-agent center Matt Birk.

Remember how much uncertainty was hanging over the supposedly suspect offensive line coming into training camp last year? Now, the Ravens look very solid lining up on both sides of the ball, which - everybody knows - is where it all pretty much begins and ends.

The biggest difference between this camp and last, however, is that the Ravens are coming in set at the quarterback position. Joe Flacco won the job last year by default when Kyle Boller got hurt and Troy Smith got sick (not that Flacco wasn't going to claim it at some point in the season anyway). He left little doubt about the future when he drove the Ravens deep into the postseason and showed the maturity and toughness to be the franchise guy the Ravens have been searching for since the team arrived in Baltimore.

No need to wonder about a sophomore jinx. That's a baseball phenomenon, based on the notion that hot rookies fall victim to the offseason adjustments made by competing teams. Those types of adjustments take place week-to-week in the NFL, and the developmental advantage generally shifts to the quarterback between his first and second seasons.

(It's probably fair to point out here that the model might not perfectly apply in this case because the Ravens were not a full-rebuild team that picked the top big-school quarterback in the draft, which explains how somebody like Troy Aikman went 0-11 in his rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys before making that leap.)

Flacco and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron have had more than a year to get to know each other, so it takes no stretch of the imagination to believe Flacco can improve on last year's performance - especially if Oher is ready to help protect him in his first NFL season.

Throw in Willis McGahee's apparent commitment to re-establish himself as the team's top running back, and the Ravens head into camp this week with a chance to be a much better offensive team than they were in 2008 - though the odds of that would rise considerably if Mason changes his mind and decides to report to camp.

Who knows how that situation is going to turn out, but we learned very quickly last year that Harbaugh does not dwell on who isn't at camp. He fearlessly took over a team with an established veteran nucleus and wasted no time bringing a special teams mentality to the entire roster.

The only difference this year is that he won't have to prove anything to anybody.

So, I guess there's only one other thing to say:

Let's get it started.

Listen to Peter Schmuck weeknights at 6 on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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