Time running out?

Aging Ravens see window of opportunity shrinking

August 06, 2010|By Jamison Hensley, The Baltimore Sun

When Anquan Boldin was traded to the Ravens five months ago, the first teammate to call the wide receiver was Ray Lewis.

"It's in Dallas this year," Lewis told Boldin.

"It" is the Super Bowl, the much talked-about, end-of-season destination for the Ravens. Judging by their players' comments this offseason, "Super Bowl or Bust" has replaced "Play Like a Raven" as the team's unofficial slogan this year — and for good reason.

The Ravens have the NFL's fifth-oldest roster, which has undeniably increased the team's sense of urgency to capture a championship. As teams entered training camp, the average age of the Ravens was 26.68 years old. An equally important number is two, which is the total of Ravens players who have won a Super Bowl (Lewis and Trevor Pryce).

There is, perhaps, no better explanation why the Ravens' 30-somethings are willing to push their bodies through one more summer of two-a-days. For them, the ring's the thing.

"The older you get, what is important is winning a championship," said linebacker Jarret Johnson, who turns 29 this week. "And we're lucky enough to have a lot of guys on this team where that's their only goal. They're not worried about contract stuff or whether they're going to be on the team. The only goal they have is winning."

The Ravens have some of the best young talent in the league with quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and offensive tackle Michael Oher.

But the long-time foundation of the Ravens is aging. Flacco will be throwing touchdown passes to a 36-year-old Derrick Mason and a 30-year-old Todd Heap. The defense will be relying on the 35-year-old Lewis to make a crucial tackle and a 31-year-old Ed Reed to make a game-changing interception.

As the Ravens put the finishing touches on their team this offseason, the Ravens signed two free agents in June who are 30 or older: backup quarterback Marc Bulger (33) and kicker Shayne Graham (32). That's in addition to four other acquisitions — Boldin, wide receiver Donte' Stallworth, defensive end Cory Redding and safety Ken Hamlin — who will turn 30 during the season.

"One day, you wake up and you kind of realize you're on the backside of your career," said Ravens center Matt Birk, who is 34. "Generally speaking, you start to see that you don't have a lot of years left. The opportunities and chances are dwindling down. So, they become more urgent."

Birk is the voice of experience for an offensive line whose starting guards and tackles are 26 or younger. Heap is a role model for two rookie tight ends. And Lewis is a mentor for everyone who snaps on a Ravens helmet.

After a recent practice, Lewis was leading gassers (a series of all-out sprints) for players who were trying to lose weight.

Lewis is one of 13 players on the Ravens 30 or older, which are four more than last season. The only AFC teams currently older than the Ravens are both AFC North opponents, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns.

"I only have a couple more years in me, so I think it'll be hard to walk away without giving yourself an opportunity to win a championship. And I think we are in a good position right now," Mason said. "So, the older you get, yeah, the hungrier you get, because you understand you are no longer treading uphill. Everything is downhill, so you have to get it when you can."

More than anyone on the Ravens, Mason understands what it feels like to come so close to winning a championship but leave empty-handed. He was part of the 1999 Tennessee Titans team that fell one yard short on the final play of a 23-16 Super Bowl loss to the St. Louis Rams. That was Mason's third season in the NFL, and he hasn't gone back to the sport's ultimate game since.

But, at least, Mason made it there. Heap still gets asked to sign Super Bowl XXXV footballs even though he wasn't part of that team. He was selected in the first round of the 2001 draft, three months after the Ravens won the Lombardi Trophy.

"The thing we want to do around here is develop that tradition and that legacy," said Heap, who is entering his 10th season in the NFL. "We don't want to be shy about that. We've got the players that are capable of it and it's a matter of going out and doing it."

Lewis, the only remaining player from the Ravens' first and only Super Bowl team, was 25 when he celebrated winning a title with veteran leaders Shannon Sharpe and Rod Woodson.

Now, at age 35, Lewis cherishes more than ever the enduring power of championship.

"When you win a championship with certain people, now you realize what that means for a lifetime," Lewis said. "And now the chemistry that I've built with a Ray Rice or Michael Oher and Joe [Flacco] … to win one with them would be a very special thing."

Besides Lewis, the only other current Raven who has won a Super Bowl is Pryce. But the 14-year defensive end is hungry because he won his rings in his first two seasons.

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