The Ravens solemnly cleaned out their lockers Monday morning, carrying bags out the door and the weight of uncertainty on their faces.
Two days after the Ravens' excruciating 31-24 playoff loss at Pittsburgh, the players are unsure when they'll play their next game and how many of them will return when they do suit up again. One who will return is coach John Harbaugh, who will soon receive a contract extension from the Ravens.
Many players are bracing for NFL owners to lock them out March 4 if a new collective bargaining agreement isn't reached. The major issues with the players union are attempts by owners to cut salaries by about $1 billion league-wide and add two games to each team's regular-season schedule. The last full meeting between the NFL and the players union was Nov. 22.
"From owners to players, we just don't know what to expect," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "All you can do is be ready for whatever happens."
If a lockout occurs, the 2011 NFL draft will be conducted, but offseason workouts would be suspended, trades couldn't be made and free agency would be put on hold.
There hasn't been a work stoppage in the NFL since 1987.
"That's what makes it so bad," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "Not only do we lose a game like that, but on top of that, we don't know what's going to happen with this lockout. We don't know when we'll be back. They might get it done in March or they might not get it done until the season."
When the labor strife is settled, the Ravens will start work on reassembling a roster that has helped them become the only NFL team to win a playoff game each of the past three seasons.
There are 17 players who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, nearly one-third of the team. Additionally, veterans such as center Matt Birk, 34, and wide receiver Derrick Mason, 37, are contemplating whether to return to the game at all. The players parted with varying opinions about their future, from fullback Le'Ron McClain, who doubts he'll be back in Baltimore, to cornerback Chris Carr, who doesn't want to play anywhere else.
"It'll definitely be a different team," Carr said. "You wish everybody could come back, but that's not the nature of the business."
The Ravens began to remove some ambiguity from next season when they announced their intentions to sign Harbaugh to a contract extension and retain often-criticized Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator.
Negotiations are expected to start soon between the Ravens and Harbaugh, who is entering the final year of his four-year contract.
"We are working on an extension and expect to have it done soon," team president Dick Cass told The Baltimore Sun.
During his 26-minute news conference with reporters, Harbaugh expressed confidence in the Ravens' ability to re-sign their players, the growth of quarterback Joe Flacco and the labor talks between the NFL and the union.
"I think the whole 16-game season will be played. I believe that," Harbaugh said. "I think players want to play and the owners want to have football. I believe they'll come to an agreement. I believe cooler heads will prevail. I think both understand what's at stake."
Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff said both sides have an obligation to leave the game better than the way they found it and should use that as a baseline for negotiations.
"I think it can get done," he said. "If they don't, then they're going to kill the Golden Goose. It's sad to say the only people who are really going to suffer are the fans."
While the Ravens talked extensively about their future, their thoughts still lingered in a painful past. Frustrated by the loss to the Steelers, Harbaugh had trouble sleeping and went to Ravens headquarters before 4 a.m. Monday to study tape. The mood wasn't much better at the final team meeting hours later.
"This was a tough meeting. You could see it in their eyes," Harbaugh said. "I think our fans need to know we're really disappointed. We know we had it in the palm of our hand. All we had to do was do what we're capable of doing. But we didn't. You can't get that back."
Some players were still in disbelief at the way the Ravens failed to hold a 14-point halftime lead at Pittsburgh. Doing so would not only have extended their season, but it also would have allowed the Ravens to host the lower-seeded New York Jets in the AFC championship at M&T Bank Stadium.
"I'm still shocked on how the game ended," said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, whose drop on fourth down ended the Ravens' season. "I can't get over it, really. I don't think anybody felt any worse than I felt."
Ten years after the Ravens won their first Super Bowl, there were expectations that this team would hoist the Lombardi Trophy once again. By trading for wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the offseason, the Ravens hoped their offense would finally be as feared as their defense.