Once a team begins a run of continued success, talk often begins to circulate on how much of a window it has in making a serious run at a Super Bowl title.
One would think that the release of several key veterans may signal a pending closure to that opening for the Baltimore Ravens, but like the club's namesake, they will be looking to rebuild on the fly in 2011.
Coming off an uncapped season, the Ravens were forced to shed some payroll once the new collective bargaining agreement was reached. That led to the departure of a handful of players who have helped contribute to Baltimore reaching the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, including veteran offensive deliverers Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, and Willis McGahee.
Normally, such an overhaul would seem to hint at some pending bumps in the road, but the Ravens and head coach John Harbaugh, now armed with a new contract extension, are more than ready to hand the reigns over to a new core; mainly quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
While Boldin was only initiated into the flock last season, Flacco and Rice have been earning their stripes over the past three campaigns, each of which culminated in a playoff berth.
Of course, each of those seasons have also ended with a playoff loss, including two at the hands of the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The reigning AFC champions put a damper on Baltimore's 12-win regular season of 2010 -- the club's best since posting a franchise-best 13 wins in 2006 -- with a stunning 31-24 defeat of the Ravens in an AFC Divisional Playoff meeting.
Baltimore blew a 14-point halftime lead in the game thanks to a trio of third- quarter turnovers, including Rice's first fumble of the season. Flacco also lost a fumble and was picked off once, though that won't stop him from stepping into a leadership role this year.
"We are all going to lead in our different ways," Flacco said. "The big thing with us now is that two veterans are going to be out of the locker room. We're going to have a lot more younger guys. This is going to be our fourth year, me and Ray, and it's just time to kind of groom those guys and mold those guys the way we want them, the way I want them."
The task for Flacco and Rice was made a little more difficult when the Ravens lost their all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards in Mason. In addition, no player has hauled in more touchdown passes in a Ravens uniform than longtime tight end Heap.
But the new duo won't be alone in leading the Ravens. That's especially the case for Rice, who now has a new bigger backup to compliment his evasive style in Ricky Williams as well as a bruising fullback, Vonta Leach, to pave the road in front of him. And the locker room will still have a pair of tested veterans in linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed to keep the Ravens flying straight.
Harbaugh said he thinks Lewis may be in the best shape he has ever seen him, and the outspoken playmaker isn't sweating the offseason changes.
"There is no reaction to that, honestly," Lewis said of the veteran losses. "This is my 16th year. I've seen people come and go. I've seen some of the greats come and go, and that's the business side of it. I think every player who understands this business understands that side of it."
The defense wasn't immune to changes either, with nose tackle Kelly Gregg taking his services to Kansas City and Chuck Pagano being promoted from secondary coach to defensive coordinator following the exit of Greg Mattison to the University of Michigan.
Still, don't think these Ravens are going to sit back and let the Steelers claim another division title unchallenged.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Baltimore Ravens, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 12-4 (2nd, AFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Pittsburgh in AFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): John Harbaugh (32-16 in three seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Cam Cameron (fourth season with Ravens)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Chuck Pagano (fourth season with Ravens, first as DC)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Ray Rice, RB (1220 rushing yards, 63 receptions, 6 total TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Ed Reed, FS (37 tackles, 8 INT, 16 PD)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 22nd overall (14th rushing, 20th passing), tied 16th scoring (22.3 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 10th overall (5th rushing, 21st passing), 3rd scoring (16.9 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: FB Vonta Leach (from Texans), WR Lee Evans (from Bills), CB Jimmy Smith (1st Round, Colorado), RB Ricky Williams (from Dolphins), WR Torrey Smith (2nd Round, Maryland), TE Jonathan Stupar (from Bills), TE Kris Wilson (from Chargers), OT Jah Reid (3rd Round, Central Florida), S Bernard Pollard (from Texans)
KEY DEPARTURES: FB Le'Ron McClain (to Chiefs), WR Derrick Mason (to Jets), TE Todd Heap (to Cardinals), OT Jared Gaither (to Chiefs), NT Kelly Gregg (to Chiefs), CB Josh Wilson (to Redskins), SS Dawan Landry (to Jaguars), QB Marc Bulger (retired), RB Willis McGahee (to Broncos), WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (not tendered), WR Donte Stallworth (to Redskins), OG Chris Chester (to Redskins), OT Tony Moll (to Jaguars), CB Fabian Washington (to Saints)
QB: Flacco has started every game for the Ravens since they took him in the first round of the 2008 draft and is coming off career-bests of 3,622 passing yards and 25 touchdown throws a season ago. The stain on his career so far has been a 4-3 record in the postseason -- not a terrible mark, but one that is harder to swallow when you factor in his 61.6 overall quarterback rating in those games. That has led some to take shots at Flacco, notably a pair of division-rival linebackers in Pittsburgh's LaMarr Woodley and the ex-Bengals Dhani Jones. While Flacco is ready to lead on his own, he will have more input from offensive coordinator Cam Cameron following the firing of quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn. The offseason retirement of Marc Bulger has left the Ravens without an experienced backup. Instead, 2010 practice-squad resident Hunter Cantwell and rookie Tyrod Taylor, a sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech, will compete for the role unless a veteran is brought in.
RB: The Ravens will hope that the wear-and-tear of a career-high 307 rushing attempts in 2010 won't limit Rice this year. The 5-foot-8 Rutgers product was also a threat as a receiver, hauling in 63 catches to help him finish third in the NFL with 1,776 yards from scrimmage in 2010. He was the only player in the league last year to have at least 250 touches without a fumble, but of course that does not include his postseason miscue. One factor that may have kept Rice fresh was having McGahee handle most of the short-yardage duties, as he tied Rice for the team lead with five rushing touchdowns. His release was attacked two-fold, with the Ravens bringing in a pure fullback in Leach -- who takes over for the departed Le'Ron McClain -- and signing Williams (673 rushing yards, 3 total TD with the Dolphins) for two years to back up Rice. Leach, who has posted a carry since having one in 2008, blocked for the NFL's rushing leader last year in Houston's Arian Foster and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl for his work. His main job again will be to keep bodies away from Rice and Williams, who is just three years removed from a 1,121-yard, 11-touchdown campaign with the Dolphins in 2008.
WR/TE: The loss of Mason officially moves Boldin into the No. 1 receiver spot, though the ex-Cardinal more than helped shoulder the load in his first year with the Ravens in 2010. He led the club with 64 receptions and matched Mason's team-high seven touchdown catches while ending with 837 yards. Baltimore had to be encouraged with Boldin being able to start all 16 games for only the third time in his eight-year career last season, and the team will look for the 30- year-old to help mentor its young receivers, namely second-round pick Torrey Smith. While depth in the receiving game was a strength last year with the presence of Heap and the since-departed T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Boldin and Rice are the only Ravens left who caught more than 11 passes a season ago. The only other is second-year tight end Ed Dickson (11 receptions, 1 TD), who along with Dennis Pitta will have to replace Heap's production. The Ravens were able to bring in a veteran complement to Boldin by sending a 2012 draft pick to the Bills for Lee Evans, who had a career-low 37 catches for 578 yards in 13 games last year.
OL: One player the Ravens were able to keep this offseason was Marshal Yanda, who is slated to shift from tackle back to the right guard spot he capably manned in 2009. That will leave career reserve Oniel Cousins and rookie Jah Reid battling for the right tackle position, with the slight edge going to the more experienced Cousins, who was limited early last year after having surgery following a severe case of strep throat. Veteran center Matt Birk returns for his 13th season and third with the Ravens, though he battled knee issues through most of last year. Baltimore will hope Birk can make it through the season, given the other two centers on the roster entering the preseason are a pair of rookies in Ryan Bartholomew and Tim Barnes. The left side of the line from last year remains intact with tackle Michael Oher and guard Ben Grubbs, with youngsters Ramon Harewood and Bryan Mattison competing for reserve roles.
DL: While Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding return to serve as the bookends up front for the Ravens in their 3-4 scheme, the release of Gregg opens up a starting spot for second-year Alabama product Terrence Cody (13 tackles) at the nose. All 350 pounds of Cody will try to clog the middle and help the Ravens maintain their stout work in run defense, where the team finished fifth in the NFL a season ago. Fresh off a second straight Pro Bowl selection, Ngata (63 tackles, 5.5 sacks) set a career high for sacks in 2010 while helping the Ravens produce a top-five run defense for a fifth straight year. Baltimore has allowed a league-low 31 rushing touchdowns since Ngata entered the league in 2006. Redding (42 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT), a free-agent addition from Seattle last season, was also a solid contributor in his first year with the Ravens. Five-year vet Brandon McKinney (10 tackles) will serve as insurance behind Cody, while pass-rush specialist Paul Kruger hopes to contribute more than the one sack he had in 11 games a season ago. Entering his fifth year, Lamar Divens is the most experienced backup on the roster other than McKinney.
LB: If Harbaugh's belief that Lewis (139 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) remains in great shape, the rest of the AFC North could be in for some trouble. The future Hall of Famer again topped the Ravens in tackles last year en route to a 12th trip to the Pro Bowl, and still plays with a fire that few in the league can match. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year and former Super Bowl MVP shows no signs of slowing down despite entering the season at the hearty age of 36. While Lewis chased down ball carriers, Terrell Suggs (68 tackles) was all over opposing quarterbacks in recording a team-high 11 sacks, earning his fourth trip to Hawaii. He also came up with five sacks in just two postseason games, matching a club record with three QB takedowns in the Divisional Playoff loss to the Steelers. Jarret Johnson (73 tackles, 1.5 sacks) lines up on the left side opposite of Suggs and brings a club-record 113 consecutive games played streak into the season, having not missed a contest since 2006, while Jameel McClain (71 tackles, 1 sack) joins Lewis on the inside. The unit's tendency to stay healthy doesn't leave much time for backups like Dannell Ellerbe (31 tackles, 1 sack) or Tavares Gooden (18 tackles). One story to watch for the Ravens is the return of Sergio Kindle, a 2010 second-round pick who missed his entire rookie season after suffering a fractured skull following a fall down a flight of stairs. The University of Texas product has since been cleared to return and could find a role as a pass rusher in 2011.
DB: Even with the losses of cornerbacks Josh Wilson and Fabian Washington in free agency, the Ravens will have plenty of solid options to start alongside the re-signed Chris Carr (61 tackles, 2 INT). Hoping to upgrade a secondary that struggled versus the pass a season ago, Baltimore selected Colorado's Jimmy Smith with the 26th pick of the first round. The rookie has shutdown ability and good size at 6-foot-2, but fell in the draft due to character issues. He should find the field at some point this season, if not right away, with Lardarius Webb (54 tackles, 2 INT) or Domonique Foxworth, who missed all of last year with a knee injury, holding down the fort in the meantime. Reed (37 tackles, 8 INT) is coming off his fifth straight Pro Bowl selection after leading the league in interceptions in 2010 despite missing the first six games of the season with a hip injury. Injuries are starting to take a toll on the 32-year-old, but he still remains a playmaker. Strong safety Dawan Landry took his services to Jacksonville, so a trio of players, including newcomer Bernard Pollard (111 tackles, 2.5 sacks with the Texans) will fight for his spot. Tom Zbikowski (17 tackles), who started the six games Reed missed last year, and Haruki Nakamura (24 tackles) are also in the mix.
SPECIAL TEAMS: After struggling when he first joined the Ravens during the 2009 campaign, kicker Billy Cundiff turned in a Pro Bowl season a year ago, hitting all but three of his 29 field goal tries while tying for second in NFL history with 40 touchbacks. Punter Sam Koch was equally as impressive, matching a club record with 39 punts inside the 20-yard line. His 39.2 net average also ranked second in the AFC. Webb (9.5 avg.) and Zbikowski (6.3 avg.) are likely to handle the punt return duties, with David Reed set to bring back kickoffs after leading the NFL with an average of 29.3 per return last year. He took one of those kicks a club-record 103 yards for a score and chipped in 11 special teams tackles as well.
PROGNOSIS: The Ravens are set to be contenders in the AFC North once again, but to take the next step they will have to slay the dragon known as the Pittsburgh Steelers. Each of the past six regular-season meetings between the teams have been decided by four points or less, with Pittsburgh winning four of them. Of course, Baltimore hasn't been as competitive in its three recent playoff losses and gets a big early test with a home game against the Steelers in Week 1. A lack of depth in the receiving corps could be the Ravens' Achilles heal, but with a defense built to withstand the brutal nature of the division, expect this year's team to once again be in contention for a Super Bowl title.