Published January 13, 2015
Ozzie Newsome wasn't going to make the same mistake twice.
After the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001, Newsome dumped his starting quarterback and did his best to keep the rest of the team intact. The goal was to repeat as champions at virtually any cost.
The result was a disaster.
Losing Trent Dilfer and signing free agent quarterback Elvis Grbac wasn't so damaging, but the salary-cap crunch created by retaining key players from the Super Bowl roster really hurt. Although the Ravens made the playoffs in their bid for an encore, they won only one game, and Baltimore wouldn't claim another postseason victory until 2009.
So, after the Ravens beat San Francisco 34-31 for the franchise's second Super Bowl win, Newsome immediately declared things would different this time.
"We will not repeat what we did in 2001," he said, "because we are trying to build where we can win Super Bowls more than just one more time."
Then he took action.
Quarterback Joe Flacco is back after signing a six-year, $120.6 million contract. But the team that takes the field Tuesday for the lone mandatory minicamp of the offseason is vastly dissimilar to the one that won the AFC North before sweeping through the playoffs.
"That team last year, we knew exactly what they brought to the table," tight end Ed Dickson said. "Now we have to rebuild."
Standout linebacker Ray Lewis and sturdy center Matt Birk retired during the offseason. Then, after Flacco signed his lucrative deal, Newsome traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the 49ers on March 11 — the same day the team's Super Bowl DVD made its debut with a viewing at a Baltimore art center.
The departure of Boldin, who was dealt after refusing to take a pay cut, marked the beginning of Newsome's dismantling of the Ravens, circa 2012.
Several free agents were not tendered competitive contracts and allowed to escape — most notably safety Ed Reed, cornerback Cary Williams, and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger. Newsome also cut some players (including safety Bernard Pollard and special teams star Brendon Ayanbadejo) because they were due too much money.
"You have to expect the unexpected. I understand the business aspect of the game," Dickson said. "Teams are trying to get to the championship, so they're going to pick at the pieces we used to win a championship. I think Ozzie and the guys upstairs do a great job of rebuilding. I think we'll be just fine."
This wasn't a Miami Marlins-like purge. Newsome simply decided to re-tool the Super Bowl champions with some younger, less expensive parts.
Standout pass rusher Elvis Dumervil was the most prominent free agent signing, a bargain at $26 million for five years after a problem sending a fax spoiled Denver's effort to re-sign him. Other newcomers, such defensive lineman Marcus Spears and Chris Canty, along with safety Michael Huff and linebacker Daryl Smith, should help ease the loss of Lewis, Reed, Pollard, Ellerbe, Williams and Kruger.
The focus for defensive coordinator Dean Pees in the months ahead is to take this new mixture and mold it into a unit. The process begins in earnest on Tuesday.
"It's always a different defense every year," Pees said. "The difference is we lost some stars that have been here for a long, long time. But, whenever somebody leaves, no matter who it is, someone always ends up stepping up. I feel good about the talent that we have."
Coach John Harbaugh feels the same way.
"We've worked as hard as we can to put this team together over the last few months," he said. "I like where we are at, like the progress we have made."
The truth is, the Ravens needed to rework a defense that last year didn't live up to its reputation of stinginess. Baltimore finished 17th in yardage surrendered, tied for 12th in points allowed and was tied for eighth in takeaways.
"We were good in the playoffs — good enough — but we weren't good enough during the season for us to be the kind of defense that we want to be," Pees said. "We have to be better than we were a year ago, I'll put it that way. I don't know whether we will be, but we need to be."
Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, meanwhile, will be looking for a third receiver to replace Boldin. That could mean more playing time for Jacoby Jones, who was used primarily as a kick returner last year.
"Obviously, he is still going to serve our special teams and serve them well in his role," Caldwell said of Jones. "But then obviously, we will use him, certainly, as a big part of our offense as well."
Someone in the locker room is going to have to provide leadership for a team that — despite coming off a Super Bowl win — is searching for an identity.
"We lost a couple pieces, and now a couple people have to step up," Dickson said. "Losing Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, we lost a lot of leadership and wisdom right there. So some of the young guys have to bring that to the table and we'll go from there."
Tight end Dennis Pitta said, "One of the biggest changes is that we lost a lot of great, veteran players. Great leaders. But if you look around, we've got a lot of young talent. Guys will have to step up and fill some of those roles, and leaders will emerge."
The Ravens were congratulated Wednesday by President Barack Obama for their NFL championship, and they were to receive their Super Bowl rings on Friday. That, to some, closed the book on 2012.
"It's always refreshing when you go out places and they acknowledge that we're the Super Bowl champs," running back Ray Rice said. "But, for me, the old saying is, 'A pat on the back will always set you back.' You never take it for granted. But the White House, the ring ceremony, then back to work, it really puts it in perspective of where we are right now.
"Once we get our rings, I guess we get summer time to go home, take pictures with your family with them, lock them up and take them out on a nice dinner date, I guess."