By Matt Vensel
The Baltimore Sun
9:29 PM EST, January 5, 2013
Long before linebacker Ray Lewis decided it was his time to walk away from the hard-hitting game he had become the face of, teammate Terrell Suggs started to realize that time was running out.
Not just for Lewis, but for himself and many of his teammates.
Last season, as Suggs chased down quarterbacks in a bid for his first Lombardi Trophy, he spoke more than once about how the window to achieve that "football immortality" was slowly sliding shut.
On Friday, as Lewis sat at his locker at the team's practice facility for possibly the last time, the only urgency Suggs showed was in escaping the locker room. But reminded by a reporter about his past comments about the team's championship window and asked if the retirement of Lewis, whom he called a brother, hammered that point home, the 30-year-old stopped and nodded.
"The window is closing. You don't want to have to rebuild, especially on the defense. That's the center of it. Before him and after him, there will never be another one like him, so if we don't get it done this year ... aaagh!" Suggs said, disappearing into the showers. "And you can quote that. Aaaagh!"
Lewis is strapped in for one more ride toward the Super Bowl, and the roller-coaster career of safety Ed Reed could come to an end at any moment. But the Ravens are hopeful that Suggs is exaggerating when he says their window to contend for titles is on the verge of slamming shut. They have a stable quarterback in Joe Flacco, a fine core of players in or entering their prime, and they have one of the NFL's best records when it comes to finding talent in the draft. And while his leadership will be missed, Lewis leaves a tradition of winning that should continue.
"We'll deal with next year when next year comes, but we have a lot of young talent," tight end Ed Dickson said. "With Ray not being out there, we are going to miss him dearly. But we as young guys have to pick up the slack. We're not going anywhere. We're going to be good for years to come."
For now, the Ravens (10-6) are trying to maintain their focus amid an emotional week. Lewis, who is expected to return from his torn right triceps and play in Sunday's wild-card playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts (11-5), stunned teammates Wednesday by announcing he would retire at season's end, saying, "This will be my last ride."
"That's one thing I shared with them in that meeting: 'I am going to give you everything that I've got, because this is our last one,'" Lewis said Wednesday. "And wherever it ends, it ends. But I didn't come back for it to end in the first round."
Lewis is the only current Raven to have bathed in confetti in the aftermath of a Super Bowl victory. But the team is making its fifth straight playoff appearance, and 32 of the 53 players on the active roster have been in the postseason every year of their career.
"You have veteran leadership. You have all the right coaches. You have all the right players, the right schemes," linebacker Paul Kruger said of that success. "It's hard to say exactly what it is. But, in my opinion, it's a combination of all those very different things."
And the most important of all those things when it comes to keeping the window open, in the opinion of legendary talent evaluator Gil Brandt, is having a quality quarterback.
"The challenge starts with the quarterback," said Brandt, who as vice president of player personnel helped the Dallas Cowboys become playoff mainstays in the 1970s and 1980s and win two Super Bowls. "When you have a guy like Flacco on your team, who I think is pretty good, I think the window is a lot more open than you think it is."
Flacco is the first quarterback in NFL history to steer his team to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons. He had another maddeningly inconsistent regular season but still established new career highs in completions (317) and passing yards (3,817). With 22 touchdown passes, it was his fourth straight season with 20 or more, and his 10 interceptions tied a career low.
In last year's run to the AFC championship game, Flacco put up the best postseason stats of his career, throwing for 482 yards and four touchdowns in two games and finishing with a 96.1 playoff passer rating. He outperformed New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady — at least statistically — in the title game loss, proving that he is capable of elevating his game in January.
But there has been turbulence around the team this season. With Lewis, Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata sidelined or slowed by injury, the Ravens defense allowed more yards (350.9 per game) than they had since their inaugural season in 1996. And after the high-octane offense sputtered, coordinator Cam Cameron was fired during a late three-game losing streak.
On Thursday, Flacco was asked about the critics who say that time is running out for these Ravens.
"It's cool with me," he said. "We feel all the urgency in the world. We want to go out there and we want to win a Super Bowl this year, just like we wanted to last year, just like we wanted to the year before. Having said that, I hope this isn't my last year of football. I hope I play 15 to 20 years, so the window's never closing. We're going to be here for the long haul, but yes, we need to have some urgency and we feel that sense of urgency that we need to get it done this year."
Changing of the guard?
With their five straight playoff appearances, the NFL's longest active streak, the Ravens have joined teams like the Patriots, Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers as postseason regulars in the AFC. But each of those teams has won at least one Super Bowl in the past decade.
If the Ravens fall short of reaching the Super Bowl again this year, they will join the Minnesota Vikings (1996-2000) and Miami Dolphins (1997-2001) as the only teams since they arrived in 1996 to make five consecutive playoff appearances without playing in a Super Bowl.
Ravens center Matt Birk was on some of those Vikings teams.
"You see what it takes to get into the playoffs and have a chance at getting to the Super Bowl. It takes a lot of work just to have a chance," he said. "That's what I took from it. Every year is a new year. One year we were 11-5 and the next we were 5-11. That's how quickly it can change."
Flacco will be their most notable free agent at season's end, but the Ravens can keep him under their control for 2013 with the franchise tag if needed. Reed will be a free agent, too, along with Kruger, cornerback Cary Williams, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and others. Birk and guard Bobbie Williams could join Lewis in retirement. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin could be a salary cap casualty.
General manager Ozzie Newsome and the front office will have many difficult decisions to make this offseason, especially if they have to bid for Reed's services, but Brandt feels that strong drafting in recent years and going forward will allow the Ravens to find replacements internally.
"They have drafted well," said Brandt, who is now a host on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "They have gotten Michael Oher, [Marshal] Yanda, Kruger and guys like that. … I think that their team is not a kind of one-and-out team where you've got a lot of older players [that] if you lose them, you're in trouble. It's tough to lose Ray Lewis, it's tough to lose Ed Reed because those guys are so good. But they've done a very good job of replacing players with draft choices."
Brandt also offered praise for the selections of Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, wide receiver Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta — three of Flacco's favorite targets and three of the 24 offensive players the Ravens have drafted since 2007 while attempting to update their identity.
Until they are officially gone, though, Lewis' eye-blacked scowl will be the most recognizable face of the franchise, followed by Reed's scruffy beard. Both are among the greatest players at their respective positions and will likely end up in the Hall of Fame.
Reed, who ducked questions about his future on Friday, has said in the past that he wouldn't base his future on what Lewis did. But this is the last time they will chase a Lombardi Trophy together.
Closed window or not, an era will soon end, and Suggs wants them to go out on top.
"It's going to be one hard last ride," Suggs said, "and we need to make it one to remember."
It figures to be another interesting offseason for the Ravens, with Ray Lewis retiring and several notable free agents. Here are nine players whose futures are in limbo heading into this offseason.
Matt Birk | center | possible retirement
The 36-year-old center told The Sun that he has made up his mind about 2013. He just isn't sharing it yet.
Anquan Boldin | wide receiver | potential cap casualty
Boldin is scheduled to make $6 million in 2013. They must decide whether to keep him on the books.
Dannell Ellerbe| linebacker | free agent
The young inside linebacker showed his worth with Lewis sidelined. They may need to keep him now.
Joe Flacco | quarterback | free agent
The Ravens want to sign Flacco to an extension. If they don't, the franchise tag will likely come into play.
Paul Kruger | linebacker | free agent
Productive pass rushers make top dollar on the open market, and Kruger had a career-high nine sacks.
Bryant McKinnie | tackle | free agent
McKinnie lost his starting job to Michael Oher and barely kept his roster spot. He is not expected back.
Ed Reed | safety | free agent
Will the mercurial safety retire? Will he be back? Will he sign elsewhere?
Bobbie Williams | guard | possible retirement
The 36-year-old has another year left on his deal, but could opt to retire now that he is a backup.
Cary Williams | cornerback | free agent
Williams rolled the dice by turning down a three-year, $15 million deal. We'll see if his gamble pays off.