Still in the hunt

Why the champion Baltimore Ravens don’t need to worry about losing Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

During the most critical moment of the 2012 season, the Baltimore Ravens go with what’s worked for more than a decade: Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, leaders of the most feared defence in the NFL over that span, take the field with less than two minutes remaining in Super Bowl XLVII. Protecting a five-point lead with the San Francisco 49ers and breakout star quarterback Colin Kaepernick driving deep into Baltimore territory, the stakes are simple: Get a stop here, and the Ravens are champions. Lewis is in his familiar spot, hunched behind a wall of D-linemen, yet with full view of Kaepernick. He stands straight, points to his left, points to his right, calling out a flurry of commands to the other 10 men in white before returning to a defensive stance. Kaepernick snaps the ball on third and goal and finds Michael Crabtree on the sidelines to his right. But second-year cornerback Jimmy Smith, who started two games all season, rocks the 49ers receiver with a game-saving hit that jars the ball loose. On fourth down, Lewis again barks commands to his younger teammates and watches as Dannell Ellerbe, signed by Baltimore after going undrafted in 2009, breaks free to Kaepernick, who has no choice but to force an errant toss to the corner of the end zone. Game over.

The business of sports prediction can be an unrewarding crapshoot, but you can bank on this entering the 2013 campaign: You won’t see this scene play out again—at least not with the same characters. As is often the case, the glory of winning football’s most coveted trophy has been offset by the impossibility of retaining all the players who made it happen. Some walk away from the sport, content to call it a career on a high note that even Mariah Carey in her prime couldn’t hit. Others see their value rise and the club can’t—or won’t—pony up the dough to keep them. But even by NFL standards, the Ravens’ mass exodus is egregious: Lewis and Reed are gone—the former to pursue a media career, the latter to the Houston Texans after failing to come to terms with the Ravens on a contract extension. Gone, too, are star receiver Anquan Boldin, linebackers Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, safety Bernard Pollard and Hall of Fame–worthy centre Matt Birk. To top it off, tight end Dennis Pitta suffered a dislocated hip in training camp that will keep him out at least until late 2013. You could field a playoff contender with departed Ravens as core pieces. On paper, it’s a blueprint for failure. But here’s the thing: Baltimore could well be just as good in 2013.

The Ravens and GM Ozzie Newsome have been in this position before. After winning the Super Bowl in 2000, they returned the following season without key contributors from their championship run, including the running back tandem of Jamal Lewis and Priest Holmes, as well as starting QB Trent Dilfer. Yet the following season, the Ravens went 10-6 and made it to the second round of the playoffs thanks to a handful of shrewd signings and the continued growth of Baltimore’s young players.

Newsome, at the helm in Baltimore since ’96, has proven repeatedly that his ability to evaluate talent and successfully turn over his squad is among the best in football. He was at it again this off-season, with the addition of former All-Pro linebacker Elvis Dumervil from Denver, the NFL’s second-best defence in 2012. Tight end Dallas Clark was signed to plug a leak, filling the void left by the injured Pitta, while tight end Ed Dickson will be given opportunities to shine in Jim Caldwell’s offence. Daryl Smith is a savvy veteran linebacker who can fill Lewis’s old spot until highly touted 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown is ready for every-down duty in the middle. Brandon Stokley should help replace Boldin as a possession receiver, while safety Michael Huff is a younger, cheaper fill-in for Reed.

But Newsome’s greatest off-season success came in April at the draft. He walked away with one of the strongest hauls of any team—a feat more impressive considering the Ravens’ position near the bottom of the draft order. Safety Matt Elam is touted as a future star and should make Baltimore fans forget about Pollard. Brown is an athletic linebacker with speed and strength that hint at a young Ray Lewis. Weeks before the draft, Newsome had mentioned Ricky Wagner, the O-linemen who fell to them in the fifth round, with the likes of Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson—all top-five picks. The rookies join a cast of younger players like wide receiver Torrey Smith (he of the heroic catches throughout the playoffs), running back Bernard Pierce (who showed toward the end of last season that he can pick up the slack from an overused Ray Rice), O-lineman Marshal Yanda (another All-Pro) and breakout candidates Smith, Dickson and defensive end Arthur Jones. Add it up and you get a roster that isn’t short on game-changing talent.

But in a sport where uncertainty is the only certainty, it takes more than talent to win. Leadership matters. It’s the one caveat to the Ravens surviving the gutting of a championship roster. It’s hard to quantify just how important Lewis and Reed have been to the Ravens. You only needed to see Lewis’s teammates gather around him before a game like fawns with their mother to understand his importance. But Reed was integral in his own right. Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden remembers when Reed joined the Ravens, and the example he set for teammates through the years. “Ed was one of those guys who came into the NFL as a professional,” says Ogden. “I knew right away he was going to be a great player. I knew it because the man worked his butt off, he studied film like few others and over the years that’s something that I saw rub off on the younger guys. He wasn’t a big talker like Ray was—nobody is—but when he did speak, you listened.”

Their departure marks the end of an era, but it also opens a bigger role for Joe Flacco. As a rookie, his teammates (Terrell Suggs playing ring-leader) would poke fun at his quiet, unsure persona, calling him “Falco”—a nod to Keanu Reeves’s character Shane Falco, a once-great college star with confidence issues in the The Replacements. It wasn’t a compliment. But after placing himself among the elites during the Ravens’ 2012 playoff run, teammates have seen a new side of their quarterback. Flacco admits it was next-to-impossible to step into a locker room with Ray Lewis and become an assertive voice. But that’s about to change.

“It’s different when you’re a Super Bowl–winning quarterback,” head coach John Harbaugh said after a pre-season practice. The Ravens rewarded Flacco with a six-year, $120-million contract, securing his future as “The Man” in Baltimore. For his part, Flacco knows it, displaying a confidence and bravado unseen since he was drafted five years ago. “We won last year, I have a lot of money, or I’m gonna get a lot of money, and we’re gonna win football games,” Flacco told reporters. “That’s the way it is around here.”

The establishment is gone, but key Ravens remain. And as they proved last February during the biggest game of their lives, the young flock is ready to fly.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.