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New faces put Ravens back on the NFL map

January 20, 2009|By David Ginsburg

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Reaching the AFC championship game in their first year under coach John Harbaugh was quite an accomplishment for the Baltimore Ravens, who successfully rebounded from a 5-11 season to get within a victory of the Super Bowl.

No one expected much from the Ravens, who had a rookie quarterback, an inexperienced head coach and put 19 players on injured reserve -- second-most in the NFL. Yet they won 13 games, defeated top-seeded Tennessee in the playoffs and gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a bit of a scare before dropping a 23-14 decision Sunday.

"It was the most fun I've had playing football in a long time," safety Jim Leonhard said Monday as the Ravens packed up and said their farewells for the offseason. "I think you could talk to almost everyone on this team, and they'd probably say the same thing. It was a tremendous year."

Now comes the hard part: getting back to that level next season.

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"We would obviously love to be playing in two weeks, but that wasn't in our cards this year," Leonhard said. "You never know when you're going to get an opportunity like this again."

If the Ravens are to get another chance in 2009, it will be with a different cast. The changes began Monday, when the Ravens learned defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was departing to become head coach of the New York Jets.

"Most definitely, it's hard to see Rex go," cornerback Frank Walker said. "We call him the mad scientist."

Ryan spent 10 seasons with Baltimore and was the undisputed leader of a defense that this season ranked second in the NFL in yardage allowed and first in takeaways.

"I think it's a gain for them and a loss for us," Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said.

Scott also could depart during the offseason. He is one of several prominent free agents, including fellow linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, Leonhard, kicker Matt Stover and center Jason Brown.

It's uncertain whether the Ravens can sign all those contributors and stay within the salary cap.

And it's hard to determine who will replace Ryan, and whether the new coordinator can maintain the high standard set by his predecessors.

Those questions will be determined soon enough. For now, the Ravens deserve the right to relish what they did this season. Among the hardships they overcame were the loss of their scheduled bye, which forced them to play 18 consecutive weeks after Sept. 14.

The injuries were plentiful, too. Defensive starters Chris McAlister, Kelly Gregg and Dawan Landry played a combined seven games, and the offense was hampered by injuries to guard Marshal Yanda and running backs Willis McGahee and Ray Rice.

And then there was the quarterback position, where rookie Joe Flacco got the job by default after Kyle Boller sustained a season-ending shoulder injury and Troy Smith missed a month with infected tonsils.

Flacco carried himself with poise, and provided leadership in the huddle despite being younger than most of the other 10 guys he was directing. He faltered in the AFC title game, but his 19-game experience will be a plus next year.

As they threw their gear into plastic bags and headed to various parts of the country, most of the Ravens spoke not with anguish of how their season ended, but with pride of what they did to get that far.

"I thought it was a successful season," Stover said. "It was a privilege to be a part of this team, and to know this team went as far as we did. We lost, and that's very disappointing. But what we accomplished as a young team -- other than myself -- was a great thing."

Not enough, however, to prevent them from packing up two weeks before intended.

"It's so final," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "You fought so hard, you overcame all these adversities and then you lose this game. Then you pack up your stuff. It's a rough day."

"There's only team that's happy at the end of the year. Personally, I pull nothing from not finishing first," Scott said. "Either you do or you don't, and we didn't."

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