Ravens' outlook a bright one

OWINGS MILLS - Before trudging out of the locker room with personal items loaded into trash bags, the Baltimore Ravens took inventory. It was only hours removed from the AFC North champions' crushing 20-17 playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans. And the sting of having NFL rushing champion Jamal Lewis, a 2,066-yard rusher, shut down for a season-low 35 yards, had yet to subside.

Already, though, a page was being turned. The business of a 10-6 campaign engineered with eight Pro Bowl selections, including NFL Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year Ray and Jamal Lewis, was shifting toward the annual winter chores of free agency and quarterback evaluation. "We challenged ourselves to be a playoff team this year, and as ambitious as that was with the youth that we have, we lived up to those expectations," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, whose roster has an average age of 25.8 years. "Our first priority will be to re-sign and maintain the integrity of this team. We have reason to be optimistic that we can." 

By most estimates, the Ravens are roughly $25 million underneath the league's salary-cap as ownership of the franchise will shift from Art Modell to Steve Bisciotti. Billick said Bisciotti is set for a "seamless transition," from Modell's 43 years of majority control. Baltimore has 33 players under contract, 14 unrestricted free agents, four restricted free agents and six exclusive-rights free agents. The unrestricted free agents include quarterback Anthony Wright, cornerback Chris McAlister, kicker Matt Stover, center Mike Flynn, wide receiver Marcus Robinson and tackle Orlando Brown

The Ravens will attempt to upgrade a one-dimensional, run-first offense that broke a franchise record for scoring with 391 points, but finished last in the NFL in passing with 141.3 yards per contest. "Hopefully, we'll be able to throw the ball outside more and be able to catch the ball downfield so we won't have to worry about the nine-man and 10-man fronts, just like every other team in the league," Jamal Lewis said. "You've got to have balance there so you don't have to worry about that. Hopefully, we'll have that next year." 

Billick indicated that reaching an accord with Robinson, who ended the season well with six touchdown catches, is another goal. The Ravens' checklist will include reaching a contract with its franchise player, McAlister, a newly-minted Pro Bowl selection. "I'll be back. I've played my whole career here and I'm going to retire as a Raven," said McAlister, who can be assigned the franchise tag again. "If I'm not back, it's a conspiracy." 

Conspiracy theories aside, it wouldn't be a Ravens' off-season if there wasn't some degree of uncertainty and ambiguity at quarterback. Rookie Kyle Boller declared himself the starter, but Billick wasn't nearly as firm publicly in his commitment, perhaps because the team has yet to contractually secure Wright as competition or a fallback option if Boller falters. "I'm going to be the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens," said the first-round draft pick from Cal whom Baltimore traded its 2004 first-round pick to New England to acquire. "I've got a lot to work on during the offseason. I want to go into next season on a dead sprint." 

Boller unseated Chris Redman, compiled a 5-4 mark and struggled, at times, with his accuracy and fundamentals before tearing his quadriceps, and giving way to Wright. When asked if Boller was his starting quarterback, Billick said, "We have countless hours of evaluation to do." Billick added that Boller made strides and that he was disappointed about Boller's injury slowing that progress, but that the team also would like to have Wright back. 

Wright went 5-2 as a starter, but struggled with his consistency, although he did direct successive 44-point outings against Seattle and San Francisco. Boller finished with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. Wright threw nine touchdowns with eight interceptions. 

As for Boller's confident stance, Billick said, "That is the kind of mindset that you want. I am sure his mentality is, 'I left as the starter, I am going to come back as the starter.' "We will make those determinations as we look at the team as a whole. We will reconvene next week and go through a detailed analysis." 

The regret for tackle Orlando Brown hadn't faded much after committing two costly personal fouls. Brown was one of the most heavily-penalized players in the NFL, according to Stats, Inc. "I don't know if I'll be back here, but I want to be here, near my kids." Brown said. "Not upstairs, but in the community, it sounds like I'm the bad guy." Without referencing the penalties against Tennesee, Billick said the team would like to bring Brown back with the caveat that free agency is an uncertain realm. 

Stover converted 33 of 38 field goals and scored 134 points. His misses came from 45, 50, 46, 52 and 48 yards. He converted all 22 attempts from less than 40 yards. Stover said he anticipated the Ravens following a strategy where they don't make him an offer until they absolutely have to, waiting to see what he and other kickers are bearing on the open market. "Business is business," Stover said. "Matt Stover wants to be back, but I've got to be smart in my approach. I've got a family to feed, too." 

Besides apprehension about upcoming negotiations or restructuring of existing contracts such as receiver Frank Sanders' $2 million salary for next season, players alternated between disappointment and reflection on what appears to be a sound future. All eight Pro Bowl picks -tackle Jonathan Ogden, running back Jamal Lewis, linebackers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware, cornerback Chris McAlister, safety Ed Reed, tight end Todd Heap and special-teams standout Adalius Thomas are under the age of 30. 

NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Terrell Suggs had a dozen sacks and is only 21. "I look at it like a long story and we've taken the first chapter of a very long book," Boulware said. "It's only going to get better." 

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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