Ravens hit camp with measured expectations

WESTMINSTER -- The Baltimore Ravens' image has been defined by a flamboyant swagger headlined by intimidating athletes and colorful personalities. That mindset hasn't changed, especially with the presence of All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis and venerable nickel back Deion Sanders.

But as a revamped football team reported for training camp Sunday at the team hotel, periodically high expectations were balanced by the humbling reality of not making the playoffs last season.

"I think we're a better football team than we were last year in every sense," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I think this could be the best football team we've had since I've been here, which in essence says, ‘We think we are a playoff, Super Bowl-caliber team.' However, we did not make the playoffs last year.

"We do not have the right to talk in those terms. We've got a lot of work to do. That doesn't mean we don't expect that. Our next step is just to get back to the playoffs. That's a long way from getting to and winning a Super Bowl."

The Ravens' workload includes adjusting to new coordinators on offense and defense as Matt Cavanaugh and Mike Nolan were replaced by Jim Fassel and Rex Ryan along with six new starters for a team that finished 9-7 last season.

The Ravens are instituting the high-risk, aggressive 46 defense under Ryan while Fassel attempts to upgrade an offense that ranked 31st in the league last season as quarterback Kyle Boller was the second-to-lowest rated passer in the AFC.

That's a stark contrast to last year's approach when the Ravens largely retained the same personnel from an AFC North title winner in 2003. Baltimore lost four of its last six games as starters missed 53 games due to injuries.

So much for continuity.

"There's definitely a little bit of urgency," defensive end Tony Weaver said. "We have all the talent in the world. Sometimes, change is for the better and maybe we needed to do that. I don't think last year was a result of not changing, it was just guys getting hurt.

"Sometimes, you need that breath of fresh air. I love Mike Nolan, I like Matt Cavanugh. Sometimes, you need that little kick in the rear to get you going again."

Or fresh blood.

The Ravens added two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Derrick Mason, former Pro Bowl cornerback Samari Rolle, former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive guard Keydrick Vincent and drafted All-American wideout Mark Clayton in the first round.

"I think we're loaded," said Vincent, who started for a 15-1 Steelers team last season. "It's going to be exciting."

The Ravens do have a few medical issues.

Tight end Todd Heap (ankle, shoulder), running back Musa Smith (leg) and running back Jamal Lewis (ankle) are all expected to begin camp on the physically unable to perform list.

Heap is projected back the week of the Ravens' Aug. 20 preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Smith said he's essentially week to week after undergoing surgery to repair his shattered leg.

"It still gets sore," Smith said.

Lewis will finish his halfway house obligation Tuesday and is expected to report to Westminster on Thursday. He won't take part in practice until Aug. 8, spending his time until then working individually with trainers.

"I understand it's outstanding," Billick said of Lewis' conditioning after an off-season where the 2003 NFL Offensive Player of the Year spent four months incarcerated in federal prison after pleading guilty to a drug crime.

Other than Clayton, the Ravens have no unsigned players.

Unlike last year when Chris McAlister was protesting being designated with the franchise tag and held out of camp, the Pro Bowl cornerback showed up hours early for the team meeting.

"I just missed eating, living, breathing football around the clock," McAlister said. "Waking up at 6 o'clock in the morning, it's football, football, football. That's something that I'm looking forward to going through again. I almost forgot what it felt like."

The Vince Lombardi trophy is encased in glass in the lobby of the Ravens' training complex, a shiny reminder of a Super Bowl title five years ago. It's waiting for company.

There's an identical, empty trophy case underneath a painting of former majority owner Art Modell.

Yet, the Ravens haven't won a playoff game since 2001 and haven't made the postseason since 2003.

"We're very proud of the legacy we have here, but this team's going to have a new identity, it really is," Billick said. "This is a new group of guys that's going in a little bit different direction based on the nature of who and what we are.

"I want to hold them to that right now. Part of that means you put away what's happened before, but you hope to learn from the mistakes you've made."

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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