Ravens hit camp with high hopes

As a caravan of luxury vehicles cruised into Westminster, the Baltimore Ravens' training camp inventory included increased expectations that rivaled the size of the plasma television hefted by cornerback Chris McAlister.

The major reason for heightened optimism is the presence of new franchise quarterback Steve McNair along with being motivated by an underachieving 6-10 campaign last season that nearly cost coach Brian Billick his job.

One year removed from skidding to last-place in the AFC North, the Ravens have proclaimed themselves as contenders again.

"We're going to be a much better team than last year," wide receiver Derrick Mason predicted. "I'm very optimistic that we're going to have a great season and we have the same goal as always: to win a championship. Because of the way last season ended, everybody on this team carries a chip on his shoulder.

"People are writing us off, saying Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are going to win the division and picking us third or even fourth behind Cleveland. We've got something to prove to the NFL, but also to ourselves. We're a better team than what our record indicated."

Last season marked the first time the Ravens have finished last in the division under Billick as they underwent a second consecutive absence from the playoffs.

An aging football team that has only won one playoff game since its Super Bowl victory in 2001 was impacted heavily by injuries.

Former All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis missed a team-high 10 games with a hamstring injury, and starters were sidelined for a combined 67 games for the third-highest total in the league.

There were lingering issues with locker room chemistry. The running game ground to a virtual halt as running back Jamal Lewis ran with less authority coming off ankle surgery and a federal prison sentence.

The passing game rarely materialized under Kyle Boller. And a stout defense didn't generate as many turnovers and touchdowns as usual.

"We were at the bottom, so the only place we can go is up," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Before you can have success, you have to go through a trying period and I believe we've been through our trying time.

"We have a great team with a lot of talent, but we definitely underachieved for the last couple of years. While we still have our vets and they can still play this game at a high level, we need to take advantage of that and start winning some ball games."

The Ravens are well aware of what's likely to transpire if they don't win. Their enthusiasm is tempered by that reality.

After being retained by owner Steve Bisciotti under a change-or-go mandate regarding his management style, Billick is regularly labeled nationally as a coach sitting on one of the hottest seats in the league.

If the Ravens don't engineer a turnaround after losing 14 of their past 22 games, it could trigger the ouster of the fourth-longest tenured NFL head coach. Although Bisciotti rarely speaks publicly, he made it abundantly clear after last season that he won't tolerate failure.

"I think where Bisciotti is coming from is he's bringing his successful nature in business and his mindset of what success is about to the front office and players," offensive tackle Tony Pashos said. "He wants to win as bad as anyone."

A losing season could carry serious consequences for the nucleus of a team that has a narrowing window to contend and seems to have been geared up for a go-for-broke run by trading for McNair – a three-time Pro Bowl selection and former NFL Co-Most Valuable Player -- and acquiring veteran defensive end Trevor Pryce and running back Mike Anderson.

"We made a lot of great additions to this team, especially Steve McNair," Jamal Lewis said. "I hope that everybody is on the same page to get things going again, players and coaches alike."

Center Mike Flynn is entering his ninth season and regards this as the Ravens' most talented offense ever. At age 32, Flynn is aware that the clock is ticking.

"When you get to a certain age, you know you're running out of opportunities to win," Flynn said. "One year [2002], we made changes because of the salary cap. If we don't have a good season this year, we're going to make changes because we're not winning.

"That's the pressure you have to deal with. It's in the back of my mind."

Plus, salary-cap issues are believed to be on the horizon in the next two years for a team populated by expensive veterans.

The Ravens seem fully focused on the possibilities of a new season and the merits of a new leader in McNair, not when the credit card bill is due.

"I can't think that far ahead," Mason said. "Teams get dismantled eventually and whatever they decide will be upper management's decision. We're going to make it very hard for them to try to dismantle this team because I think we have the guys to compete for the championship this year."

NOTES: Offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, whose father died Wednesday, was excused from camp and it's unclear when he'll report. Funeral services are scheduled for next Friday and several players and team officials will likely attend. "I left him a message with my condolences, and my heart goes out to him and his family," Flynn said. "I'm sure we'll see him in a couple of weeks and he'll want to go back out there and play." … Wide receiver Clarence Moore, who underwent hernia surgery in the offseason, said he has made a full recovery.

Aaron Wilson writes for Ravens Insider and the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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