It was almost over 17 and a half years ago that Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome took Ray Lewis with the 26th pick in the 1996 NFL Draft, effectively shaping the course of the Ravens time in Baltimore. Lewis anchored the center of what may have been the NFL’s most devastating defense for the last decade and a half, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a pair of Super Bowl championships along the way.
The franchise stuck by Lewis through his own trials and tribulations, and Ray Lewis rewarded Baltimore’s loyalty with a 16-year Hall of Fame career. It was one of those rare instances in sports during the free agency era where we got to see an all-time great spend the entirety of his career in one town.
What Ray Lewis did for that football team helped endear the Ravens to Baltimore during a transitional period as the franchise was relocating from Cleveland. And, it goes without saying, that Ray Lewis was the face of the NFL’s most feared defense, the antithesis of the other dominant franchise of the era, the New England Patriots.
However, Ray Lewis spends his time in the studio as an analyst for ESPN these days, and while he still references his beloved Baltimore Ravens with a collective “we”, there’s no squirrel dances or laser-like stares coming from the Ravens sideline on Sundays anymore. Having lost eight starters in addition to Lewis from that vaunted Super Bowl championship defense last season, Baltimore is eyeing down a potentially franchise-transforming season.
Of course, it’s not just Ray Lewis who the Baltimore Ravens must replace. That task in and of itself is particularly daunting, but when you couple it with the departure of Ed Reed, another Hall of Fame defender who spent the entirety of his career ball-hawking the back half of Baltimore’s defense before being put out to pasture this offseason and signing with the Houston Texans.
And while Lewis’ impact has been largely motivational over the last year or two as he parlayed the twilight of his career into the elusive second championship he was seeking, Reed’s play was still a critical component of Baltimore’s success. As was Paul Kruger’s and Daniel Ellerbe’s.
Remaining from Baltimore’s defense is talented, yet erratic pass-rush specialist Terrell Suggs, nose tackle Haloti Ngata and cornerback Lardarius Webb, who is coming off an injury that cost him the majority of 2012. In stead of the nine departed faces, it’s largely a new crop of signings and hungry reserves, and while there’s no reason to trust Newsome’s judgment–after all, he did make the personnel decisions that made Baltimore the pillar of defensive consistency in the first place–it’s certainly a daunting task.
The expectations are relatively low for the Baltimore Ravens coming off a Super Bowl championship, although when a fanbase has been privy to such an extended period of success, you can never truly say that expectations are low. However, the general consensus of the national media is that Baltimore is facing a difficult transitional phase.
And based on where the money is going, it appears as if Baltimore is handling this transition by trying to embrace the new reality of the NFL… offense reins supreme. It’s a major philosophical 180 for the Ravens, who have spent the past decade staving off new wave offenses by playing great defense and running the football.
However, now, having given Joe Flacco a new nine-figure contract and investing in versatile Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, it looks as if the Baltimore Ravens are eyeing up a new offensive look.
Through two weeks, it’s become clear that Baltimore is struggling to adjust. The defense, particularly the Reed-less secondary, was absolutely torched by Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in Week One to the tune of 462 yards passing and seven passing touchdowns.
This week against the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Ravens slogged to an ugly 14-6 win. And, while the result is ultimately the only thing that truly matters, this has got to be one of the most turbulent 1-1 starts in recent memory for a defending Super Bowl champion.
As mentioned, this is a potentially franchise-transforming year for the Baltimore Ravens. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are gone now, and they’ll have to find an identity soon if they hope to make the seamless transition fans in Baltimore expect. That likely means finding another gear offensively, as the personnel defensively looks like it just might not be up to snuff.
This is Joe Flacco and Ray Rice’s team now, and with Ray Rice coming off a hip flexor this week, that means Joe Flacco–the $100 million man–will have to find the playoff form that earned him all that money last season in the first place. The Baltimore Ravens will need that Joe Flacco if they hope to survive a vicious AFC North schedule.
It’s been nearly 17 years since the Baltimore Ravens faced this kind of uncertainty. That’s when Paul Tagliabue made the announcement that changed the franchise forever.
Now in a new era without Lewis, the question is what’s to become of the Baltimore Ravens?
Chances are this season holds the answers.