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Behind early, Ravens never caught up
The Ravens lost some of the luster off their inaugural season on the playing field, but the trouble indicators started flashing back in February, when the league approved the Cleveland Browns' move to Baltimore.
After that, it all became a hurried process, from naming Ted Marchibroda head coach to selecting a coaching staff. The Ravens never seemed to catch their breath, from forming a permanent seat license campaign to releasing ticket information finding housing for their players.
And remember: The Ravens were 5-11 in 1995 as the Cleveland Browns.
"We just never seemed to get a grasp of things," said offensive guard Wally Williams. "We had guys looking for homes even after training camp started. I left my family back home in Cleveland because I couldn't imagine trying to settle into a new city, find schools for your kids and then try to compete in a profession as intense as this.
"Next year, we'll be more settled," said Williams. "We know the city, we know our coaches and we know our schemes. We've got a year under our belts, and I'm optimistic we'll come in, jump on our AFC Central rivals and turn 4-12 into 12-4 next season."
That's too optimistic. But the Ravens aren't that far removed from being a playoff team in the watered-down NFL.
The Ravens lost five games by five points or less. They held fourth-quarter leads in five of their last eight games with a team that started 40 different players, second to Indianapolis (which started 41), mainly due to injuries.
"I hate to talk about what-ifs, but I know we would have been better if we hadn't had all the injuries," said Marchibroda, who will take a hard look at the team's off-season conditioning program. "I have never experienced so many in one season, especially on the defensive side of the ball. That's how I know I didn't overestimate the talent on this team, because we came so close with so many injuries."
The season started to turn for the Ravens on the night of Oct. 13 in Indianapolis, where the Colts defeated the Ravens, 26-21. The Ravens played an inspired game, physically whipping the Colts, but they lost more than a game.
They lost two of their best defensive linemen -- tackle Dan Footman (broken arm) for six games and end Rob Burnett (knee) for the season. It was such an emotional game that Marchibroda, who coached at Indianapolis last season, cried as the Ravens dropped to 2-4.
"There was another game that could have been a turnaround game," said Marchibroda. "When we played Pittsburgh the first time, they were unsure of themselves and their quarterback situation. We were also trying to find ourselves, and I think if we had beaten them it would have provided us with a big turnaround.
"But once we lost Burnett and Footman, that took away a lot of things we could have done."
It would be a mistake for the Ravens to think that injuries alone caused the collapse. They were showing signs of weakness before Burnett and Footman went down, like the 364 yards and 46 points surrendered to the New England Patriots on Oct. 6.
And it wasn't just because of the defensive personnel. Veteran players like safeties Stevon Moore and Eric Turner had a tough time adjusting to first-year defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.
"I heard some of the better veteran players say before and during the season it was going to be hard in the transition after working with established defensive coaches like Nick Saban and Bill Belichick," said reserve safety Vashone Adams. "I think guys like Eric, Stevon and [cornerback] Antonio Langham struggled, especially early. I also think it would be a safe assessment to say we never had the grasp of his defense."
Added Moore: "Right now, the sidelines organization is not where it needs to be. That has to get better before anything else gets better. We can't go into a football game not knowing what personnel should be out on the field."
"It could get better, and that's all I've got to say about it," Lewis said in reference to team chemistry.
Injuries were partly to blame for some of the Ravens' organizational problems, because the team shuffled players in and out of the starting lineup every week. Injuries forced the team to change to a 3-4 defense in the middle of the season and back to the 4-3 two weeks ago. L "Every week, we had new linemen or linebackers," said Adams.
But the Ravens also lacked talent. Moore and Turner never played up to their Pro Bowl potential, according to Marchibroda, and Langham started off slowly. The defensive line was devastated by injuries. Rookie middle linebacker Ray Lewis played well, but outside linebackers Mike Croel, Jerrol Williams, Craig Powell and Keith Goganious had little impact.
The Ravens had the league's worst defense, allowing 368.1 yards per game.
"That's why we're leaning toward a 4-3 next season," said Marchibroda. "Other than Ray Lewis, none of our linebackers stepped forward. If we played a 3-4, we would have to find three brand new linebackers."
Offensively, the Ravens are secure. Quarterback Vinny Testaverde passed for more than 4,000 yards, and receivers Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander had career years. Bam Morris proved to be the running back of the future. During the off-season, the team will have to determine if it wants to re-sign Steve Everitt, a center with Pro Bowl potential, and release veteran left tackle Tony Jones from a line that was one of the best in the league.
"We would like to keep the group together," said Marchibroda. "We think our offense is in fine shape. Our focus will be on defense."
The Ravens have the fourth pick in the draft in April, and there is little question what they are looking for. They had only 30 sacks this season, and will be looking for a pass-rushing threat who can do for the Ravens what rookie Simeon Rice did for the Arizona Cardinals this season. Florida State defensive ends Reinard Wilson and Peter Boulware and linebackers Dwayne Rudd of Alabama and James Farrior of Virginia are some of the best college prospects.
The Ravens haven't decided if the pick will be a defensive lineman or outside linebacker. The team also would like to add a cornerback and a speedy halfback to complement the tough inside running of Morris.
The Ravens, who are struggling through some tough financial times until the new stadium opens in 1998, might trade down for a lower pick and also obtain a high-profile free agent such as Washington Redskins defensive lineman Sean Gilbert, San Diego Chargers defensive tackle Reuben Davis or outside linebackers Chris Slade of New England or Vinson Smith of the Chicago Bears.
Whatever the situation, the Ravens have stressed a need for leadership. Marchibroda said he didn't get much from the veterans this season.
The Ravens don't necessarily want a rah-rah guy, but an emotional leader with a tough-guy temperament. Everitt, rookie offensive guard Jonathan Ogden, Morris, defensive tackle James Jones and Ray Lewis started to emerge as leaders this season.
But the Ravens are looking for a few more good men.
"We'll be looking for guys who have something to bring to the table," said Ozzie Newsome, the team's vice president of player personnel. "We don't want just talkers, but guys who can lead by example and not be afraid to take that role. We just don't have enough."
If not, the Ravens could have another season like 1996 or 1995.
"I didn't think anything could rival last season until this season materialized," said Everitt.