Ravens turn focus to next season

SportsFootballBaltimore RavensSuper BowlNFLJohn HarbaughSuper Bowl XLVII

The usual faces were present in the auditorium at the team's practice facility Thursday but there was a constant reminder that this wasn't the typical "State of the Ravens" address.

The Lombardi Trophy was propped next to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass, general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh. The Ravens' reward for beating the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, last Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans was hard to miss.

Four days after the monumental win and two days following a raucous parade that celebrated the achievement, the Ravens' front office turned their attention to next season, and avoiding the mistakes that the organization made the last time it won a Super Bowl.

"We don't want to repeat. We want to be one of the 12 teams that have a chance to win every year," Bisciotti said. "If you think that we can build this up to try and repeat, it's fool's gold because we're not the favorite to win next year. We're not in the top four teams that are favorites to win next year. So we want to make sure that 2015 we have as good a chance to win as 2013."

That was the common theme throughout the news conference that lasted nearly an hour and hit on all sorts of topics, from the design of the team's Super Bowl rings, to the potential of a Ray Lewis statue outside M&T Bank Stadium to the contract status of quarterbackJoe Flacco.

"We're not going to get caught up in the moment and do things to our salary cap and make decisions in the euphoria of winning that could hurt us in 2014 and 2015, like we did in 2001," Bisciotti said. "Every single veteran [in 2001] was restructured, I think, so that every single veteran could stay, and then we ended up losing so many people the next year, and we don't want to do that. You have to make sure that the excitement of the day doesn't cloud what we promised to build, and that was a consistent winner."

The front office held personnel meetings on Wednesday and the organization's top decision makers will get together this weekend at Bisciotti's home in Jupiter, Fla., to formulate a game plan for what will be a crucial offseason.

The Super Bowl champions have a boatload of decisions to make. Flacco, left tackle Bryant McKinnie, linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, and defensive backs Ed Reed and Cary Williams are among 13 potential unrestricted free agents. Tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, and defensive end Arthur Jones will be restricted free agents and figure to see significant bumps in their salaries.

Lewis, the long-time defensive leader and face of the franchise, will retire after 17 NFL seasons. Reed and center Matt Birk could follow his lead. Complicating matters is the fact that the Ravens won't have much salary cap space to work with, especially if they are forced to use the $14.6 million franchise tag on Flacco, rather than reaching a long-term extension with the Super Bowl XLVII MVP.

The Ravens could free some cap space by restructuring the deals of veterans like Anquan Boldin, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, but Newsome called that a "last resort."

"We will not repeat what we did in 2001," Newsome said. "We're trying to build where we can win Super Bowls more than just one more time. I think our team is structured differently this time also. We do have some veterans that will probably be retiring but we have a great nucleus of young players and players that are just heading into their prime that we're going to build this team around. But we're not going to be restructuring contracts, do all of those different things just to be able to maintain this team just to make another run. We're not doing that. But all that being said, John and I have talked about it — and we've talked to the coaches — that doesn't mean that we don't want to try and go and repeat."

Following the franchise's first title in Super Bowl XXXV against the New York Giants, the organization pulled out all the stops to win another one. Many of their top veterans, like tight end Shannon Sharpe, defensive tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams and defensive back Rod Woodson, had their contracts restructured. They dumped Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer in favor of Elvis Grbac.

One year later and following a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional playoff round, all those players were gone and the Ravens were forced to rebuild most of their roster.

"I think over the course of the last two years we've probably redid two deals," Newsome said. "The only time we consider restructuring guys' deals if a player becomes available that we think has great value and is worth us restructuring the deal to get it done. It also has to be a player we think has a very good chance of playing out his contract. That's when you get in trouble is if you restructure the deal all of a sudden the player's abilities fall off the cliff and you have to let him go and you have to eat all that acceleration right away. We are of the mind right now I think the way John and his coaches develop players the way [the personnel guys] go out and collect players we got a good nucleus of young players who are still under their first contract, which will allow us to not have to do that."

Newsome acknowledged the organization's first priority is to address Flacco's situation. He said that the team got "very close" to a deal with agent Joe Linta before the talks were tabled once the regular season began and he remains optimistic that two sides can reach agreement before March 4, which would be the last day before the Ravens would have to use the franchise tag. An extension would obviously be preferable for the Ravens because it would cost them significantly less cap space than that of the franchise tag.

Also on the agenda, Newsome said that he hopes to sit down with Reed soon but he feels there is interest on both sides "to help make that relationship last a little bit longer." As for the team's biggest needs, Newsome listed the middle of the team's defense, specifically mentioning holes at defensive tackle, linebacker and safety. However, Bisciotti cautioned that the Ravens are unlikely to make any big outside free agent expenditures.

"We're more apt to create space to get a few good veterans for small amounts," he said. "That's how Ozzie winds up putting the icing on our cake every year is we end up getting guys like [Corey] Graham and people like that that don't cost a ton. So, we know in order to fill a roster with professionals while waiting for young guys to develop that last $7 million we have left is probably spent on three veterans. instead of one dynamic player. That to me is not being risky. It's being prudent."

Bisciotti pointed out that the Ravens lost Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs, defensive starters Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding and reserve safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura go last offseason and that didn't prevent them from winning the Super Bowl.

"We've proven it two years in a row that we can kind shock the world and disappoint our fans at the same time by letting some of these guys go, but letting young guys fill in and getting good values on the free agent market," Bisciotti said.

Both Bisciotti and Newsome essentially acknowledged that the team is prepared to lose some older players while keeping most of the young nucleus together. Harbaugh knows that's just the reality of the NFL and despite expected turnover, he's already looking forward to next season.

"Every season is different," Harbaugh said. "I don't really believe in the defending champ thing. It's not boxing. They don't give you a belt and you fight for the title. We were the champions of 2012. The NFL champions were the Baltimore Ravens. Who is next year's champion depends on who plays the best, who handles adversity the best and who comes out on top. Our guys are just the men for the job. Can't wait to get started."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jeffzrebiecsun

KEY DATES

Feb.18: First day teams are allowed to apply the franchise tag to free agents

Feb. 20-26: NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis

March 4: Last day teams are allowed to apply the franchise tag to free agents; deadline is 4 p.m.

March 9-11: Teams are allowed to enter into contract negotiations with players who will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the current league year.

March 12 (4 p.m.):Deadline for teams to issue restricted free agent and exclusive right tenders to applicable players. Any players not tendered become unrestricted free agents.

March 12 (4 p.m.): The beginning of new league year. Free agents are allowed to sign deals with new teams.

March 16: $1 million roster bonus due for Ravens wide receiver/kick returner Jacoby Jones

March 17-20: Owners meetings, Phoenix, Ariz.

March 23-24: Regional combine at Ravens training facility in Owings Mills

April 25-27: NFL draft, New York

June 3: Deadline for old clubs to send a tender to an unsigned restricted free agent or to extend a qualifying offer.

June 17: Deadline for a restricted free agent to accept a qualifying offer

July 15: Last day teams are allowed to sign franchise players to long-term extensions.

Sept. 5: Ravens' season-opener at M&T Bank Stadium

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