It was not the ending any of them had envisioned. As the Ravens trudged off their home field on a seasonably chilly afternoon in January, they were, officially, a losing team.
Over the previous six weeks, they had plummeted from the top playoff seed in their conference to out of the postseason altogether. They were the most injury-ravaged team in the NFL over the past 20 years.
They had just finished their miserable run by letting victory slip through their fingers in overtime against the hated Steelers and hobbled quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The 2021 Ravens had expected to vie for a Super Bowl berth behind the most exciting quarterback in the league, Lamar Jackson, and a defense stocked with elite performers.
Instead, Jackson watched from the sideline with an injured ankle, and the vaunted Ravens defense ranked last in stopping the pass. Moments after the final loss, they mustered some defiance: “Just watch how we bounce back,” safety Chuck Clark said.
But there was no way to spin the 2021 season as anything other than a setback.
Ten years have passed since the Ravens last appeared in and won the Super Bowl. They have fallen and risen and fallen again in that span. Jackson ushered in a new era of soaring expectations — so far unmet — when he replaced Joe Flacco halfway through the 2018 season.
As the Ravens prepare to begin a new season Sunday against the New York Jets, they’re preparing to play against Flacco for the first time. The presence of the former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player will remind Baltimore fans, players and coaches of the passage of time and of the ambitions they have yet to fulfill with Jackson at the helm.
“I’ve always been impatient, ever since draft night,” Jackson said, when asked whether he’s feeling greater urgency to reach the Super Bowl. “But you’ve still got to take it a practice at a time, a game at a time, a week at a time. You can’t peak too soon.”
This season looms as a pivotal chapter for a team that made the playoffs every year from 2018 to 2020, led the league in victories in 2019 — and fell on its face last season.
“Every year that you have your franchise quarterback in place is pivotal,” said Hall of Fame wide receiver and CBS analyst James Lofton, who will help call Sunday’s game. “You’ve got probably a dozen teams that feel they have the quarterback to take them deep into the playoffs, and if you get there, the Super Bowl is a game away.”
With a healthier roster and a highly regarded draft class on hand to aid Jackson, the Ravens are primed to rebound, picked by most national analysts to return to the playoffs.
But Jackson will seemingly play out the fifth and final year of his first contract after he and the Ravens failed in the offseason to agree on a long-term extension. He will risk his health without the benefit of hundreds of millions of dollars in financial security. The Ravens will plow ahead without any guarantee that their most important player will be in Baltimore for years to come.
If anyone with the team is disturbed by this reality, they are not letting on. If they are growing impatient with their inability to return to the Super Bowl, they’re not showing that, either.
They cannot afford to, said coach John Harbaugh, one of the few cogs still in place from the most recent championship team.
“Every game, all teams bring everything they’ve got, and they’re all very talented teams,” Harbaugh said, hewing to the in-the-moment philosophy he has always espoused. “You have to be your best — and it’s not just being your best in terms of being fired up, or being emotionally ready, or being tough — you have to be at your best execution-wise. You have to be on point, you have to be sharp in order to win the game.”
In other words, if the Ravens obsess over their big picture, they just might slip up against the perpetually downtrodden Jets and put themselves in a hole to start the season.
There is first-day-of-school anticipation for the Ravens, who played so much of last season without their full team. Between that and the fact that they used few starters in the preseason this year, you could argue they have not played at anything resembling full strength in almost two years. So there is excitement and trepidation as they prepare to rip the dust cover off the 2022 edition.
“The good thing about having a bad year, as a team or as an individual, is that you’ve just got a lot to look forward to this year,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said.
However, the Ravens are still not at full strength. Former All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley, Jackson’s chief protector, is practicing again, but might not play in the opener after missing 28 of the team’s past 29 games with an ankle injury that required multiple surgeries. Do-everything linebacker Tyus Bowser and hard-charging running back Gus Edwards won’t be available until at least the fifth game of the season as they recover from serious injuries. Promising rookie pass rusher David Ojabo probably won’t play until the second half of the season as he recovers from a torn Achilles tendon.
Still, they’re not reeling from a fresh batch of catastrophic injuries, as they were at this point last year. The pass defense expects to be back at full strength, with former All-Pros Humphrey and Marcus Peters at the corners, new addition Marcus Williams patrolling the back line and rapidly improving linebacker Odafe Oweh rushing off the edge. On offense, they fortified their line with center Tyler Linderbaum, a first-round draft pick, and durable right tackle Morgan Moses. They expect 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman to step forward as a No. 1 wide receiver. Rookie Isaiah Likely, a breakout star in the preseason, should form a deadly tight end duo with All-Pro Mark Andrews. Running back J.K. Dobbins, who missed last season with a torn knee ligament, has moved more quickly by the day as he readies for the opener.
So much comes back to Jackson, the alpha and omega of the Ravens since he led them to the playoffs as a rookie in 2018. His unmatched creativity gives them a chance to score on any play or win any game. But he grew increasingly skittish last year behind a patchwork offensive line that failed to protect him. His season was headed in the wrong direction even before it ended with the ankle injury he suffered in Cleveland in December.
“He needs to get back to the form he had in 2019 and 2020,” Lofton said. “That’s single-digit interceptions. You keep that number low, with their defense playing the way we expect it to play, you can win a lot of games.”
Can Jackson reverse his and the Ravens’ fortunes, even as the outside world obsesses over his contract? Is he worried that one misstep in a game could upset his financial future?
“I mean, it was a pretty big risk last season, the year before,” he said. “This season, it’s going to be the same thing. But I’m just playing football; anything can happen. … I’m keeping God first and playing ball, just like I’ve been doing.”
“The way he’s doing everything is just top-notch. This is going to be a big, big year for him,” Andrews said. “But let this man live; let him live his life. He’s a good dude.”
Despite the Ravens’ dreadful finish last season, several veterans either joined or rejoined them in the offseason, believing this franchise, led by Jackson, can deliver a Super Bowl ring.
“You know the history of the Ravens, the winning streaks, the playoff runs and things like that,” said Moses, who spent the first eight years of his career with Washington and with the lowly Jets. “But I would say, in my first practice of OTAs, we covered every base that normally teams don’t cover; we covered every situation, and that’s winning football. So, when I left that first practice, I was like, ‘Dang, this is what a championship practice feels like.’”
Those familiar with Baltimore football history will recall that Flacco delivered the biggest prize in the sport at the same juncture of his career, Year 5 with a contract extension unsigned. A month after he led the Ravens to the promised land, he agreed to the richest deal in NFL history.
Teammates foresee a similar narrative unfolding a decade later.
“We’re going to get it,” pass rusher Justin Houston said as he looked ahead to his 12th professional season. “I’m going to speak it into existence. That means everything. That’s why we’re here; that’s why you work together as one team, as one goal. The common goal is to get that ring. That’s why I’m here still playing, still chasing that ring.”