The champions of Super Bowl XXXV, the team that danced all over the New York Giants and all through Tampa thanks to a defense the likes of which the NFL had never seen, was supposed to have to pay the band this season.
The Baltimore Ravens still might, eventually.
But at 3-3 and with a win over the 5-2 Denver Broncos already secured heading into today’s first-place showdown with the Steelers, the Ravens have established that there can be life after salary-cap prison after all.
“At least there’s a pulse,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said.
The Ravens didn’t figure to have much more than that after purging their roster due to cap constraints and finally coming to the conclusion that quarterback Elvis Grbac couldn’t play. They opened a campaign a mere two seasons removed from the top of the mountain with 19 rookies and first-year players, more than any team since the NFL began keeping track of such a statistic with the advent of the 53-man roster in 1993.
It was more, even, than the expansion Houston Texans. An Enron-esque collapse loomed.
That the Ravens have been this competitive surprises even Billick, who hoped his team would improve gradually but counted upon nothing beyond that.
“After we lost (in Pittsburgh) in January, it’s not like we woke up and said ‘Holy (expletive), we have cap problems,'” Billick said. “We knew what the 2002 season was going to be about.”
What it was going to be about mostly was replacing the jettisoned likes of Tony Siragusa, Rod Woodson, Rob Burnett and others, what the Ravens’ weekly press release describes as a “boatload of players from the playoff teams the last two seasons.”
The Ravens accepted as much, planned for it, braced for it.
Still, it was a difficult transition, initially.
“There is a difference between knowing what you are going to face and then, actually stepping onto the practice field and looking in those young eyes and realizing just how young you really are in historical proportions,” Billick said. “My biggest concern was that we were going to get to the season and my 48th through 53rd guys weren’t NFL-caliber players. That is not the case. They’re young, but I have some good athletes and they are getting better every week, so it’s been fun to watch.”
Beyond tackle Jonathan Ogden, linebacker Ray Lewis, running back Jamal Lewis, linebacker Peter Boulware, defensive end Michael McCrary and cornerback Chris McAlister, these Ravens are almost unrecognizable (offensive linemen Mike Flynn and Edwin Mulitalo are still hanging around, but who ever noticed them before?). But they have an intriguing upside developing, headlined by former No. 1 picks Todd Heap (tight end, 2001) and Ed Reed (free safety, 2002). And they’ll have $15 to $20 million in cap space cleared heading into next season, Billick estimates, at which time the building process can take off again.
By season’s end this year, the Ravens will probably more resemble the team that lost to Carolina and Tampa Bay to open the season by a combined 35-7 than the one that stunned Denver.
But even if the bottom falls out, Billick will live with it.
“Sitting there with a Super Bowl ring on one hand and a new four-year contract in the other, it certainly is a lot easier to put yourself on this course,” he said. “After looking at scenario after scenario, case study after case study, you come to two realizations, at least we did. One is, everybody at some point is going to go through this. There is absolutely no avoiding it. No matter how you operate the cap, no matter how good you’ve been at it, if you have viably tried to take a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl, you are going to have to deal with being on the reverse side of credit card debt, so to speak.
“The second thing is, we were close to the oldest team in the league last year, if not the oldest, so that made for a much more stark contrast than maybe some teams have had to face. There is team after team that has tried to mitigate the approach with the salary cap. All they do is elongate the process. Our philosophy was to hit it head on.”
Should they keep hanging around .500 and contending in the NFL’s Delta pledge class of a division (the AFC North), the Ravens may just revolutionize navigating the cap’s inevitable ebb and flow.
Even if they don’t, they’ll always have Tampa.