Ray Lewis. Ed Reed. Anquan Boldin. Paul Kruger. Danelle Ellerby. Kerry Williams. Dennis Pitta. This, folks is not the roster of some All-Madden 2012 team or a Hall of Fame prediction for some time in the future. It is a list of Baltimore Ravens who were in some way pivotal to the Super Bowl run from last season, players who will not suit up for this year’s title defense. Analysts have reacted in a number of ways, almost universally agreeing that an enormous weight has been abruptly placed on the shoulders of star quarterback Joe Flacco. All, by the way, with his trusted receiving core being depleted by trades and injuries.
I cannot say that any of this analysis is imperially wrong. Joe Cool’s two favorite targets last year were Boldin and Pitta. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and arguably Boldin are all going to have their busts in Canton, OH one day. Flacco just signed a huge contract that gives general manager Ozzie Newsome a much narrower margin of error. But indulge me while I make the objections of an optimist. Allow me to implore the Ravens Nation, the Flock, to “Keep Calm and Trust in Ozzie” as the popular meme suggests we do.
First, let’s talk the defense; it has been the team’s calling card since the very beginning (I remind you this is a team that won a championship with Trent Dilfer starting at QB. Sorry, Trent!). Everyone has, understandably, shed light on the losses the team has taken in personnel. The heart, the soul, the captain. Ed Reed will go down as one of the most game changing safeties in the history of football and Ray is an icon. But over the past five years or so the two best defensive players, when healthy, for the Ravens have been Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. Yes, I said it! And it appears that the two of them are healthy again, for now. Add that to the return of a man who before tearing his ACL was emerging as one of the league’s most formidable cornerbacks in Lardarius Webb, and I can make the argument that Baltimore will continue to be a Defense-first blue collar team.
Hold on, just a minute, Cincy! The Birds may not be ready to give up the North just yet! For over a decade it seems, the Steelers and the Ravens have represented the Varsity of the AFC North, leaving the Bengals trailing them and the Browns out of relevancy altogether. But recently a couple of playoff appearances by a revamped Cincinnati and the emergence of the young Red Rocket Andy Dalton have the nation on notice that they are looking to elevate from JV. Not so fast! Let me tell you about those guys in Purple and Black.
Flacco & The Offense
Basketball Hall of Fame player and coach Rudy Tomjanovich famously said “never underestimate the heart of a champion” in his prediction of a Rockets repeat NBA Finals win. Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense can now identify with that sentiment. Let’s talk about big plays. Torrey Smith is one of the fastest receivers in the NFL and has improved in both of his seasons so far. Jacoby Jones, who made two of the biggest (and longest) catches on the playoffs, both destiny-altering, isn’t much slower than Torrey. What more could the big-armed Flacco hope for! Ray Rice is the best (THE BEST) receiving half back in football. The numbers back it up and lest we forget “Hey Diddle Diddle, Ray Rice up the Middle.” And now Visanthe Shiancoe and slot possession receiver Brandon Stokley (who won a Super Bowl in Baltimore with Ray Lewis and co in 2000-2001) have been added to shore up the core, where Ed Dickson may have the potential to do a lot of what Pitta did last year for the Ravens.
Do not sound the alarm just yet, Charm City. Do not listen to the oddsmakers who have you out of the playoffs. Keep calm. Trust Ozzie. Never underestimate the heart of a champion.