- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

OWINGS MILLS, Md. | The Baltimore Ravens have felt extreme disappointment in the past — the loss in the playoff opener at home two seasons ago, the plummet to the AFC North cellar last season.

But coming so close to the Super Bowl and falling short carries a special sting for the Ravens, who on Sunday ended a remarkable season with a 23-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship.

“You work so hard to get to this point, and then not being able to advance, it’s very disappointing,” said 35-year-old receiver Derrick Mason, pulling his purple dress shirt over the injured shoulder that kept him out of practice the past month. “How many more times am I going to get the opportunity to advance to the Super Bowl? It starts to weigh on you.”

That the Ravens made it so far was remarkable given that they had a rookie coach in John Harbaugh and a rookie quarterback in Joe Flacco and they lost starting defenders Kelly Gregg, Dawan Landry and Chris McAlister by Week 6. Cornerback Samari Rolle didn’t play Sunday after injuring a thigh the previous week at Tennessee; Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs gutted it out with a shoulder injury.

“We had our share of adversity, and we came through it,” said safety Jim Leonhard, a revelation in place of Landry in his Ravens debut. “We will be better next year. Like Coach Harbaugh said… in our meeting, we don’t have to feel each other out next year. [Some] pieces will change. That’s the way this league works, but we have things proven now.”

A big piece is already gone. Rex Ryan, coordinator of the Ravens’ elite defense the past four years and the line coach from 1999 to 2004, was named coach of the New York Jets.

“It’s hard to see Rex go,” cornerback Frank Walker said. “We call him the mad scientist. I think he’s going to do great up there.”

What’s more, middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the 10-time Pro Bowl pick and the heart of the Ravens, is unsigned for 2009. Fellow linebackers Suggs and Bart Scott are also headed toward free agency, as are Leonhard, guard Jason Brown and 19th-year kicker Matt Stover.

“We’ll try to keep as many of them as we can,” Harbaugh said.

Suggs, 26, is the prime target to be re-signed, and Lewis, 33, who was unavailable for comment, also figures to be back despite reports of interest from the Dallas Cowboys.

“I think we started something really good here,” Suggs said. “Hopefully, they want to keep me around.”

Baltimore likely won’t be able to afford Scott. He said it’s too soon for him to think about next year.

And Leonhard and Landry both can’t start in 2009 next to All-Pro Ed Reed. Leonhard said he loved his first year in Baltimore but is interested in remaining a starter, perhaps for Ryan in New York. McAlister, who along with Lewis was a starter on the 2000 Super Bowl champion team, might be cut.

Still, Mason and 16-year veteran fullback Lorenzo Neal are bullish on the Ravens’ future because of Flacco and Harbaugh.

“As long as Joe’s here, this team will always have a shot at going to the Super Bowl,” Mason said. “His rookie season was no fluke. He’s only going to get better. You see what [Ben Roethlisberger] did his rookie season and his development to where he’s [heading to his second Super Bowl in four years]. That’s the same thing for Joe.”

Neal feels the same way about Harbaugh, 46, who had never even been a coordinator before but turned a 5-11 team into the AFC runner-up despite all the injuries.

“I’m really proud of what this team was able to accomplish this year,” Neal said. “It’s something to build on. We’ve got a great leader in Coach Harbaugh. He really turned this organization around, and I know he’s going to keep getting better.”

Note — Running back Willis McGahee, carted off in the fourth quarter after a hit from Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark, was released from UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh and returned to Baltimore early Monday. He’s expected to make a full recovery.

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