- - Thursday, September 5, 2013

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Even Super Bowl champions are susceptible to change.

The 2013 Baltimore Ravens certainly don’t look like the unit that took the field a season ago to win the NFL’s ultimate prize.

After 17 seasons and two Super Bowl titles, linebacker Ray Lewis retired. The Ravens allowed Ed Reed to sign with Houston in free agency.

They cut safety Bernard Pollard, who later signed with Tennessee. They traded receiver Anquan Boldin to San Francisco for a 2013 draft pick. The list continues with linebacker Dannell Ellerbe now in Miami, linebacker Paul Kruger moving on to Cleveland and cornerback Cary Williams joining Philadelphia. Starting defensive tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu was not retained.

In total, that’s eight starters from a championship team that weren’t on the field for Baltimore on Thursday, when the Ravens opened their season on the road against the Broncos. Previously, no Super Bowl champion ever lost more than five starters before the next season.

Strangely enough, there’s been a level of calm throughout the team’s headquarters despite the departures. There have been plenty of questions about the direction the organization is heading with so many big names gone from a championship team — none bigger than Lewis.

“Keep questioning it,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “We’re never really going to see what it’s like until we all line up, until we get on the field. This is the first time in the [team’s] history, since the Ravens moved back from Cleveland in ‘96, that there is no Ray Lewis or Jonathan Ogden. It’s definitely going to be interesting to see what it looks like, but I’ve said it before, his legacy [Lewis] has left a standard here and every man on our defense will be held accountable for playing to that standard.”

Consistent winners

After defeating the Colts in the wild card round in January, John Harbaugh became the first NFL coach to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons in charge.

During this time span, the Ravens have also appeared in three AFC Championship games with one Super Bowl title. They’re also the only team to appear in the past five postseasons.

Building this type of team is a tough task, considering the “win now” mentality coaches and players are forced into. Lack of production in just one season can lead to one’s ouster.

Unlike the college ranks, where a coach is asked to build a team in three or four years, professional coaches are tasked with shaping a team to win immediately.

After a 5-11 campaign in 2007, owner Steve Bisciotti brought in Harbaugh to restore Baltimore’s winning ways.

Harbaugh succeeded early and hasn’t looked back. Throughout the process, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has constructed the roster with the long-term in mind. It would have been easy for Newsome to keep Reed around and pay more than he was valued at 33 years old, solely for his years of service to the club.

“Somehow you have to find a balance between doing what’s right and maintaining stability and being a competitor now and years into the future,” said Ted Sundquist, the Denver Broncos’ general manager from 2002 to 2008. “All while giving your head coach the resources and the support he feels he needs right now to address that ever-present win now or else that comes from fans and the media and the game in general.”

When Sundquist was with Denver, the Broncos posted winning records in five consecutive seasons from 2002 to 2006. He understood the balancing act it takes to win over a long period of time while focusing on the immediate goals at the same time.

As an observer and analyst of the game these days, Sundquist believes there are a handful of teams that can adjust to change and adapt with different personnel groupings each year. Among those, he said, are the Giants, Patriots, Packers and Steelers.

Sundquist believes Baltimore has quietly fit itself into that category.

“There are some questions — OK, can they keep that excitement and everything we just had from winning a Super Bowl or are they going to hit one of those dips?” Sundquist said. “And I think Ozzie Newsome has done exactly that. The Ravens know who they are as an organization. They have an identity.

“They can look in the mirror and say these are the types of players, coaches and scouts that we want in Baltimore. I think they can withstand losing some of the players — Ray being gone, Ed being gone, Anquan being gone. There are a lot of big things, productive names and leadership going on there, but they’re one of the few clubs in the league that can withstand that.”

Then again, how often is a team forced to adjust to losing eight starters?

With all the factors that go into creating the perfect mesh of players for an NFL team, plugging-and-playing doesn’t figure to be as easy as it sounds.

“Pro football players are used to change, they’re used to adversity,” said Matt Bowen, a former Washington Redskins safety who now works as an NFL analyst for Turner Sports’ Bleacher Report. “Take the Ravens‘ season last year, it wasn’t perfect by any means. But they peaked at the right time.

“That’s probably the mentality in that locker room right now. They’re saying, look, we lost some key players and a veteran player. But you know what? We’re getting paid to play football and paid to defend our Super Bowl championship. Let’s go out there and make some plays and defend our Super Bowl championship.”

Who’s the leader?

Lewis was Baltimore’s unquestioned leader dating back to the 2000 season, which was capped with a victory over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

Reed was a close second, mentoring the entire secondary as someone the younger corners could turn to for advice on and off the field. That changes, with the focus turning to two men, one on each side of the ball: Suggs, the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and quarterback Joe Flacco, the MVP of Super Bowl XLVII who signed a $120.6 million contract this offseason.

Throughout the preseason, the two could be seen jawing at each other in practices, mostly in good fun. Suggs has always been vocal, but more so in a boisterous, fun-loving manner. Flacco’s personality is subdued and quiet.

“I’m always a leader, I’m not really going to change my role,” Flacco said. “We don’t have Ray Lewis here anymore, if that’s what you’re asking. But me and him are probably different in the terms that we lead anyway, and I’m not going to change what I do at all just because I make more money. That has nothing to do with leading a football team.”

Said Suggs: “I think there’s definitely a responsibility that comes with that. But I’m honored to have that responsibility, so to say. But, it’s not just me. I’m only a few years ahead of Haloti [Ngata] and a few years ahead of [Lardarius] Webb. It’s primarily going to fall on the vets that have been here the longest, but most definitely on the guy that’s been here the longest.”

That would be Suggs, selected by Baltimore with the 10th overall pick of the 2003 draft. Even so, it seems he’s aware he won’t be able to shoulder the leadership void by himself.

“[Flacco] came to a team that was primarily known for the defense, but now, we’ve got ourselves a big gun over there that cannot only get it done, but he can win championships,” Suggs said. “So, it’s really good to be comfortable as a defender, to finally have a quarterback that you can rely on.”

New faces

This offseason, the Ravens focused on shoring up the middle of the defense. Sure, the Ravens won a Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 2012 season. That doesn’t mean the title came without its flaws.

For the first time in the Harbaugh era, the Ravens finished the regular season as low as 17th in total defense and 20th in rush defense. Stopping the run was a big focal point for the organization.

To fix that, the Ravens brought in defensive ends Chris Canty from the Giants and Marcus Spears from the Cowboys, which allows Ngata to primarily play at nose tackle.

Daryl Smith, last with the Jacksonville Jaguars, is taking over Lewis‘ position at middle linebacker. Josh Bynes is filling in for Jameel McClain at Weakside linebacker, for as long as needed. (McClain has yet to be a cleared after suffering a spinal cord contusion against Washington in 2012 and will start the season on the physically unable to perform list.) Elvis Dumervil, who had 11 sacks in Denver a year ago, will share strong-side linebacker duties with Courtney Upshaw.

Michael Huff, formerly of the Raiders, is now the free safety instead of Reed. Either James Ihedigbo or Matt Elam will start at strong safety instead of Pollard.

With the turnover experienced, there’s a reason why so many observers are taking a look at how the 2013 team looks in relation to last year’s group.

“I don’t want to compare the teams,” Bynes said. “We’re just going to let it happen the way it happens. I think last year’s team is a great team. A lot of people said the defense wasn’t that great, and yeah, we started off a little rocky, but we came together when they needed us to, down the stretch and through the playoffs. You never know. We’ll play this year out and see what happens.”

Leaders come and go, Harbaugh believes, and that will be evident as the season unfolds.

“I’m more [in] the belief that an organization or team is not about one guy,” Harbaugh said. “I think Ray would tell you that, and I know Ed would tell you that, and all those guys would tell you that. The distribution redistributes. It will redistribute to the guys on this team.”

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