The dust and the flurries of Heinz Field have settled. The 65,000 plus black and gold attired fans have long gone. The battered and bruised combatants are now resting. One team will soon begin their preparation for a trip to Tampa, Florida to take on the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. The other, the Baltimore Ravens will head out to Owings Mills to empty their lockers and begin their offseason, a bit more prematurely than they or any of us had hoped.
Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption once warned that hope is a dangerous thing. It has a way of heightening our expectations to unrealistic levels.
Back in August while watching the 2008 vintage of the Baltimore Ravens, nearly all of us – fans and media alike expected this season to be a rebuilding year for the team. The offensive line appeared to be in tatters. A once great quarterback retired; a beleaguered quarterback out for the season with a torn labrum and a hopeful quarterback sidelined for weeks with a mysterious viral infection.
Unbeknownst to all of us, that sequence of events that removed Steve McNair, Kyle Boller and Troy Smith from consideration for opening day starter ushered in a new era on the fast track. Say hello to Joe Flacco.
Clearly the season took us all for a ride we never expected. The team fought through an early season three game losing streak and then won 12 of 14 games including two playoff games before falling to the Steelers last night in the AFC Championship Game. The truth is the Ravens gave us so much more than even the most optimistic of us could ever have wished. Whenever reality far exceeds expectation, jubilation results.
And then suddenly the jubilation ended.
The Ravens delivered yet we wanted more. They wanted more. It is the human, competitive spirit that inspires the pursuit of excellence and the insatiable desire to not settle for second best. Now we ponder what might have been while finding hope in what was.
The season began to feel like one of destiny. The team had come together in part through a galvanizing theme, “What’s Our Name?” that fostered a team first mentality. They battled through so many injuries; they were worn thin by depleted depth. They continually leaned on their mantra, “Next man up” and they were inspired by the courageousness of O.J. Brigance and his battle with ALS.
The march into and through the playoffs had a very familiar feel and the ultimate prize – the climb to the league’s pinnacle would culminate at Raymond James Stadium, the locale for Super Bowl XXXV and what better way to get there than through the town of the team’s most bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Unfortunately it was not meant to be. The hints of destiny were merely remnants of hope. The team that will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl is the Steelers and the truth be told, they are the better team – for now. Three losses to Mike Tomlin’s gang in one season is all the proof you need.
Yet hope remains…
In 2008 the Ravens found a great head coach, what looks to be a franchise quarterback and a newly discovered resolve devoid of the bravado and unnecessary swagger of teams from the past. They learned how to win on the road and in bad weather and they showed as much heart or more than any that has ever donned the purple and black. They aren’t far behind the black and gold of the Steelers and the Steelers know it.
From the top of the Ravens food chain right on through to the ball boys, Baltimore is as strong as any organization. They’ve matured as a group and they’ve learned from past transgressions. The front office is talented, prepared and resourceful and they will find ways to strengthen areas of weakness. The coaching staff is extremely solid and they will be even better next year now that they’ve bonded for a season and that their familiarity and understanding of the team’s roster is more thorough.
Of course the sad reality of the end of any NFL season is that no roster will remain intact. Typically attrition affects 20% of a team’s roster. Rex Ryan will probably be gone today or tomorrow and he may take a coach or two with him. Players that we’ve cheered for and embraced almost like family will go and the names could be staggering – Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, Terrell Suggs, Jason Brown, Chris McAlister, Samari Rolle or Todd Heap.
That’s the nature of the beast.
The 2008 season has been a terrific ride and a day after its conclusion we can all be thankful. It brought joy to a community that needed it. It provided a pleasant distraction from the harsh economic environment that envelopes us all. It probably brought you together with friends, family and loved ones more frequently than you otherwise might have.
And it has given us hope for the future.
Today we begin healing. Tomorrow we’ll begin to look ahead.
Thank you Ravens – it’s been a blast!