As players stuffed personal items into large trash bags during the annual ritual of saying goodbye to teammates and coaches after a final team meeting, the Ravens’ mood after a third loss to the Steelers was boosted by having so much to be encouraged about even as change is swirling around the coaching staff, front office and potentially the star-studded linebacker corps.
With a hard-nosed rookie coach in John Harbaugh, a precocious rookie quarterback in Joe Flacco, a developing young offensive line, a bruising running game, the NFL’s second-ranked defense and the resiliency and depth to overcome having 19 players on injured reserve for the second-highest total in the NFL and playing 18 consecutive weeks without a bye, the resurgent Ravens manufactured a surprising turnaround from a 5-11 season to get within one victory of reaching the Super Bowl.
"We went farther than anyone would have ever thought," center Jason Brown said. "We exceeded even our expectations, and we had high expectations. Our goal was to go the playoffs, but did anyone actually think we would be in the conference championship game? It starts with everyone working together.
"Every team around the NFL is going to change. Coaches will come and go, players will come and go, but the nucleus of the team, the heart of the team, that’s not going to change. This team has spirit. We have created an identity for ourselves. Although there will be changing parts, that nucleus will still be our heart."
The Ravens toppled the top-seeded Tennessee Titans in an AFC divisional playoff and nearly pulled off an upset against the heavily favored Steelers before falling 23-14 as Flacco uncharacteristically threw three interceptions after not committing a turnover in two previous playoff wins.
"Hopefully, we’ll finish as the champs next season," cornerback Fabian Washington said.
With Harbaugh energizing the team with a harder-edged approach after replacing Brian Billick, the Ravens emerged as a winner and won their first playoff games since 2001.
"It was the most fun I’ve had playing football in a long time," strong safety Jim Leonhard said. "I think you could talk to almost everyone on this team, and they would probably say the same thing.
"It was a tremendous year. We would obviously love to be playing in two weeks, but that wasn’t in our cards this year. You never know when you’re going to get an opportunity like this again."
Harbaugh immediately turned the page toward next season, players said, beginning to discuss the offseason training program and setting goals for next season.
"Our thoughts go to the next thing right away," Harbaugh said Sunday night. "The next thing is free agency and the draft and continuing to build a football team, a championship football team. Obviously, we can see where we have to build, what we have to do to get better.
"This is our beginning. This is not an ending by any stretch. We look forward, so we can’t wait to take the next step."
If this is the end for 40-year-old kicker Matt Stover, then he had a blast.
"I thought it was a successful season," Stover said. "It was a privilege to be a part of this team, and to know this team went as far as we did. We lost, and that’s very disappointing. But what we accomplished as a young team, other than myself, was a great thing."
Change already began affecting the Ravens on Monday as popular defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was hired as the New York Jets’ head coach. He’s expected to take a few assistant coaches with him, including outside linebackers coach Mike Pettine as his defensive coordinator. Other possible defections from the Ravens’ staff include defensive line coach Clarence Brooks, secondary coach Mark Carrier and quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson.
"Most definitely, it’s hard to see Rex go," cornerback Frank Walker said. "We call him the mad scientist."
Plus, Ravens director of pro personnel George Kokinis is expected become the Cleveland Browns’ new general manager at some point this week.
Meanwhile, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has several impending decisions on who to retain from a class of prominent free agents that includes starting linebackers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott as well as Leonhard, who excelled after stepping in for an injured Dawan Landry, Stover and Brown.
"I would love to stay here," Brown said.
Stover said he would like to return and had a positive conversation with Harbaugh about that possibility Monday.
"Coach Harbaugh and I had a discussion and he did suggest that he wanted me back, but we’ll see how it all works out." Stover said. "Hopefully, we can work it out. We’ll see where it all lies in March. I’ll take some time off and see what the Ravens want to do and what else is out there in the league.
Added Leonhard: "I would love to be back here, we’ll work things out in the next couple months. I had a great time. Anybody that’s talked to me can understand I would love to be back in Baltimore. It’s going to be a fun offseason for me."
However, it’s unclear if the Ravens will be able to or inclined to retain every single free agent. The team faces a decision on whether to retain former Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister, who clashed with the coaching staff, is recovering from season-ending knee surgery and is due an $8 million base salary in 2009.
There has been rampant speculation that McAlister won’t be back.
It’s possible that Scott might not return, either, despite a strong season where he finished second behind Lewis with 104 tackles.
Suggs is a major priority for the Ravens and could be retained with the franchise tag again even though it would be extremely expensive with a 20 percent increase over his $8.5 million designated tender this season.
"It doesn’t feel like goodbye," said Suggs, who recorded two sacks against Pittsburgh despite a painful right shoulder injury. "I want to be here, but it’s a business. Hopefully, they want to keep me around for a couple of years."
Team owner Steve Bisciotti has been adamant that he wants to keep Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, in Baltimore. However, Lewis could entertain other options if he doesn’t like the Ravens’ offer. Newsome has said that the team will begin negotiating with Lewis shortly after the end of the season.
Wearing a grim look on his face and appearing tired from a violent game against the Steelers, Scott was far from satisfied with the end result of a season marked by vast improvement as Baltimore finished 13-6.
"There’s only one team that’s happy at the end of the year," Scott said. "Personally, I pull nothing from not finishing first. Either you do or you don’t, and we didn’t."
Hours after being beaten by the hated Steelers, the Ravens had to clean out their lockers as well as ponder the uncertainty of the NFL’s annual business cycle.
"It’s so final," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We fought so hard. We overcame all these adversities, you lose this game and it’s such a disappointing loss and you pack up your stuff. It’s a rough day."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.