Yet, the Baltimore Ravens’ distinguished group of elder statesmen are still full of vigor and want to keep playing football after finishing one victory away from reaching the Super Bowl.
"Yeah, I want to be back," said fullback Lorenzo Neal, a four-time Pro Bowl selection who celebrated his 38th birthday last month and has used his body as a human battering ram for 16 NFL seasons. "I still have the desire to play. I want to get better. I would love to get another year or two under my belt.
"Why not come back? We’re so close. It’s a good team with good guys, good veterans and a bright future. It would be great to be a part of it again. You’ve got to like the way a bunch of men battled together."
While Neal’s one-year contract has expired, veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason is under contract through next season in the final year of a five-year, $20 million contract.
A consummate possession receiver, Mason, 35, gutted it out to catch 80 passes for 1,037 yards and five touchdowns despite a painful dislocated left shoulder.
Yet, Mason said he doesn’t know if he’ll be back because of his age and the Ravens’ desire to acquire a No. 1 receiver who’s a proven deep threat.
"I’m pretty sure there will be some new faces in the locker room and some new faces in the receiver room, I don’t know if I’ll be here," Mason said. "It’s up in the air right now. I’m 35 years old. I had an OK season, but it depends on where they see this thing going."
It’s not a great class of receiver free agents, so it looks like Mason will be back in some capacity.
The Cincinnati Bengals are likely to hold onto T.J. Houshmandzadeh, whose game closely mirrors Mason’s ability to move the chains while not stretching the defense. And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have signaled that they want to keep Antonio Bryant, who had a resurgent season after years of clashing with coaches and off-field problems.
Bobby Engram, Shaun McDonald and Devery Henderson wouldn’t represent upgrades, either.
The only potential blockbuster move the Ravens could make is possibly trading for Arizona Cardinals blue-chipper Anquan Boldin. Boldin is under contract through 2010 and is disgruntled because he wants a new contract. He also got in a nasty argument with offensive coordinator Todd Haley during the NFC title game.
A trade for Boldin would require the Ravens to surrender their first-round draft pick this spring and probably a lot more additional compensation.
"I’m optimistic that if I’m not here then Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams and whoever else they decide to add will be special with Joe Flacco," Mason said. "This football team is going to get better."
All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis turns 34 in May, but led the Ravens with 160 tackles while also intercepting three passes and registering 3 1/2 sacks. Lewis’ $50 million contract has expired and he’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next month.
Team owner Steve Bisciotti has emphasized that he wants Lewis to return, but the two sides haven’t made much progress toward a new deal yet. Lewis didn’t speak with reporters after the Ravens’ 23-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game, but made it clear he wants to continue to play days prior to kickoff.
"I’ve got too much football left," Lewis said. "Playing the game of football is what I was brought up to do. It’s the easiest thing I can ever do in my life is wake up and play football. I just love playing the game, so I don’t know when my day is done.
"Honestly, if I ever spoke about my future outside of Baltimore while I was playing this game right here, I would be a very selfish individual towards my teammates. That’s why it never crossed my mind. I don’t get caught up into the business side of it."
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ ultimate graybeard is intent on continuing to play.
Matt Stover, 40, finished the season 31 for 37 on field goal attempts after a rough start where he missed three of his first seven kicks while adjusting to new special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg’s approach to the kicking game. Stover will be an unrestricted free agent next month.
Stover noted that coach John Harbaugh suggested that he wants him back, but nothing definitive was expressed. Stover, who hit the game-winning field goal in the final minute of the Ravens’ 13-10 playoff win over the Tennessee Titans, also said he’ll ponder retirement.
"Retirement’s been an option for 10 years," Stover said with a laugh. "My family needs to come first. If that needs to be done, it needs to be done. But right now I’m going to take some time off and we’ll see where we land in March and see what the Ravens want to do and see what else is out there in the league, too.
"Why would I want to go play for anybody else? I still have the desire to kick. I was pleased with my performance this year, couple hiccups at the beginning. It’s just another year I was privileged to be a part of."
NOTES: Ravens director of pro personnel George Kokinis spent a second consecutive day visiting with Cleveland Browns management on Tuesday, including coach Eric Mangini. Team owner Randy Lerner reportedly wasn’t present, and no apparent formal offer has been extended yet for Kokinis to become the Browns’ new general manager. If/when Kokinis leaves, the Ravens are expected to promote highly regarded assistant director of pro personnel Vince Newsome to fill the anticipated vacancy. … Quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson, whose star is on the rise after his work tutoring Flacco this season, could draw interest as a potential offensive coordinator candidate with former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan’s New York Jets staff, the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers. … Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is attending the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., … Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Bisciotti are scheduled to speak with reporters about the season this morning at team headquarters.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.