NEW ORLEANS – The Baltimore Ravens’ weight room no longer resonates with the loud clanging of heavy metal being hoisted.
And the locker room is eerily empty, bereft of boisterous outside linebacker Terrell Suggs’ trademark laughter or players’ pranks.
This is the silent reality of an NFL lockout brought about by a bitter labor dispute between the owners and the decertified players’ union.
Normally at this time of year, the Ravens would have already kicked off their voluntary offseason conditioning program and quarterback school.
“It’s almost a sad story,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said at the NFL owners meetings. “It’s like you want to have sad music in the background. You could do a documentary on it. The lockers are empty.”
Instead of the usual rap music or hard rock pulsating through the weight room, general manager Ozzie Newsome’s old-school jams have become the music of choice at the Ravens’ training complex.
So, how do Harbaugh and his coaching staff spend their time since they can’t have any contact with players in person or via phone, e-mail or Skype during the first work stoppage in the NFL since the 1987 players strike.
Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens’ coaches and the personnel department are consumed with preparing for the NFL draft, which is scheduled for late April regardless of the status of the lockout.
There will be no free agency until a new collective bargaining agreement is negotiated.
The NFL Players Association filed an antitrust lawsuit in Minnesota federal court, and their preliminary injunction isn’t scheduled to be heard until April 6.
“We’re doing the draft,” Harbaugh said. “You always feel like you’re catching up on the draft. Secondly, you have to be ready for free agency because you don’t know what that process is going to be and when it’s going to happen.”
Plus, Harbaugh said the Ravens are in the midst of an extensive self-scouting to gauge the football team’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of scheme and personnel.
“The element that is not there right now is the half of the day that you’re with your players,” Harbaugh said. “This is an opportunity for us to strip everything down and build everything up from the ground floor, which you really want to do every year anyway. But it’s really hard to find the time to do that.
“So, we’re in the process of doing that. We’re stripping everything down. It’s not like we’re changing, but we’re rebuilding everything we’re doing, how we say it and what we do. We’re doing studies. We’re looking at all aspects of football that we can think of to make sure we’re on the right track with our ideas.”
With no players around, the Ravens’ coaches could be relegated to using office personnel to walk through their schemes.
Harbaugh said that could include public relations staffers and security guards.
“We’re actually going to do that,” Harbaugh said with a smile, “because we have some certain scheme things and we need some bodies.”
Unlike franchises with new coaches like the San Francisco 49ers, which hired Jim Harbaugh, John Harbaugh’s brother, the Ravens have stability on their side.
They have made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, establishing a new franchise record.
Does a true competitive edge exist for the Ravens and other veteran playoff squads? Perhaps, but it’s obviously an intangible that can’t be measured accurately.
“It probably all is true, but how do you ever know?” Harbaugh said. “But I always think it’s an edge for us. You always try to find ways to say that could work to our advantage, if you handle it the right way. We’re going to make whatever happens an advantage for us.”
Harbaugh said he’s not worried about his players getting out of shape, emphasizing that he trusts the leadership and work ethic of players like quarterback Joe Flacco and cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who’s on the NFLPA executive committee.
“There was no speech or anything like that,” Harbaugh said. “We weren’t allowed to give a message. I communicated as much as I could without crossing over the line with what we’re supposed to do.
“Our players know that. Joe and Domonique made plans for the players, and I was pretty impressed with what they’re doing.”
Harbaugh said that he has approached often by fans since the labor dispute began.
They have a recurring message for the head coach.
“Every time someone comes up they say, ‘Coach, we’ve got to have football, you got to get them back together,’” Harbaugh said. “I say no problem, I’ll meet with them. I think the coaches’ situation is kind of a good one to be in because we’re on the same side as the fans.
“Everybody wants to have football. And yet for us we’re kind of with the fans we’re kind of sitting on the sidelines watching and we have our fingers crossed, too."
Although it’s a gloomy time in the NFL with legal briefs and rhetoric dominating conversations, Harbaugh expressed confidence that ultimately a deal will get hammered out and things will get back to normal.
“I don’t believe it,” Harbaugh said when asked if he thinks games will be lost or if the season is in danger. “I’m optimistic. I think there are good people and smart people on both sides. I think we’re all going to want to play football, so I think we’re going to get it done."