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WESTMINSTER — As the Baltimore Ravens officially reported to training camp Sunday in Westminster, their inventory upon checking into the team hotel didnâ€™t include unwanted baggage.
Unlike many of their NFL brethren, the defending AFC North champions arenâ€™t dealing with the distractions of nasty holdouts, a star player embroiled in legal turmoil or lingering questions about the head coachâ€™s job security.
For the first time in six years, the Ravens signed every draft pick days prior to camp. At the launch of practice this morning at McDaniel College, thereâ€™s really no drama to preoccupy the Ravens.
â€œI think it helps you tremendously to focus because you donâ€™t get a lot of distractions that bog your mind or keep you from learning the plays,â€ tight end Daniel Wilcox said. â€œIt just keeps your mind on football. Not having distractions is a positive thing. I canâ€™t wait to see the fans.â€
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons and quarterback Michael Vick are being haunted by dogfighting allegations and besieged by investigations and protesters.
The Kansas City Chiefs are being peppered on a daily basis with questions about the whereabouts of disgruntled running back Larry Johnson. In contrast, the Ravens’ arrival was greeted by only a handful of reporters and cameras as the majority of the local media’s focus remained on Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr.’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Without distractions, itâ€™s a different plot line for the Ravens.
â€œItâ€™s cool,â€ newly-acquired running back Willis McGahee said. â€œWe donâ€™t have nothing to worry about but coming in and learning our plays and thinking about what we need to do to get better as a team.â€
Plus, Ravens coach Brian Billickâ€™s future isnâ€™t a conversation topic this year after signing a multi-million dollar extension during the offseason that has him under contract through 2010.
â€œItâ€™s going to be a smooth transition this year,â€ tight end Todd Heap said. â€œWe donâ€™t have much to worry about. Obviously, we had a great year last year and our expectations are just as high this year, if not higher. Ask any of the guys, weâ€™re itching to go.â€
One year ago, Baltimore was coming off a 6-10 campaign and a last-place finish in the division. Now, the Ravens face heightened stakes as the consensus favorite to repeat in the AFC North. Theyâ€™re regarded as a Super Bowl darkhorse by a few oddsmakers who havenâ€™t already crowned the New England Patriots.
After not winning a playoff game since the 2001 season, the Ravens hope their final destination this year is Arizona, the site of the Super Bowl.
â€œIf you donâ€™t get to the Super Bowl, your year is a bust no matter what your record is,â€ Wilcox said. â€œYou play this game for one reason and one reason only: to get to that championship game, win it and bring that trophy home.â€
The Ravens are banking on executing a breakaway run behind a new offensive centerpiece in McGahee, the $40 million man they acquired in a trade from the Buffalo Bills.
After slumping to 25th in the NFL in rushing last season, the Ravens are counting on McGahee breathing life into a dormant running game as theyâ€™ll emphasize a one-back formation and the outside runs heâ€™s comfortable with.
The first major adjustment for McGahee will be getting acclimated to an altogether different philosophy toward training camp. This will be his first â€œClub Billick,â€ a decidedly veteran-friendly environment that features short workouts that are light on contact drills and designed to keep players rested and healthy.
McGahee has already been filled in on that reputation, including how veteran players are allowed to leave camp and spend the night at home after the first few days of practice.
â€œThey say itâ€™s pretty cool and laidback, but Iâ€™ve got to see it for myself,â€ McGahee said. â€œIn Buffalo, we hit every day. Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m used to, so it will be a big change for me.â€
Besides getting All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden back on the field as he recovers from a turf toe injury thatâ€™s expected to have him open camp on the physically unable to perform list, the Ravens are expected to utilize camp to settle several competitions.
Thereâ€™s Chris Chester versus first-round pick Ben Grubbs at right guard, or Chester vying with veteran Mike Flynn at center.
Thereâ€™s return specialist B.J. Sams trying to hold off rookie speedster Yamon Figurs.
And heated battles are about to ensue for nickel and dime duties in the secondary, situational pass rusher and the fourth wide receiver spot.
With quarterback Steve McNair entering his second season under center, though, the Ravens are striking a confident stance despite a more challenging schedule.
â€œI think weâ€™re going to start off much quicker this year,â€ Heap said. â€œThatâ€™s the name of the game in the NFL. You have to get off to a fast start, especially looking at our schedule.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.