Don't think the Ravens are in rebuilding mode
OWINGS MILLS, Md. - Most Super Bowl-winning coaches will solicit just about any piece of advice that might be helpful in dealing with the year after the championship season.
Not John Harbaugh.
The only man he consulted about what comes next is someone who never coached a day in the NFL.
"It's my dad," Harbaugh said, referring to Jack Harbaugh, a former high school and college coach who imparted his coaching lessons to John and brother Jim over a lifetime of experiences. "His thing is, 'Get ahead, stay ahead.' "
Sounds simple, but in a league that prides itself on parity, Super Bowl repeats are the exception, not the rule.
Staying ahead has proved a problem for all but a handful of NFL champions. There hasn't been a repeat winner since the 2003-04 Patriots, and only eight teams have won back-to-back titles in the XLVII-year history of the Super Bowl.
The Ravens' offseason roster makeover suggests the Ravens will be hard-pressed to become the ninth to do it, especially after one considers just how many key players are gone from last season's team. Start with Ray Lewis, who retired after a 17-year career that will land him in the Hall of Fame. Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed is gone, too, after the Ravens declined to re-sign him and let him go to the Texans as a free agent.
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and defensive end/linebacker Paul Kruger, two of the most important contributors on last year's defense, signed lucrative free-agent deals with the Dolphins and Browns, respectively. Hard-hitting safety Bernard Pollard signed with the Titans.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, one of quarterback Joe Flacco's favorite targets in the playoffs, was traded to the 49ers after the Ravens couldn't agree on a contract restructuring.
All big losses, but all creating the kind of opportunities Jack Harbaugh told his son about.
"Basically what he's saying is that every move you make is to advance your team as far as you possibly can," John Harbaugh said. "Even when you lose somebody, what does that mean in terms of what you can add? You take a loss like Anquan or whoever else, and it's what can we add in place of that to get further down the road? So what you try and do is add as many players as you can and try and be as good as you can get. Don't look at what you've lost, but look at what you can do to get better. That's the part about staying ahead that he's talking about."
It has been a painstakingly careful operation, orchestrated in tandem by Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome, one of the shrewdest talent evaluators in the game and the architect of the Ravens' two Super Bowl teams in 2000 and 2012.
Faced with the daunting challenge of re-signing Flacco, the Super Bowl MVP, to a contract that would exceed $120 million, the Ravens had to navigate the tricky waters of the salary cap and free agency to offset the losses with solid roster additions.
But for Harbaugh, it doesn't feel all that different from other seasons in which there was significant roster turnover.
"The Todd Heaps and the Derrick Masons and the Kelly Greggs and on and on," Harbaugh said, referring to some of the established players who moved on from the Ravens during his five-year tenure in Baltimore. "Seems like every year, we lose four or five guys, and everyone thinks the sky is falling. But we get young guys to step up and play well."
The challenge seems bigger this year, though, and certainly the degree of difficulty is greater in terms of replacing the players who moved on. Yet the patient retooling of the roster leaves this team in what might be an even better position than when they left off after John beat brother Jim's 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
The Ravens replaced Lewis with former Jaguars inside linebacker Daryl Smith, an unsung player who has picked up the Ravens' scheme quickly.
First-round safety Matt Elam is Reed's heir apparent, although he'll need some time to become acclimated to the pro game. But free agent Michael Huff has looked terrific in training camp. He's younger and cheaper than Reed, whose play tailed off near the end of last season.
Former Giants defensive tackle Chris Canty was signed as a defensive end for Baltimore's 3-4 scheme. He'll play alongside All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
After losing Kruger, who was the team's best pass rusher in the playoffs last year, Newsome plucked linebacker Elvis Dumervil from Denver after a paperwork mishap prevented the Broncos from signing him to a new contract. The timing was fortuitous, and Newsome pounced on the chance to acquire him.
The roster shuffling continued this past week when Newsome signed veteran slot receiver Brandon Stokley, who was with the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl team, and longtime Colts tight end Dallas Clark, who will help fill in for the injury-related absence of emerging young tight end Dennis Pitta.
The net result is a roster that gives Harbaugh a legitimate chance to contend for another title. In fact, the dynamic created by the influx of younger players could be just what the Ravens need to produce the energy required for the challenge ahead.
"I think we've gotten the most we could get done because of how hard the guys have worked and how good the attitude has been," Harbaugh said. "We've had just a tremendous camp. We're as far down the road right now as we can be. What that means, we'll find out."