This isn’t an Earth-shattering observation, but getting back is hard. The Ravens had the 29th pick in last month’s an NFL Draft, a simple but effective reminder they were more succcessful than 28 of the NFL’s other 31 teams last year. They probably won’t be in 2012.
In my last light-on-actual-analysis post, I summarized my feelings toward the Ravens’ 2011 campaign as “acceptance.” Ozzie Newsome built, and John Harbaugh coached, a championship-quality team. It just didn’t win a championship. But that was 2011; we’re now firmly in 2012.
Perspective-filled Ravens fans understood this, I think, the second Cundiff’s kick sailed wide. In that early February post, I wrote: “I know some smart people have pointed out this team isn’t nearly as old as the presence of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed make it seem, but opportunities like this just don’t come around that often. Joe Flacco, Torrey Smith, Ladarius Webb and all the Ravens’ other very talented young players could keep improving and never again reach the NFL’s final four. The Ravens are also unlikely to play many more divisional-round games against T.J. Yates.”
The Ravens weren’t “lucky” last season. They finished 7th in DVOA, won games we didn’t know they could win (at Pittsburgh, with Ben Roethlisberger playing) and churned out workman-like wins in games they should’ve. But they did play one of the easier schedules in the league and, not coincidentally, an easy slate of quarterbacks — Roethlisberger twice, Matt Schaub (and not in the playoffs), Philip Rivers, and that’s about it.
Next year, they’ll face the fourth-hardest schedule in the league, and matchups with not only the above three quarterbacks but also Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Michael Vick, and Tony Romo, although there’s always the chance Peyton and Vick get hurt and Romo misses a game-clinching throw to Miles Austin. The Ravens’ pass defense was actually the best in the league last year (and pretty well contained the league’s third-best passing offense in an AFC championship contest few thought they’d win), but the Chargers game exposed their relative weakness vs. big wide receivers who have competent quarterbacks throwing to them.
Man games lost stats don’t appear readily available for the NFL (or maybe I’m just terrible at Google searches), but the Ravens were also remarkably healthy last season. Anquan Boldin missed a few games, Ray Lewis missed a few games, but all the essentials remained mostly intact. Tyrod Taylor was never pushed into meaningful action; Ed Reed’s body managed to generally hold up for another season; Ricky Williams never had to start a game.
As the only major book ever written about the Ravens explains, Next Man Up is simply the way of life in the NFL. And the Ravens are probably better equipped than most franchises to deal with that reality. But there is no Next Man Up for every spot on a roster. For a defense that prided itself last season on a rediscovered ability to make opposing quarterbacks’ lives hell, there is no Next Man Up for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
This isn’t the Ravens’ fault. Nor, even if he was playing basketball (what do you want to do, lock athletes in cages during the offseason), is it Terrell Suggs’ fault. Shit — like a Pro Bowl kicker missing a 32-yard field goal — happens. But last year, right through the moment the best quarterback in the NFL decided launching a half-field bomb into double coverage toward one of his worst receivers was a good plan, shit didn’t really happen to the Ravens.
“Wait till next year” is probably one of the more inane sports idioms in existence. Next year, frankly, usually never happens; getting to this year is hard enough. Maryland winning the national championship the year after blowing a 22-point lead in the Final Four is the anomaly; Roger Federer never getting another crack at Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon is the rule. The only thing more difficult than a soul-crushing defeat is the realization you might never get a chance to avenge it.
A few months ago, I characterized my feelings toward the Ravens’ 2011 campaign as “acceptance.” Now, heading into the 2012 season, it’s “fear.” It’s the fear that Reed and Suggs and Ngata will never get their rings; it’s the fear that 2011 was the Ravens’ last, best chance.