OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s too early in training camp for an identity crisis, but it’s also far too soon to know for sure who or what the Baltimore Ravens are going to be in 2016. Will they be the playoff perennial that before last season qualified for the postseason in six of coach John Harbaugh’s first seven years on the job? Or something closer to the aging and injury-decimated club that started 42 different players last season and hit rock-bottom by Baltimore standards, finishing 5–11 for the franchise worst season since 2007?
Somewhere in between is always a good guess, of course, but a visit to Ravens camp somewhat oddly finds the newcomers to the team the most convinced that last year’s downturn was just a blip produced by Baltimore’s almost comically bad luck with health. If you want to know why the Ravens will be back this season, give a listen to veteran safety Eric Weddle, signed away from San Diego as Baltimore’s centerpiece free agency acquisition:
“It’s a championship organization from the top down, and it’s just run a different way, with everyone working in the right direction with one goal in mind,” Weddle said Monday, after a morning practice in full pads. “The Ravens are always in the playoffs. They always win. They play tough, smart, physical football, and last year was an anomaly I believe, with all their guys going down. Every team goes through it, but they didn’t handle it well. Then again, it’s hard to deal with it when your quarterback goes out, your top receiver goes out, and your best pass rusher goes out. Those are your best players.
“But we’re all getting healthy and we’ve added a couple of dimensions. I look at this team and there’s no reason why we can’t have a bounce-back year and go challenge for a championship. Hopefully it’s going to be a special season.”
One of those added new dimensions, veteran deep threat receiver Mike Wallace, likens the vibe in Baltimore to his winning seasons in Pittsburgh, where the expectation was always postseason-level. Wallace believes that mentality survives one-year aberrations.
“They just know football here, and there are no games being played,” he said. “When you come here, you’ve got to work, and it’s the kind of competitive environment where you can’t ever take a day off. So much is the same as in Pittsburgh really, and that’s one reason I feel so comfortable here. I’ve been here before, but I haven’t been here before. It’s just different colors now.”
But will the Ravens be the Ravens again? Will Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil come all the way back from injuries and supply the pass rush again? Will quarterback Joe Flacco be as good as he has looked so far in camp, coming off of last year’s knee injury? Will Steve Smith return to supply his brand of tenacity and play-making to the receiving corps? And will vets like Weddle, Wallace and tight end Benjamin Watson seed the roster with proven talents who can make a difference in the season’s second half, when the AFC North race takes shape?
There are a lot of questions that Harbaugh admits he has no answers for at the moment. “We’ve got a lot of good young players, and we’ve got a good core,” he said. “The real question for us is who’s going to step up and make the plays to win the game? Which of these young guys is going to become that kind of player? And are the injured vets going to be the same players they were? That’s really what it boils down to for us. How the whole thing comes together is what we’ll find out.”
We’re used to knowing who the Ravens are, and what they’ll roughly do in the rough and tumble AFC North. But last year’s swoon changed that perception, and now it’s time to discover if it was a lasting or temporary development.
More News and Notes from Ravens camp
• Even though Weddle just got here, Harbaugh loves him so much he’d clone him if he could. Chat with the safety for longer than 30 seconds and you get the sense that he’s the quintessential Ravens-type player. His leadership and all-business approach is going to pay big dividends in a Baltimore secondary that was lost last season, and the hiring of Leslie Frazier as the Ravens defensive backs coach was another huge upgrade.
“He’s more than just a beard,” quipped Harbaugh. “This guy’s just the real deal. We were working out this morning at the same time, and we’re laughing and talking about our team and our defenses, just getting to know each other. I didn’t really know him, but he’s the perfect player for us. He fits us so well.”
From Rod Woodson to Trevor Pryce to Steve Smith, Baltimore has always had the knack for getting a few more good years out of a veteran player who has already been very successful elsewhere. It may not last long, but the Ravens and Weddle, 31, are a great marriage that will make for some happy memories in purple.
• Flacco looks positively locked in, and everyone seems to think he’s headed for a big comeback performance after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee in late November. His connection with new receivers Wallace and Watson has been on the upswing of late, and even if he doesn’t play against visiting Carolina in the Ravens’ preseason opener Thursday night for precautionary reasons, there’s a buzz of optimism surrounding Baltimore’s ninth-year quarterback.
“Flacco looks great, and it’s pretty impressive seeing the throws he can make,” Weddle said. “I’m just not used to it being nine years in San Diego. There were some throws (Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers) couldn’t make, but he’d make up for it because he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the game. But Flacco can just make amazing throws with his arm strength and accuracy.”
Last year’s miseries have added a level of hunger to Flacco’s game, and elsewhere in the Ravens organization.
“There’s definitely around the building, I don’t know if it’s added motivation, but a feeling of a little bit of chippiness and having a bit of edge to us,” Flacco said. “So you can definitely feel that we’re excited about getting out there and getting after it.”
• Ex-Brown Terrance West appears to be in the pole position in the Ravens' competition at running back, and the ex-Towson State star looks up to the task of being a physical and pounding backfield presence for Baltimore. Veteran Justin Forsett is in the mix, too, but you might want to take a late-round fantasy football flyer on rookie fourth-round rusher Kenneth Dixon, who could work his way onto the field by the second half of the season. There’s some excitement about Dixon within the building and one Ravens observer predicted to me he’d be the team’s leading rusher by next season.
• The Ravens really want sixth-rounder Keenan Reynolds to make this team as a receiver-return man, but the former Navy quarterback and local hero hasn’t assured himself of anything yet. Baltimore loves his elusiveness when he has the ball in his hands, but he hasn’t caught as well as the team hoped, and there’s still plenty of work to be done in his transition to return man as well.
I’d be surprised if Baltimore exposed him to waivers in an attempt to get him to its practice squad, because someone like New England’s Bill Belichick would likely snap him up, but Reynolds hasn’t secured himself a roster spot yet.
• Veteran tight end Dennis Pitta has played just seven games in the past three years due to his hip injuries, but there are no concerns on that front thus far in camp. He has missed some practice time with a finger injury in the past week, but Pitta looks solid and ready to again be one of Flacco’s favorite targets. Between Watson, Pitta, second-year man Maxx Williams and third-year vet Crockett Gillmore, the Ravens have some serious size and depth at tight end.
Five Questions with... Keenan Reynolds, Ravens rookie receiver-return man
Q1: No one ever said transitioning from a touchdown-scoring machine as a Navy quarterback to an NFL receiver-return man would be easy. Has it been more difficult than you expected thus far?
KR: I knew it was going to be tough coming in. It was that way in the first practice of OTAs and in mini-camp. So training camp is nothing different. I’m just trying every day to improve on what I did the day before, and not repeat my mistakes. There’s been improvement, but it’s like looking at the stock market over the last 30 years. It has its ups and downs, but at the end of the day it’s higher than when it started. That’s kind of a good comparison for my NFL journey. You’ve got your good days, you’ve got your bad days, but I feel like I’m getting better than when I first stepped on the field.
Q2: Does being in this market, so close to where you made your name in college, add to the pressure of trying to make this team?
KR: Pressure’s inevitable in this sport, especially at this level. You have to be able to deal with it and continue to do your job. So it’s no excuse or a crutch or anything. It is what it is. I went to school 40 minutes away, and lot of people know who I am around this area and that’s just how it is. That doesn’t stop me from coming out here and making the plays I need to make and learn how to be a better receiver each and every day.
Q3: What are you going to feel Thursday night when you put that Ravens uniform on for the first time and see NFC defending champion Carolina on the visiting sideline in Baltimore’s preseason opener?
KR: It’s going to be cool to see Cam Newton in person. I haven’t seen him in person. But it’s just football. You go out and play football.
Q4: What’s been the toughest thing to learn about being a receiver?
KR: It’s the technique of being a receiver, what works. For years and years I worked on perfecting the technique of throwing the football, being a quarterback. Now I’ve got to work just as hard on the technique of being a receiver. It’s just repetition. It’s a process. I’m enjoying it though. It’s a lot of fun being back here.
Q5: Do you believe you’re going to make this team as a sixth-round pick and be a Raven?
KR: Absolutely. I believe in myself and I believe I can make this team. It’s going to take a whole lot of work, and it’s going to be tough, but if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect to accomplish anything?
Biggest Turnaround: A big second season for offensive coordinator Marc Trestman
Being part of the Ravens in 2015 wasn't an easy situation in any capacity, but new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman had a particularly tough debut season, trying to learn how to teach a Ravens offense he was unfamiliar with while it was being systematically decimated by injuries. The former Bears head coach faces a bit of a prove-it year this time around, but Harbaugh told me he’s confident Trestman is up to the task and will be so much more comfortable in year two.
“It was probably a bigger, tougher transition to bridge than I thought it was going to be, or hoping it would be,” Harbaugh said. “If Marc had come in here and rolled his offense out, it would have been a lot easier for him. But I didn’t allow him to do that. Marc was in a way tougher situation than (2014 Ravens offensive coordinator Gary) Kubiak was in, because it was Gary’s offense.
“So what we’ve been able to do now, going through the off-season, is we’ve built our own offense, Marc and I, along with (quarterbacks coach) Marty (Mornhinweg). We’ve spent hours sifting through every detail of what we want to be and how we want to play. Marc is a smart, knowledgeable, gifted guy. Is he able to put it all together? We’ll see, but I like the way the offense is built a lot.”
It’s not all on Trestman’s shoulders, but this offense has to take a sizable step forward this season, or more change might be in the offing at coordinator.
Drawing Some Buzz: Rookie linebacker Kamalei Correa
Everyone in Ravens camp smiles when you bring up Correa, the team’s hyper-active second-round pick out of Boise State. He’s 6' 3", 250-pounds, and plays—and I always love this football term—as if his hair is on fire. He runs to the ball relentlessly, and adds some needed energy and edgy attitude to Baltimore’s defense, the kind the Ravens used to be known for in the Ray Lewis-Ed Reed era.
The normally mild-mannered Joe Flacco even had to get in the rookie’s facemask at one point during a recent practice, telling him to tone it down a bit after he got a little too physical with receiver Wallace. Correa didn’t back down, but he also was wise enough not to challenge The Franchise.
“Heck, yeah, you want those type of guys on that side of the ball,” Flacco said. “That’s what they have to do all day. It’s not about going out there and being shy. It’s about going out there and getting in people’s faces and being physical. We need that.”
Correa has been getting some reps with the first team and could wind up starting for the Ravens at inside linebacker, next to C.J. Mosley. Wherever he lines up, if he keeps playing at 100 miles per hour and finding the ballcarrier, Baltimore will make sure to get him on the field and leave him there.