A year ago, he also had a pair of future hall of famers in the locker room. This season, as Ravens camp opens, Flacco is still trying to learn all the new names and faces around him.
The defending Super Bowl champs look a lot different than the team that hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans less than six months ago.
“It’s good to have been there, it’s good to have experienced it,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday following the team’s first workout of the summer. “When you’ve been down the road, it certainly doesn’t hurt. You know the way. By the same token, we’ve got a number of guys who haven’t been there. We’ve got a lot of guys who are hungry because they haven’t been there before.”
Linebacker Ray Lewis is retired. Safety Ed Reed signed with Houston. Receiver Anquan Boldin left for San Francisco. In all, the Ravens lost nine starters from their Super Bowl XLVII roster — three on offense, six on defense. There are 49 players in camp who were not on the roster when the Ravens won the title. For the sake of comparison, defending NFC champion San Francisco opens camp this week without four starters from last season’s Super Bowl — two on offense and two on defense.
Baltimore’s losses struck the core of the team, on and off the field. Coaches will spend the next six weeks trying to figure out who replaces center Matt Birk. Can rookie Brandon Williams, a third-round pick out of Missouri Southern State, clog the middle of the defensive line? Will the addition of linebacker Elvis Dumervil help stem the bleeding on defense? Who plays opposite receiver Torrey Smith on offense, and will new additions like Michael Huff and rookie Matt Elam sufficiently bolster the secondary?
And what about away from the field? Harbaugh hopes those questions are not dominant storylines.
There were about four dozen reporters and television cameras at the Ravens’ first workout Tuesday. A TV crew from Canada asked Harbaugh how much he’s thought about who will become the face of the franchise.
“I’ve given it no thought whatsoever,” the coach said. “That’s a pretty general question. Who was the voice and face of the franchise?”
“Ray Lewis,” the reporter said.
“Okay, well, that’s your interpretation.”
More importantly, Harbaugh can take some comfort knowing that his quarterback is locked up through 2018. Flacco is already the Ravens’ all-time leading passer (17,633 yards in five seasons) and is the NFL’s winningest quarterback since 2008. ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski recently rated Flacco the fourth-best quarterback in the league, behind only New England’s Tom Brady, Denver’s Peyton Manning and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.
“It’s a great thing to have your quarterback in place,” Harbaugh said. “It’s very important. It’s a big advantage. Every team in the league is chasing that that doesn’t have it.”
While Flacco, 28, consistently shrugged off talk a year ago about where he ranks among the game’s best, this season brings with it new pressures. The new contract made him among the highest-paid players to ever throw a football, second only to Rodgers. Neither his new paycheck nor the shiny new trophy in the lobby area of the Ravens’ posh complex will impact his play, Flacco says.
“All we can do is go out there and keep winning, just as we have every year since we’ve been here. And not really worry about what people say, and what our expectations are and what the pressure is going to be,” he said. “Who really cares?
“I really can’t complain at this point. We won last year, I have a lot of money — or I’m going to get a lot of money — and we’re going to win football games. That’s the way it is around here. That’s what we want to be used to. We’re not going to apologize for acting like we’re a good football team. Yeah, our expectations are high. We don’t care if that comes with pressure.”
The Ravens’ Super Bowl celebration stretched from New Orleans to a parade through downtown Baltimore to a White House visit. But Harbaugh says his team knows training camp is a time to look forward. No one is wearing Nos. 20 (Reed) or No. 52 (Lewis) in camp, but during the next month someone will have to fill those roles.
“Every move we’ve made is what’s best for our football team to be the best team we can. Period. . . . We’ll just see where that takes us,” Harbaugh said. “I’m pretty excited about it. I think we can be a very good football team. But we have to prove it.”