The Baltimore Ravens reported for training camp Sunday afternoon and found their head coach sporting a new look -- a full and mostly gray beard -- and promising a new identity for the team.
Running back Jamal Lewis and wide receiver Mark Clayton were the only no-shows as players checked into the team hotel in Westminster, Md. Lewis is expected to be released on Tuesday from the Atlanta halfway house where he is completing the final part of a federal drug sentence and will travel to Westminster on Thursday. Clayton, Baltimore's first-round draft pick, has yet to agree to a contract, though the Ravens are hopeful that will happen soon.
A year ago, the Ravens opened training camp as the defending division champions and talked openly of their Super Bowl ambitions. They fell well short. The Ravens lost four of their last six games amid reports of a divided locker room and wound up 9-7 and out of the playoffs. That poor finish still bothers some on the team.
"I'm sure it does to a degree for the players," Coach Brian Billick said. "I know it does for me, but you don't start camp with that mentality. We've spent an entire offseason addressing and looking very candidly at why that happened and addressing the reason for it. This team needs to move forward very aggressively. We're very proud of the legacy we have here, but this team's going to have a new identity, it really is. It's different than any team we've had."
Unlike last year, when Baltimore brought back 21 of 22 starters from its 2003 AFC North Division championship team, the Ravens have made several high-profile changes. Jim Fassel, who spent last season as a senior consultant to the offense, takes over as offensive coordinator. Rex Ryan, the son of former NFL coach Buddy Ryan, is the new defensive coordinator.
The Ravens brought in a proven number one wide receiver when they signed free agent Derrick Mason, who has 191 catches over the past two seasons (second-most in the NFL behind Torry Holt's 211). They lost cornerback Gary Baxter to the Cleveland Browns, but replaced him with veteran Samari Rolle. Linebacker Tommy Polley and guard Keydrick Vincent were signed as free agents and will likely start.
"I think we're a better football team than we were last year, in every sense," said Billick, whose team travels to Atlanta on Aug. 13 for its first preseason game. "This could very well be the best football team we've had since I've been here, which in essence says that we think we are capable, playoff, Super Bowl-caliber team. However, we did not make the playoffs last year. We don't have the right to talk in those terms. We've got a lot of work to do."
"There's definitely a little bit of urgency," defensive end Tony Weaver said. "We have all the talent in the world. But at the same time, we need some luck too. We need guys to stay healthy."
The Ravens are among the last teams to open training camp, and they break camp on Aug. 19, one day before their second preseason game. Billick said that this will be a "specialized" camp, with different responsibilities for different players. Some veterans, for instance, will not have to participate in afternoon sessions.
Linebacker Dan Cody, the Ravens' second-round pick, tackle Adam Terry (second round), and center Jason Brown (fourth round) agreed to terms over the weekend, which left Clayton -- the 22nd overall pick in the draft -- as the only unsigned rookie.
Billick expressed surprise at Clayton's absence, considering that the former Oklahoma standout had repeatedly told reporters he planned on being on time for camp. Cornerback Fabian Washington, who was taken 23rd overall, signed with the Oakland Raiders earlier in the week, and under the NFL's unofficial slotting system, Clayton should receive a slightly richer contract than Washington's five-year, $7.8 million deal.
"Hopefully he'll get in quickly," Billick said of Clayton. "With a quick, short, aggressive camp, this is like the summer school class you took where you condense eight weeks into four. If you miss one of those classes, you've missed a lot. If you miss one of these workouts, you've missed a lot."
Ravens Notes: Lewis will spend Thursday, Friday and Saturday working out with trainer Bill Tessendorf and strength and conditioning coach Jeff Friday, which means that he will not participate in the Ravens' scrimmage Saturday against the Washington Redskins. His first practice with the team will be Aug. 8. Billick said it's his understanding that Lewis, who missed all of the offseason minicamps, is in "outstanding" condition. . . . Tight end Todd Heap (offseason ankle and shoulder surgery) and backup running back Musa Smith (broken leg in Nov. 2004) will start camp on the physically unable to perform list. Heap is expected to miss the first two weeks of camp, but could be activated in time for the Ravens' second preseason game, on Aug. 20. Lewis will likely be added to the list when he reports. . . . Two Baltimore media outlets have been running online polls regarding Billick's beard. The results have been mixed. Said Billick, "We're going to see about the weather. The weather is a good indicator of how long this stays on. You all say no, my wife says yes. The yeas have it."