Here the Baltimore Ravens are, trying to rekindle their football mojo during this training camp after missing the NFL playoffs the past two seasons, their longest such drought in Coach John Harbaugh’s mostly prosperous tenure. And circumstances just don’t seem to be cooperating.
It’s not the way this was scripted. The players trudge ahead, doing their best to push all of that to the side.
“We hear that stuff,” veteran defensive back Lardarius Webb said. “But we kind of just don’t care about it. Whatever they want to do in this organization, we know that they’re gonna do 100 percent the correct thing. We just go out and play ball and try to get better. … We can’t have any distractions.”
Said tight end Benjamin Watson: “Training camp is kind of like a tunnel with a very, very small light [at the end]. As a matter of fact, right now there is no light. Our days are completely consumed with football from the time we wake up until the time we go to bed. More thought is put to what are we going to do every day in practice, what’s the install we’re doing, what’s our job, how can I do my job better? One thing as a football player, as a team, you kind of ignore the outside stuff. And that’s how it should be.
“That being said, obviously we see TV. We’re asked questions by the media. And we’re fine, at least I am, talking about those things. But our main focus is on playing football and doing my job.”
The Ravens made the playoffs six times in Harbaugh’s first seven seasons as their coach. They reached three AFC title games and won a Super Bowl. But the success has not come as easily of late. They struggled to a 5-11 record in 2015 and went 8-8 last season. They begin a new campaign with a Thursday night preseason game in Baltimore against the Washington Redskins.
“It was very surprising to the whole team,” said Webb, while standing on the field after a practice Saturday night at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, of last season’s failure to reach the postseason. “But I feel like it was our fault. We let a few earlier games put us in that situation.
“We should have never been in that situation. … Some of those teams weren’t supposed to beat us. I’m not gonna call some of those teams’ names out. But I thought that we were supposed to beat them. It came down to some tight situations. But we put ourselves in that situation, and we didn’t finish. So that’s gonna be the thing this year. We have to finish the game, finish the season, finish every rep. That’s where leaders come into play.”
The Ravens stayed in the playoff mix last season until a Christmas Day defeat at Pittsburgh. It was the Steelers, not the Ravens, who won the AFC North and ultimately emerged as the conference’s top challenger to the New England Patriots, advancing to the AFC championship game before losing in Foxborough, Mass.
“That was a tough way to get put out of the playoffs,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said in Annapolis. “But we know our potential every year. I can say a lot of things could have happened. But at the end of the day, we put ourselves in that situation. We did give ourselves a great chance. We didn’t finish the way we wanted to. We’ve got to do our best to make sure we don’t put ourselves in that same predicament this year.”
The push to get back to the franchise’s accustomed level of on-field success has made for an increased sense of urgency, according to Webb.
“I think it is a lot higher,” Webb said. “We’re just holding ourselves to a higher standard. We’ve been working our [butts] off, pushing for the last few years. But we just haven’t been able to finish and make the playoffs. So they’re just paying attention to every little thing now. We’ve kind of got a young team. All the veteran leadership that we do have has to step up.”
Things haven’t gotten any easier since the summer.
Cornerback Tavon Young and tight end Dennis Pitta suffered season-ending injuries during offseason practices. Tight end Darren Waller was suspended in June for at least one year for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Running back Kenneth Dixon suffered a season-ending knee injury in a workout before training camp. Center John Urschel abruptly retired. Tight end Crockett Gillmore suffered a season-ending knee injury in a training camp practice, and cornerback Maurice Canady underwent surgery for torn knee cartilage after being hurt in the same practice.
“Injuries happen, whether you’ve got the most injuries or the least injuries,” Mosley said. “It’s football and it’s life. You can’t prevent any of that.”
An ailing back has kept Flacco off the practice field throughout training camp. That has not led the Ravens to sign Kaepernick, the controversial quarterback who refused to stand for the national anthem before games last season, while with the San Francisco 49ers, to protest the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. While team officials have weighed the potential move, fans and media members have offered advice and opinions practically nonstop. The Ravens sought the input of Watson and other veteran players.
Backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, interception-prone at times on the training-camp practice field, has not always inspired confidence. Could a shaky performance by Mallett in Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Washington Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium convince the Ravens to sign Kaepernick? Either way, much depends on the sturdiness of Flacco’s back.
“The components are there,” Watson said of the team’s overall chances of a successful season. “But in order to win in this league, you have to have a cohesive unit. And that starts from the top all the way to the bottom. So that’s the process that we’re in now. We’re very positive about it and we do think we’re on the right track.”
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