Long before linebacker Ray Lewis decided it was his time to walk away from the hard-hitting game he had become the face of, teammate Terrell Suggs started to realize that time was running out.
Not just for Lewis, but for himself and many of his Baltimore Ravens teammates.
Last season, as Suggs chased down quarterbacks in a bid for his first Lombardi Trophy, he spoke more than once about how the window to achieve that “football immortality” was slowly sliding shut.
On Friday, as Lewis sat at his locker at the team’s practice facility for possibly the last time, the only urgency Suggs showed was in escaping the locker room. But reminded by a reporter about his past comments about the team’s championship window and asked whether the retirement of Lewis, whom he called a brother, hammered that point home, the 30-year-old stopped and nodded.
“The window is closing. You don’t want to have to rebuild, especially on the defense. That’s the center of it. Before him and after him, there will never be another one like him, so if we don’t get it done this year . . . aaaagh!” Suggs said, disappearing into the showers. “And you can quote that. Aaaagh!”
Lewis is strapped in for one more ride toward the Super Bowl, and the roller-coaster career of safety Ed Reed could come to an end at any moment. But the Ravens are hopeful Suggs is exaggerating when he says their window to contend for titles is on the verge of slamming shut. They believe they have a stable quarterback in Joe Flacco, along with a fine core of players in or entering their primes, and they have a strong history of finding talent in the draft. And while his leadership will be missed, Lewis leaves a tradition of winning that should continue.
“We’ll deal with next year when next year comes, but we have a lot of young talent,” tight end Ed Dickson said. “With Ray not being out there, we are going to miss him dearly. But we as young guys have to pick up the slack. We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to be good for years to come.”
For now, the Ravens (10-6) are trying to maintain their focus during an emotional week. Lewis, who is expected to return from his torn right triceps and play in Sunday’s first-round playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts (11-5), stunned teammates Wednesday by announcing that he would retire at season’s end, saying, “This will be my last ride.”
Lewis is the only current Ravens player to have bathed in confetti after a Super Bowl victory. But the team is making its fifth straight playoff appearance, and 32 of the 53 players on the active roster have been in the postseason every year of their career.
“You have veteran leadership. You have all the right coaches. You have all the right players, the right schemes,” linebacker Paul Kruger said of that success. “It’s hard to say exactly what it is. But, in my opinion, it’s a combination of all those very different things.”
The most important of all those things when it comes to keeping the window open, in the opinion of former talent evaluator Gil Brandt, is having a quality quarterback.
“The challenge starts with the quarterback,” said Brandt, who as vice president of player personnel helped the Dallas Cowboys become playoff mainstays in the 1970s and 1980s and win two Super Bowls. “When you have a guy like Flacco on your team, who I think is pretty good, I think the window is a lot more open than you think it is.”
Flacco is the first quarterback in NFL history to steer his team to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons. He had another maddeningly inconsistent regular season but still established career highs in completions (317) and passing yards (3,817). With 22 touchdown passes, it was his fourth straight season with 20 or more, and his 10 interceptions tied a career low.
A win over the Colts on Sunday would give Flacco as many career postseason victories (six) as former quarterbacks Johnny Unitas, Phil Simms, Joe Theismann, Bob Griese and Fran Tarkenton.
In last year’s run to the AFC championship game, Flacco put up the best postseason statistics of his career, throwing for 482 yards and four touchdowns in two games and finishing with a 96.1 playoff passer rating. He outperformed New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady — at least statistically — in the title-game loss, proving that he is capable of elevating his game in January.
But there has been turbulence around the team this season. With Lewis, Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata sidelined or slowed by injury, the Ravens defense allowed more yards (350.9 per game) than it had since the team’s inaugural season in 1996. And after the high-octane offense sputtered, coordinator Cam Cameron was fired during a late three-game losing streak.
On Thursday, Flacco was asked about the critics who say that time is running out for these Ravens.
“It’s cool with me,” he said. “We feel all the urgency in the world. We want to go out there and we want to win a Super Bowl this year, just like we wanted to last year, just like we wanted to the year before. Having said that, I hope this isn’t my last year of football. I hope I play 15 to 20 years, so the window’s never closing. We’re going to be here for the long haul, but yes, we need to have some urgency and we feel that sense of urgency that we need to get it done this year.”
If the Ravens fall short of reaching the Super Bowl again this year, they will join the Minnesota Vikings (1996-2000) and Miami Dolphins (1997-2001) as the only teams since they arrived in 1996 to make five consecutive playoff appearances without playing in a Super Bowl.
Ravens center Matt Birk was on some of those Vikings teams.
“You see what it takes to get into the playoffs and have a chance at getting to the Super Bowl. It takes a lot of work just to have a chance,” he said. “That’s what I took from it. Every year is a new year. One year we were 11-5 and the next we were 5-11. That’s how quickly it can change.”