|The Ravens have made Joe Flacco an extension offer, but the QB is waiting to sign. (US Presswire)|
The Baltimore Ravens were one dropped pass from going to the Super Bowl last season but they realize they have to start all over again in 2012.
"Nothing is guaranteed, and the only thing that will take the bitter taste of that game away is winning games one at a time until we get to the top," running back Ray Rice said. "When you spend a day with the Ravens it is about getting to and winning a Super Bowl."
Newcomer Jacoby Jones said, "From the second I got here the difference between the Ravens and the Texans is the Ravens always talk about reaching the Super Bowl and my old team talked about getting to the playoffs."
The 2012 journey is officially under way.
No team rolls out the red carpet for my camp visit like the Ravens. There are other great stops along the way but in Baltimore it started with walking the sideline at practice with owner Steve Bisciotti, followed by a long sit-down.
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"We have to embrace our failures as well as our successes and learn from them," Bisciotti said. "They will make us stronger."
During practice Joe Flacco came off the field right in front of us and asked, "How are you feeling Steve? How's the back?"
There is a special bond between this team and the owner, which I later saw again when Rice and Bisciotti sat down with me and shared their vision for 2012.
There are a number of questions that have to be answered this summer in order to make sure the Ravens are back on the only path they care to be on ... the road to New Orleans in February.
1. How do the Ravens replace the missing pass rush?
Terrell Suggs is probably out for 2012. A number of players that contributed to the AFC's top sack team also moved on in free agency -- 23 of the 49 sacks recorded last year in the regular season and playoffs were by players not on the 2012 roster. That same group, led by Suggs, also forced nine fumbles. After my camp visit it's clear that Paul Kruger and rookie Courtney Upshaw need to try and match the 16½ sacks Suggs and Jarrett Johnson produced. Kruger didn't play any significant time in run situations and Upshaw is learning to play in a two-point stance. Upshaw said he is getting more comfortable in his zone drops but he also missed seven straight practices. In his first day back he made a few excellent plays in coverage but is at his best in third-down situations when he puts his hand on the ground to rush the passer. Upshaw said he came to camp at 290 pounds but has his weight down to 278 and he looks great. Haloti Ngata told me early in camp he fell into the trap of thinking he had to do more to overcome the loss of Suggs but now realizes he has to just do his job. It's clear the defense is adjusting to Suggs' absence and in the end they may need more pressure calls from players like slot corner Lardarius Webb in nickel defense.
2. Is it time to give Flacco a new contract?
There is no doubt the Ravens from Bisciotti on down recognize that Flacco is their franchise quarterback and they feel like they have a very good offer on the table. I doubt they will raise that offer significantly between now and the end of the season. One Ravens executive said, "We might have some fans that will criticize us for the offer we have on the table because it's too much." I asked Flacco about the situation and he convinced me his focus right now is football and the deal will get done in good time. If he has a great season the Ravens are prepared to raise their offer, but if he doesn't the deal on the table now or a franchise tag will be the option. After watching Flacco practice I think he's on his way to a very successful season. That being said, I would hate to see him risk injury this season and miss out on the deal sitting there.
3. What part of the Ravens' offense impressed me the most?
From Flacco to Ed Dickson to Torrey Smith, there is real excitement about how good this team can be in the no-huddle. Baltimore has a chance to have a similar attack package that the Patriots use. When this offense gets in its 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) it can really present problems for any defense. Young tight ends Dickson and Dennis Pitta can both block and flex as slot receivers, causing matchup problems for a base defense. They caught 94 passes last year and are on their way to over 100 this year. At practice the offense featured the no-huddle, two-minute package and it was effective, especially if defenses overplay the passing game and let Rice dominate.
4. What about the Ravens' roster depth?
Baltimore only has three players not available for practice: WR David Reed, OL Jah Reid (both on the PUP list) and Suggs, on the non-football injury list. But they have a large number of players unable to practice from day to day, allowing a number of young backups that normally might be on the scout team an opportunity to show what they can do. I have to say more than a few of these backups jumped out at me during practice and it is worth keeping an eye on them in the preseason. Gino Gradkowski is working at center for Matt Birk and even Ngata was impressed with the rookie's tenacity. Flacco alerted me to WR Deonte Thompson, a free agent from Florida, and he looked like a keeper in practice. TE Davon Drew is getting work because of a broken hand to Pitta and he moves well for a 6-foot-4, 260-pound player, especially down the seams. With Bryant McKinnie still not ready to practice fully because of his conditioning, second-round pick Kelechi Osemele has looked outstanding at right tackle as the team moved Michael Oher back over to left tackle. K.O., as he is called by his teammates, has power and he can lock out a pass rusher and neutralize a rush. Other players like RB Bobby Rainey and DE Arthur Jones also caught my eye. I was impressed with the back end of the Ravens' roster.
5. Is Ray Lewis' successor as leader being nurtured now?
Lewis, maybe the most visible team leader in the NFL, can't play forever. He leads by example, and his preparation and film study are legendary, and he is fighting Father Time as hard as anyone. He rides his bicycle 50 miles a day in the offseason, trimming down to stay as quick as possible. Bisciotti told me when he was in Florida he went to pick up Lewis for dinner and a member of the family said Lewis wasn't back from his third workout of the day and Bisciotti would have to wait. Lewis will lead this team once again in 2012, but who is the heir apparent? Flacco has his own style and will continue to do things his way to help the team. But it is clear to me that Rice is closing in on the inspirational leader role. Rice said with a big smile that he doesn't think he'll ever be able to do the Ray Lewis pregame routine on the field but he knows his day is coming and it comes with Lewis' blessing.