The way things are going, you have to wonder if the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens' season opener is going to be a celebration or a wake.
The offseason decimation of the Ravens kept going Wednesday when free-agent safety Ed Reed, a guy who has Hall of Fame practically written on his résumé, agreed to join the Texans. Like Ray Lewis, who has retired, Reed wasn't just some extra playing a part. He was a core player for a team that has gone to the playoffs five straight seasons.
But as Baltimore owner Steve Bisciotti, top executives Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh strolled the grounds of the Arizona Biltmore resort in Phoenix this week, dire concern didn't seem to be an issue.
Yeah, Lewis and Reed are gone. So too are center Matt Birk (retired), wide receiver Anquan Boldin (traded), defenders Paul Kruger, Danell Ellerbe and Cary Williams (all departing via free agency) and safety Bernard Pollard (released). Next out the door could be free-agent left tackle Bryant McKinnie.
While this may be jarring to outsiders, it's par for the course for Baltimore's brass.
"People forget, we lost six [important players] in free agency last year," DeCosta said this week, referring to the likes of defensive lineman Cory Redding, linebacker Jarret Johnson and guard Ben Grubbs. "We lost five the year before. This is what happens."
Of course, there is a big difference between losing people like Lewis and the 34-year-old Reed compared to Redding and Grubbs the year before. While Lewis was a shadow of his former self physically, his knowledge of the game and leadership were obviously important for righting a defense in the postseason that struggled at various times in the regular season.
Reed has declined as a tackler, but is still a ballhawk who came up with an interception in the Super Bowl against San Francisco.
The problem is that trying to keep the band together after a Super Bowl is a temptation that has backfired on the Ravens in the past. After winning the title in the 2000 season, the Ravens overpaid to keep guys like Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams. The result was that despite have one of the great defenses of that era, the Ravens made the playoffs only twice over the five years after the title, winning only one playoff game.
Moreover, this is the cost of having a franchise quarterback in Joe Flacco, who the Ravens just had to re-sign for a six-year, $120.6 million contract. Or as Harbaugh put it this week, "That's a problem most people would like to have."
Bottom line is that despite all the departures, what the Ravens still have is Newsome, who may be the best talent evaluator in the NFL and has a fine staff with him in DeCosta, George Kokinis and Pat Moriarty.
Yes, the Ravens are likely to take a step back next year. However, they probably would have even if they had tried to keep Reed, Kruger and Ellerbe. The difference is that the Ravens have a nucleus that includes Flacco, running back Ray Rice, wide receiver Torrey Smith, linebacker Terrell Suggs, nose tackle Haloti Ngata, tight end Dennis Pitta, guard Marshal Yanda and offensive tackle Michael Oher.
If you overpay to keep Reed, Kruger and Ellerbe, you eventually lose two or three of the other group and that's a bad tradeoff for the long-term health of the team.
This is a team with an idea about how to be good for the long-term, not just one or two seasons.
"It's like in Proverbs," Harbaugh said. "Where there is no vision, people perish … I think the players we have are smart. They're going to listen to the situation and understand that someone is going to have to step in and take advantage of an opportunity and they're going to be excited to play. It's either that or not do well and I don't expect us to not do well."
So don't bury the Ravens just yet.
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