Trash bags, crutches and goodbyes: As the Ravens season ends, optimism already plentiful for next season

Andrew Gillis

OWINGS MILLS, Md. - If there was a player that represented the Ravens' locker-cleanout day, it was Matt Skura

Skura, now a restricted free agent, stood at his locker with crutches under each of his arms and a brace on his left leg as he talked about the long road ahead for him returning to the field. He revealed during the interview he'd torn his ACL, MCL and PCL and also dislocated his kneecap in the team's Nov. 25 win over the Rams.

He also talked about hope and optimism. 

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The Ravens season ended far sooner than anyone had anticipated, and now they're left searching for answers about how a 14-2 team could have fallen so hard, so quickly.

But through the trash bags that carried items from each player's locker and the crutches that held up Skura and safety Tony Jefferson, a sense of optimism reigned supreme for a team that will return its coach and coordinators, as well as a majority of the offense.

"I love being here in Baltimore, and I think we have a bright future here with Lamar and the rest of the guys," Skura said, talking about his uncertain future. "And so we'll just see where the chips fall with that and just go from there."

Skura, the team's center, faces an uncertain future with the Ravens like a handful of other players at Sunday's breakdown day.

He's a restricted free agent, and with his knee injury he hopes will heal in time for training camp, next season is very much up in the air for him. 

The reality is the same for defensive linemen Michael Pierce and Jihad Ward, outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee and cornerback Jimmy Smith, just a few of the free agents the Ravens will have to make decisions on in the coming weeks and months. 

"Like I said, this is the only family I've known," said Pierce, who signed with the team as an undrafted free agent in 2016. "I would love for it to continue that way. But the NFL offseason is a beast in itself, so you've got to kind of take it as it goes. It's out of my hands at this point."

The reality of the NFL offseason, as it turns out, sets in quickly. 

About 16 hours before Pierce and a few others answered questions about what their futures held, they entered the AFC playoffs as the No. 1 seed, full of potential and, as it turned out, ripe for an upset. 

The Titans took control of Saturday's game from the jump and never looked back as the Ravens struggled to run the ball, defend the run and avoid mental mistakes in the team's first loss since September. 

"We just didn't play our game," left guard Bradley Bozeman said. "We didn't play up to our standard. Moving forward we'll work on that and make sure that never happens again."

Aside from the obvious players whose contracts had expired, there's always a few players who are under contract but still on the chopping block due to their cap number. Or, in the case of defensive back Brandon Carr, a team option leaves him with no power as to whether he'll be in Baltimore next season. 

"The ball's in their court," Carr said. "I'm always going to be ready and available. I'll keep myself in shape, and we shall see what happens."

Retirement questions will persist, too, as right guard Marshal Yanda is nearing the end of his brilliant career. He declined to answer questions about his future Saturday night. Defensive lineman Domata Peko Sr. said he'd like to try for a 15th season, but his contract is up and his future with the Ravens is very much in doubt. 

But beyond the uncertainty about the future and disappointment of a season that ended, everyone felt prematurely, existed a significant sense of optimism about the direction the team was headed. 

The Ravens set a franchise record for points in a season (531) and have every starter under contract next season - the exceptions being the potential return of Yanda and Skura.

"We don't really know what next year's team will be," Marlon Humphrey began. "I know we'll have 8 at quarterback. We signed some key guys already. I think there's still some gaps to fill and we'll see who we get in the draft and free agency, and go from there."

With Jackson at the helm on his rookie contract for three more seasons, the window for the Ravens to be aggressive in free agency in pursuit of a Super Bowl is wide open. 

The offense has its starting quarterback and No. 1 wide receiver, tight end, left tackle, left guard and right tackle on rookie contracts. It will get its coordinator, Greg Roman, back too. 

"There's a lot to look forward to," said Mark Andrews, who revealed he was battling a high-ankle sprain during the playoffs. "And obviously, it's hard to do that right now. But there's so much coming back like you said, and we have all the pieces. This is a young group. The sky's really the limit. I'm excited to get back here and start working again, to be honest with you."

The defense has a few pieces back, too, and re-upped Marcus Peters just a few months after his acquisition. Humphrey will return on a rookie deal and Chuck Clark, a revelation at safety, will return too. Tavon Young is set to return from a neck injury that kept him out all year as well.

Baltimore isn't a team that's going to lose a majority of its starters. In fact, the opposite is true. 

The Ravens are going to run most of the 14-2 team back in 2020 with not a ton of turnover throughout the organization.

"It was fun, man, while it lasted," Peters said. "I really appreciate the organization for bringing me in and getting some things done so I could be around here for a few more years, man. And I'm excited. I'm excited about this future with us."

Still, the players that were in the locker room had a feel of stunned surprise they even had to pack up their lockers on Jan. 12, instead of the later date they'd planned all season long. 

In a single day, the Ravens had gone from Super Bowl favorites to a team looking for trips out of town.

It wasn't what they'd envisioned, players dragging trash bags out the locker room doors so early in January and uneasy goodbyes that could be short-term or long-term farewells, but it's the reality the NFL's top team was faced with Sunday morning. 

Carr joked it was awkward as camera crews took video of him cleaning out his locker and dragging his trash bags out of the locker room. But the end of Carr's locker room cleanout still is the reality of the day for all NFL teams and players. 

No matter how much optimism and promise a team, especially the Ravens, have moving forward, there's always a player saying his goodbyes and pulling items from his locker in a trash bag out the door for potentially the last time.

"Nothing stays the same forever," Carr said. "This locker room will never be the same. Every year I've ever been in for 12 years, there's always been a handful of guys who rotate out. So that's the nature of the business. You just want to take care of yourself and you know, the guys that you had a bond with, continue to support those guys as they go."

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Trash bags, crutches and goodbyes: As the Ravens season ends, optimism already plentiful for next season originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

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