For a team that just won the Super Bowl, the Baltimore Ravens aren't exactly feeling the love this offseason.
In fact, it seems that the victory parade hadn't even finished before naysayers started throwing dirt on the team.
As the rest of the AFC North is going to find out the hard way, that funeral is premature.
The latest indignation to befall the Ravens happened on Wednesday, when the team and its players were shut out of the 2013 ESPY awards. Granted, as indignations go, this was a pretty minor one, since the ESPYs are essentially a media-contrived popularity contest.
However, it just underscores the Ravens' perception problem this year. They've become the Rodney Dangerfield of the NFL. Plenty of pundits are picking the San Francisco 49ers to make a return to the Super Bowl, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one making the same prediction for the Ravens.
The biggest reason pointed out for the Ravens' demise has been the exodus of veteran players. A number of starters from last year's championship squad are no longer on the roster.
However, if you dig a little deeper you'll see that not only did the Ravens plug most of those holes, but in some cases they actually added a better player.
|2012 Starter||2013 Starter|
|Ray Lewis/Dannell Ellerbe||Arthur Brown|
|Anquan Boldin||Jacoby Jones|
|Ed Reed||Michael Huff|
|Bernard Pollard||Matt Elam|
|Cary Williams||Lardarius Webb|
|Paul Kruger||Elvis Dumervil|
Lewis was a phenomenal leader in the locker room, but his play had declined, and frankly Ellerbe isn't a much more proven option than Brown is. When Pollard isn't blowing up New England Patriots, he's a liability in coverage, and it can be argued that Elam is an upgrade.
The same goes for Dumervil. Yes, Paul Kruger had a very nice season in 2012, but it wasn't that long ago that Dumervil posted 17 sacks as a 3-4 outside linebacker with the Denver Broncos.
Pairing Dumervil with a healthy Terrell Suggs gives the Ravens a formidable pair of outside pass-rushers. The return of top cornerback Lardarius Webb from an ACL tear makes the loss of Cary Williams a non-issue.
In fact, the only losses that really "hurt" are Boldin and Reed. Jacoby Jones has yet to show that he can be depended on as a starting wide receiver, and while Michael Huff is a capable safety, he's not the big-play magnet that Reed has been throughout his career.
Those losses can be overcome, however. Tight end Dennis Pitta can step into Boldin's role as the underneath receiver. With more athletic safeties in Huff and Elam, there should be fewer coverage lapses in the back end of the Baltimore secondary.
Also, despite the fact that quarterback Joe Flacco just had one of the greatest postseason runs in NFL history, naysayers point to the 28-year-old as part of the problem, not the solution. They point to his regular-season numbers and snicker. Then they point to his $120 million contract and laugh out loud.
Well, ESPN's Ron Jaworski isn't laughing. As Matt Vensel of The Baltimore Sun reports, the last passer that Jaworski slotted in his annual quarterback ranking was Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints at sixth, which means that Flacco is inside Jaws' top five.
For Jaworski, Flacco is much more than just some stats on a page:
I always shuddered at the guys who were on Joe’s back. They would look at his throwing percentage, his completion percentage. To me, it was just a bunch of bunk. I looked at the tape and watched the receiving corps for years. It’s a good receiving corps; it is not a great receiving corps. I probably saw more contested throws out of Joe’s passes than any quarterback in the league.
Jaworski's argument holds up if you compare Flacco to the other quarterbacks (we'll include Matt Ryan of the Falcons since his extension is only days away) who recently hit the proverbial jackpot in the only stat that really matters.
Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers is generally considered the "gold standard" at quarterback, but Flacco has a higher winning percentage. Ryan is the only passer of the bunch with a higher winning percentage, but he hasn't sniffed Flacco's postseason success.
Of course, many folks will discount Flacco's winning percentage, stating that football is, after all, a team game.
That's sort of the whole point though. The Baltimore Ravens are still a very good football team. We're talking about a team that has won fewer than 10 games only once in the past five seasons. The Ravens don't rebuild...they reload.
Granted, this isn't to say that fans of the Ravens should start making travel plans for New Jersey next February. The AFC North has quietly become the toughest division in the conference. On paper, the Denver Broncos would appear to be the team to beat in the AFC.
You know, the same Denver team that Baltimore beat in the playoffs last year and faces on opening night this year.
In that regard it isn't going to take long to get a preview of how the AFC might shape up in 2013. If the Baltimore Ravens once again waltz into the Mile High City and down the Broncos, then they'll just reinforce a point that they already hammered home in the playoffs a year ago.
Discounting the Ravens usually doesn't work out so well.
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