Baltimore Ravens: Look who has flown the nest

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The Ravens have to win the Super Bowl XLVII – it’s the only way they can win the NFL’s biggest gamble east of Indianapolis.

Yes, Jim Irsay letting Peyton Manning walk out the door was huge. But even the Colts owner said his team is in a “transition” and coming off the worst season in the league last year. The Ravens, well, they were a Lee Evans dropped pass away from playing in the Super Bowl.

But here’s what’s happened since Billy Cundiff booted the Ravens out of the playoffs:

  • Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano was hired to coach the Colts
  • Guard Ben Grubbs signed a free-agent deal with the Saints
  • Safety Haruki Nakamura signed a free-agent deal with the Panthers
  • Safety Tom Zbikowski and defensive tackle Corey Redding signed free-agent deal’s with the Colts
  • Linebacker Jarret Johnson signed a free-agent deal with the Chargers

None of those signings will lead SportsCenter, but when analyzed as a whole, they certainly lead Baltimore

When was the last time you saw so many Ravens fly to other cities on their own accord?

This isn’t a salary purge.

It isn’t a new coach cleaning house.

No, this is so much bigger: It’s the Ravens betting their future for the present.

Write what you want about Ben Grubbs, and I’ll write this: He made the Pro Bowl last year.

Write what you want about Nakamura and Zbikowski and I’ll write this: They are in the prime of their career after the Ravens invested millions of dollars in salary and hundreds of hours in coaching to groom them into starters. Oh, they’ll start all right – for other teams.

Write what you want about Johnson and I’ll write this: He’s been a fantastic role player next to Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and was the team’s best leader who doesn’t wear No. 52. Johnson’s so tough he never missed a game during his nine years in Baltimore, where he averaged 59 tackles and 3.75 sacks the past four seasons.

Write what you want about Corey Redding and I’ll write this: He’s had 7.5 sacks and averaged 41.5 tackles the past two years. But more importantly, he’s prevented defenses from keying on Haloti Ngata, a major reason why the Ravens were so stout against the run.

And to replace these players the Ravens have added…drum roll…very little.

The Ravens are counting on safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard to play like Pro Bowl players, which is why the said farewell to Zbikowski and Nakamura.

And that’s the gamble. Instead of turning the secondary’s reigns to younger players entering their primes, they are leaving it in the hands of safeties are past their primes.

What happens if one of them gets hurt? C’mon, Reed is one hard hit away from calling it a career. The only player who has contemplated retirement more stars is in a Wrangler jeans commercial with Dale Jr.

And what about Pollard? What has he done? He’s been in the league since 2006 and never made the Pro Bowl, and if you take away his knee-shattering hits on Tom Brady in 2008 Wes Welker in 2009, would you know the difference between Bernie Pollard and Bernie Mac?

Grubbs was a first-round pick in 2007, Zbikowski a third-rounder in 2008 and Nakamura a sixth-rounder in 2008. What was the purpose of drafting them? So the Ravens can invest in them so they can pay the biggest dividends for other teams?

Losing one is understandable. This is the NFL; you can’t keep everybody.

But NFL teams aren’t much different than any other business. Law firms hire the best out of college for the purpose of training them, so that one day, they try big cases and rake in millions in judgments. They don’t train them and then watch take their services to other firms and make them rich.

Corporations invest in young talent because one day, they’ll be the running the show. They’ll be leading the company to record earnings, or in the case of the Ravens, Vince Lombardi trophies.

Nakamura signed a three-year deal with $4.8 million, but $1.3 is guaranteed. You’re telling me the Ravens can’t match that? Ben Grubbs signed a five-year, $36 million deal with $16 million guaranteed.

But Grubbs’ departure means the arrival of more questions. The Ravens ran 95 plays – the most in the NFL last season – off left guard and averaged 4.76 yards per play, fifth-highest in the league. When they ran off left tackle, they averaged 4.71 yards (13th), over center 3.32 yards (31st), right guard 3.98 yards (16th) and right tackle 5.14 yards (12th). The Ravens averaged a league-high 9.82 yards when they ran 22 plays around left end, but with Grubbs gone, can that be expected to continue this season?

Those numbers explain why Grubbs made the Pro Bowl, and in the NFL, if you want quality, you have to invest in it. The Saints saw that, which is why when they lost first-team All-Pro guard Carl Nicks to the Buccaneers, they threw bags of cash at Grubbs.

Instead, the Ravens invested in a three-year deal – repeat three-year deal – for 35-year-old center Matt Birk, whose career began snapping balls to who? Uh, Randall Cunningham in Minnesota. Yes, it was that long ago, when Bill Clinton was in the White House.

If I’m Joe Flacco, I demand a new contract right now because I could take such a beating it may be impossible to tell where the purple on my jersey stops and the bruises on my body begin next season.

There’s a good chance Flacco might need divine intervention to get through next season – anyone have Tim Tebow’s number?

“One of the things we said earlier this offseason is that we were going to focus attention on the offensive line, and getting Matt Birk back is key for us,” general manager Ozzie Newsome told reporters.

Key to what? The team getting older – and slower?

“He is a top player, his intelligence is obvious, and he is a leader on and off the field,” Newsome said.

Reality: Birk hasn’t made the Pro Bowl since 2007, but hey, he’s already said he’d donate his Harvard-educated brain to the medical field when he dies so it can be studied.

But for now, Ravens fans would love to know what their team is thinking?


(Photo by Chris Ammann)