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Tuesday, August 12, 2003
Updated: August 27, 5:03 PM ET
Lewis' return key, but Ravens have issues to sort out

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- Of the 22 position players who started for the Baltimore Ravens in their Super Bowl XXXV victory, 16 are gone, and four of those are out of football.

The veterans who accounted for three of the four touchdowns that the Ravens scored in the crushing defeat of the New York Giants now wear different NFL uniforms. Although tailback Jamal Lewis, who rushed for 102 yards, is still around, the Ravens top passer and receiver from the title contest are elsewhere. The players who picked off three of the four interceptions the Ravens recorded off Kerry Collins are just afterthoughts.

Even seven of the assistants from the Brian Billick staff of 2000 have moved on, two of them, Marvin Lewis and Jack Del Rio, to head coaching gigs.

Did we mention that the defensive scheme, now a 3-4 front, has changed as well?

Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis played in just five games last season.
Gut any business in the manner with which the Ravens were forced into this wholesale turnover -- victimized, just one season after the Super Bowl triumph, by conscious salary cap excesses permitted by a failed attempt to defend their title -- and the makeover would likely take years from which to recover. But just one season removed from the pain of that roster purge, Baltimore has rebounded, and could contend again for a playoff berth in 2003, provided Billick finally figures out a way to halt the revolving door at quarterback.

The swagger might not be as evident as it was in 2000, when the Ray Lewis-led defense had the ability to terrorize opponents simply by walking out of the tunnel, but there is a palpable sense of confidence here that belies the incredible youth of the Ravens roster.

For a second consecutive season, the Ravens probably will field the youngest roster in the league, and the current training camp assemblage includes 64 players with three years or fewer of NFL experience. In 2002, Baltimore featured a league-record 19 rookies, and the Ravens opened the year with a quarterback who had never started a regular-season game.

One thing that veteran Ravens players won't do, though, is use the youth component as a crutch. The franchise rally cry isn't the old bromide about how youth must be served, but rather that the younger players must be serviceable. Being fuzzy-faced, it seems, is not an acceptable excuse for failure.

"We still have enough (veteran) people who have been there, been through the wars, to know what it's all about," said weak-side linebacker Peter Boulware, one of only three starters remaining from the record-setting Super Bowl defense. "And the younger guys have, by and large, bought into what we're all about around here. (The organization) has done a great job (replenishing) the talent base. We feel like we've got a shot to be pretty good. We just don't want too many people to know it."

The problem with being clandestine around here, however, is that the Ravens are about as subtle as a kick to the groin. And as long as Lewis is around, which figures to be until he finds some new sadistic tactic for inflicting pain on ballcarriers, it's likely to be that way.

There are a few constants here -- Billick's insufferable demeanor, the sheer brilliance of a personnel department that annually drafts better than nearly every other franchise in the NFL, a maddening inability to get through a season with only one quarterback -- but none is quite so important as Lewis. That the Ravens managed in '02 to win five of 11 games played while Lewis was sidelined by a shoulder injury is nothing short of remarkable.

But then again, Lewis' commanding persona is so pervasive, some young players insist they could feel his scrutinizing gaze even when he wasn't around.

Strong safety Ed Reed, the 2002 first-round draft selection who is poised to become a Pro Bowl performer according to general manager Ozzie Newsome, recalled a 26-21 victory at Cleveland last Oct. 6, a game Lewis finished on the sideline and in which the Ravens nearly squandered a 23-0 lead. What helped the youthful Ravens hang on in that outing, Reed said, was Lewis glaring out from the sideline, and the stark reality of what awaited the team in the locker room if Baltimore lost the game.

"No way," Reed said, "did you want to have to face (Lewis) if we lost. I mean, the fear of having Ray get up in our faces, yeah, it really was a motivator. I mean nobody wanted to have to answer to him. He's still The Man around here."

We still have enough (veteran) people who have been there, been through the wars, to know what it's all about. And the younger guys have, by and large, bought into what we're all about around here.
Weak-side linebacker Peter Boulware, one of only three starters remaining from the record-setting Super Bowl defense

Lewis has maintained that his shoulder, more seriously injured than team officials ever let on last year, is sound. There certainly was no evidence to the contrary in the first game of the preseason and, while there has been some prudence demonstrated in camp, Lewis has been chomping at the bit for full-scale contact.

"He drives us all but, more than anything, he drives himself hard," said free safety Gary Baxter, who is making the move from cornerback to the interior.

Unfortunately, what Lewis is not is a chauffeur, a person who can individually drive this club back to the playoffs. He may, at times, actually be capable of willing the Ravens to victory. But where there is a will, there has to be a way, too, and Baltimore is still at a stage of its development where the former outnumbers the latter. There remain questions in key areas, most notably quarterback, where Chris Redman probably will be the starter at the outset of the season, even though the organization clearly views first-round choice Kyle Boller as the more talented player and the key to the future.

The offensive line must still come together, a No. 2 receiver to complement Travis Taylor has to be identified, and the defensive line will need to mature.

The upside is that, thanks to Newsome and personnel director Phil Savage, many of the pieces are in place. They are young and, in some cases, very untested pieces, of course. But notable is that, of the 11 first-round players chosen during the second incarnation of the NFL in this city, all but one is still on the current roster. Only a handful of teams can even suggest they have drafted better than Baltimore over the past three or four years.

At the funereal press conference in the winter of 2002, when Newsome announced many of the cuts into which the Ravens were forced by their bloated payroll, he asserted that it might be a surprisingly short climb back to respectability. Some naysayers scoffed at the notion Baltimore could return to prominence in less than five or six years.

But the proof is in the personnel and, following last Saturday night's preseason matchup, Buffalo quarterback Drew Bledsoe acknowledged the Ravens are a dangerous bunch.

"At least defensively," said Bledsoe, "they're out there to stuff you. They seem hungry, you know, and I'm sure (Lewis) has them all stoked up. I mean, he represents a tie to the past, and they need that. With him and a few other (veteran) guys around, it's like the Super Bowl is still kind of a fresh thing around here."

That's ironic because, after the dramatic roster reshuffling that followed the '01 season, many pundits predicted the Ravens would, in the famed utterance of their Poe-created namesake, "nevermore" contend for a championship.

Those prognostications hardly seem appropriate now, given the quick rebound of the franchise, and the obvious potential of the youthful roster.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.