- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The Baltimore Ravens' actions this offseason -- after they won the Super Bowl -- have been historic in a certain sense.
Super Bowl winners usually don't revamp their rosters. Most Super Bowl winners re-sign and reload the starting lineup with the hope that continuity enhances the chances of repeating. Those ideas worked well in the eras before the salary cap and free agency.
Not anymore. The last team to repeat as Super Bowl champion was the New England Patriots in the 2004 season. Before that, it was the John Elway-led Denver Broncos in 1998. No other teams have won consecutive Super Bowls since the salary cap was instituted in 1994. Instead, the pattern has been that the Super Bowl champ usually comes back with at least a one-game drop in wins.
Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh have attempted to break that trend this offseason. They knew at midseason that Ray Lewis would retire. The personnel people started meeting in November knowing they weren't going to do what they did after winning the Super Bowl in 2000. They were going to make significant changes this time.
Those decisions may or may not work but, in retrospect, the Ravens had no choice. The average age of their starting lineup in last year's Super Bowl was 28.6. That's the ninth-oldest lineup ever to play in a Super Bowl, and it's the oldest since the 1997 and '98 Broncos, who put together lineups of 30.1 and 29.4 years to make their last runs at the title with Elway.
What's significant is that the Ravens had the third-oldest starting lineup in a Super Bowl in the salary-cap era, and they did it with a young quarterback, Joe Flacco. Something had to give.
Despite the Super Bowl win, it was easy to see age had caught up to Baltimore's defense. From 2008 to 2011, the Ravens surrendered no more than 16.9 points a game. Last year's Ravens gave up 21.5. Stopping the run became a problem. The Ravens gave up 122.8 yards a game on the ground and 4.0 yards a carry.
Injuries were one of the reasons, but age was another. The Ravens didn't re-sign 34-year-old defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu and are hoping Haloti Ngata, 29, has a healthier season than he did in 2012. The Ravens also believe the additions of Chris Canty and Marcus Spears to the defensive line will stop some of the bleeding in the run defense.
To bring back safety Ed Reed, who will turn 35 in September, the Ravens needed him to accept a smaller salary. When that didn't work out, they let him walk to Houston. Although they loved the hitting of safety Bernard Pollard, the Ravens let him go, and now he's in Tennessee.
The salary cap influenced other decisions, too. Boldin and Leach made too much for offensive players in their 30s. Considering the average annual salary of $20.1 million owed to Flacco, the Ravens couldn't afford to keep pass-rusher Paul Kruger, cornerback Cary Williams and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, even though age-wise they were in their primes.
Bold moves such as those are rare for recent Super Bowl winners. Often, the average age of the team stays the same or gets a little bit older.
The 2000 Ravens, for example, had a starting lineup that was an average of 27.6 years old. The startling lineup of the 2001 team had an average age of 28.86. That's the norm.
During the Patriots' run of three Super Bowl wins in four years, their average ages during the championship years were 27.8, 28 and 27.6. Changes in the starting lineup were minimal. Coach Bill Belichick had a young, future Hall of Fame quarterback in Tom Brady and a defense filled with older veterans who could not only start but also step in as valuable role players.
History has shown that Super Bowl teams can't be too young or too old. The average age of a Super Bowl starting lineup is 27.6. The Steelers won a Super Bowl in the 2008 season with a starting lineup averaging 28 years of age. They changed little the next year and fell from 12 wins to nine.
Jon Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a Super Bowl in the 2002 season with a starting lineup that averaged 28.5 years old. The Bucs' starting lineup the next year averaged 28.8. The team went from 12-4 to 7-9.
Instead of rolling the dice and keeping an older roster together, the Ravens went against tradition and reshuffled their roster. If that gets them deep in the playoffs or back to the Super Bowl, we'll see if other teams copy the strategy in the future.
It's unusual for a Super Bowl champion to retool its roster, but the Ravens' strategy makes sense in this era, writes John Clayton.