Of everything that has been said by and about the Ravens since their season ended, two comments stand out to me as especially telling.
Together, the comments provide the right lens through which to view two seasons of Baltimore football, the one that just ended and the one that now lies ahead.
The first comment came minutes after the Ravens' gallant and galling playoff loss in New England Saturday night. Head Coach John Harbaugh told reporters the Ravens "became the very best football team they could be … that's what this team did."
He told the players the same thing in the locker room, shortly before he told the press. It's not an insignificant statement, folks.
While pro football is a bottom-line business in which wins and losses are the only true yardstick, coaches sometimes take a more philosophical view. They don't measure the caliber of their team's season by the record so much as whether the team realized its potential, whatever that is, high or low. Honestly, what more can you ask for?
It happens in some seasons, but not others. After giving his 2014 Ravens a thumbs up Saturday night, Harbaugh said "That's what you're proud of as a coach, and that's what (the players) should be proud of."
Now, Harbaugh knows the 2014 Ravens weren't a top-tier team. Yes, they were improved from 2013 and fashioned a winning record, but they had good and bad days, finished third in their division and needed help to make the playoffs. They dealt with distractions and injuries and lived with flaws, especially a big one in their secondary.
As I have written before, I believe the team was built to go far as originally constructed, but with everything that came down, from the Ray Rice scandal to the many injuries, the going got tougher.
In the end, though, the Ravens played their best football in January and did realize their potential. Though they weren't a top-tier team, they could easily still be playing this week, needing just one more win to reach a second Super Bowl in three years. They were closer to the pinnacle than anyone imagined.
My two cents, if you go up to 35,000 feet and view the big picture, it's acceptable, even impressive, that these Ravens went out losing a winnable game in the Elite Eight of the Super Bowl tournament. The result was bitterly disappointing, but the season is a win. You could even say the Ravens overachieved.
That leads me to the second telling comment, which actually is just a few words plucked from Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak's statement about his decision to stay in Baltimore rather than pursue head coaching opportunities – a decision so huge, by the way, that I'm not sure the Ravens can top it as an offseason development that should positively impact them in 2015. (We'll see what happens with the Denver speculation, but I'm betting he stands by his word.)
Kubiak said the Ravens "are building something great" that he wants to be a part of. Look closely. He's saying, in essence, that it's an ongoing process. That's how I read it, at least. The Ravens are moving toward something, Kubiak said, which means they aren't there yet and this year really was all about moving farther down the road.
I think that's true. After winning the Super Bowl two years ago, the Ravens undertook a major roster transition, which led to their only non-winning season under Harbaugh in 2013. They were better this season, but still in transition, still "building" with a new offense and many new puzzle pieces, still trying to figure out how to get where they want to go.
It bodes well for next season.
Sure, a crucial offseason is just beginning. The front office needs to find a No. 1 receiver, a playmaker in the secondary. Many big decisions lie ahead. There will be gains and losses, surprises, controversies.
But the Ravens' bones are solid, with their offensive line and defensive front good to go. They can expect to double-down on their offensive gains with Kubiak back. They've added a bunch of young talent on both sides of the ball in the past two years. I'm sure GM Ozzie Newsome will get to work on the secondary.
The Ravens should be on the short list of top playoff contenders in 2015, especially with the league expected to add a seventh qualifier in each conference.
After a 2014 season in which they basically maxed out on what they were capable of, they can aim higher.