Eisenberg: For Better or Worse, Expectations Soar

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Most local fans had a good feeling about the Ravens when training camp opened last month. The team seemed to be a division title contender after addressing many of its shortcomings during the offseason, starting with the acquisition of receiver Anquan Boldin.

But then the positive vibe took some hits. Rookie linebacker Sergio Kindle suffered a fractured skull, knocking him out indefinitely. Starting cornerback Domonique Foxworth suffered a torn ACL and was lost for the season. All-Pro safety Ed Reed was in a grumpy mood, his playing status unclear.

After quarterback Joe Flacco and the new-look passing game played to modest reviews in the first two preseason games, I heard conversations about whether the Ravens would, in fact, be as good as expected.

But those conversations have ended after the Ravens' impressive torching of the New York Giants in their third preseason game. The 24-10 win, in which Flacco and the new-look offense exhibited a high-flying potency seldom seen in these parts, did more than just rekindle the optimism that had existed a month earlier. It sent expectations soaring.

There's no going back now. Having seen what Flacco can do on a good day, plenty of people in Ravenstown believe their team is talented enough to go all the way to the Super Bowl and win it.

There's no hard data supporting that claim, but I feel like the little girl in the 1980s horror movie "Poltergeist," sitting in front of a television and cryptically saying, "They're heeeere." She was referring to ghostly creatures, and I'm talking about great expectations for the Ravens. Oh, yes, they're heeeeere.

Sorry if that comparison sounds an ominous note. The Ravens, like any team, are happy to have people think highly of them. It sure beats the alterative, as the Orioles can attest. And Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh more or less shrugged that great expectations are omnipresent around here when asked in late July.

"I mean, are they any higher (this year)?" Harbaugh said. "I thought (in 2008) we were going to win the world championship, and I thought (in 2009) we were going to win the world championship. And we were pretty disappointed (by the playoff losses in both seasons)."

The good news is this time there's no disconnect between local and national views of the team. ESPN The Magazine is picking the Ravens to beat the Packers in the Super Bowl. Monday Night Football's Ron Jaworski has them beating the Cowboys in the big game. Two preseason publications picked them to go all the way.

The other morning, I saw a reporter on a cable business channel thrust a microphone in John Elway's face and ask the retired star whom he liked in the Super Bowl. Elway growled that "the Baltimore Ravens sure look good." (Longtime local fans will note the irony of having Elway predict great things for Baltimore almost three decades after he hastened the Colts' departure by refusing to come here and play for Robert Irsay.)

But while the Ravens wouldn't have it any other way, they know great expectations make their lives more difficult. It's tough when everything you do is measured against a tall yardstick. Victories are welcomed but largely taken for granted, and sometimes, even they aren't enough. You can get criticized if you don't win the right way, i.e., by enough touchdowns over Cleveland.

The Ravens have no problem with it now, before the season kicks off, but if they stumble at all – and just about every team stumbles at some point during a season – those expectations can become annoying, like a fly buzzing in your ear. It gets old listening to people say maybe you aren't as good as they thought.

Coming out of nowhere, winning when no one expects it, is easier and frankly more fun. The Ravens last did it in 2008 when they rebounded from a 5-11 season and advanced all the way to the AFC title game with a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback. Good times, indeed.

A year later, people expected them to do well again in 2009, and while they made the playoffs, they ultimately couldn't measure up. Not as much fun.

Those great expectations are back again this year, for better or worse, and the Ravens are fine with it, as they should be. But hold on tight.

John Eisenberg covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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