The Ravens have done quite a bit of reconfiguring since their five-year run of playoff appearances ended in 2013. They've hired a new offensive coordinator, brought in new assistant coaches and added new players.
Reviews of their maneuverings have been positive. There's more work to be done, and the start of the regular season is still months away, but I think it's fair to say fans are pretty jazzed up about what could happen in 2014. As my colleague Sarah Ellison noted in Late For Work last week, some analysts think the Ravens are primed for a "bounce back" season.
But despite those positive reviews, I get the feeling the Ravens' bandwagon will consist almost entirely of local citizenry when the 2014 season cranks up later this year. It will be a Ravenstown-only ride, at least in the beginning. People who aren't from here see other teams as likelier candidates to rule the AFC.
I mention this strictly as a public service, so fans can start preparing to cover their ears. The Denver Broncos have brought in a bunch of big-name free agents, including DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib, in an attempt to squeeze a Super Bowl win out of Peyton Manning before he walks away. Every Vegas sports book that I check is listing the Broncos as the favorites to win the AFC. The New England Patriots are a popular second choice after adding Darrelle Revis to a team that made the AFC title game in 2013. The Indianapolis Colts are also generally picked ahead of the Ravens, as are the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals.
You can find the Ravens sandwiched between those favorites and the usual lump of longshots (Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns, etc.) expected to bring up the rear. Baltimore and the Pittsburgh Steelers tend to be in the same vicinity, at around 33-1 to win the AFC, give or take a few digits.
That's to be expected, I suppose, with the Ravens coming off an underwhelming .500 season. Yes, they're just 14 months removed from winning the Super Bowl, but you know how things go: What have you done lately?
Still, 33-1? For a team that made three trips to the AFC title game in five years before being eliminated from the playoff hunt on the last day of the 2013 season, those are some seriously long odds. The only meaning I can take away is the addition of Gary Kubiak, Steve Smith, Jeremy Zuttah, Owens Daniels, etc., has generated some excitement locally, but nationally, skepticism remains, no doubt partly due to Ray Rice's uncertain status.
That's no surprise to the many fans who steadfastly believe the Ravens always get less respect than they deserve – a belief the players also buy into, according to tight end Dennis Pitta.
"We always kind of joke about it, (how) we don't feel like we get the respect that we deserve," Pitta said on Pro Football Talk Live last December. "You know, that's just kind of who we are and that's what we embrace, and we feel like no one really gives us the credit or the respect that we deserve, but that's why we play with a chip on our shoulder."
If the Ravens need motivation along those lines in 2014, they'll find it when they scan their bandwagon and see plenty of open seats, even after an encouraging offseason.
The Ravens' 2014 preseason schedule bears little resemblance to its recent predecessors. There's a lot of new blood. The Ravens are taking on two teams they've never faced in the preseason (San Francisco and Dallas) and another they've faced only once (New Orleans). The usual parade of Panthers, Rams and Falcons is nowhere in sight.
It's tempting to say the Ravens are making a big statement of sorts in shaking things up. Could it be that they thought things had gotten a little stale? The team certainly played that way at times in 2013.
Ah, it's an interesting idea. But let's not get carried away.
My understanding is the league office sets the preseason schedule, helped by input from the teams, who can say they don't want to play certain opponents. So while the Ravens did have some control over their 2014 schedule, they only had so much control.
I understand we live in a time when every morsel of NFL info gets analyzed from every angle, but please, the preseason schedule is what it is – no big deal.