Eisenberg: New Era, But Still in Win-Now Mode

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The signings of Earl Thomas and Mark Ingram II leave no doubt about the Ravens’ intentions for 2019.

They want to win. They’re trying to win.

You might think that’s obvious, but in the hours before free agency began Wednesday, a different scenario gained serious online traction. It proposed that the Ravens were taking a more long-range approach in which the top priority was setting the stage for a long run of success starting in, say, 2020, with 2019 being sacrificed to a degree if necessary.

How did that idea gain traction? It started with the news that the Ravens would lose C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith and Eric Weddle from their defense and Joe Flacco from their offense –most of their star power, basically, with most of the subtractions due to the Ravens simply refusing to exceed what they’d budgeted for players, regardless of the ramifications.

Between those cost-centric subtractions, the shift to a new (and very young) franchise quarterback and General Manager Eric DeCosta’s recent declaration that the Ravens’ improving salary cap situation would be even better in 2020, one could easily make the case that, yes, the team was settling for a more long-range approach.

Reaction online was, cough, not good.

Some fans were furious at the idea that the reigning AFC North champions might be willing to take a step backward in hopes of eventually going forward.

But as I wrote last week, all we knew before free agency was who would or might be subtracted. We didn’t know who’d be coming.

When those surprising additions came Thursday, they sent an unmistakable message.

You don’t sign a 29-year-old safety, one of the NFL’s best players, to a major contract, with many millions guaranteed, if you’re planning to hit pause for a year and hopefully win in the long run.

The Thomas signing screams “win now.” The Ravens could have just let one of their young safeties replace Weddle if they were more concerned about clearing up their cap situation than winning in 2019. Instead, they went all-in to create an elite secondary.

They’ve also held onto cornerback Jimmy Smith as part of that effort even though Smith is 30 and in line to generate the team’s biggest cap hit in 2019 – circumstances that can lead to a player being cut or traded. The Ravens need Smith, who was excellent in 2018, to take their best shot at limiting the Cleveland Browns’ sudden armada of playmakers. I’m guessing he’ll be there.

The Ingram signing also is clearly about immediate dividends. Running backs aren’t known for having the longest NFL shelf lives, and Ingram is 29. He isn’t here as part of some long game. He is here to alleviate some of the pressure on Lamar Jackson – immediately.

To be clear, it’s 100 percent true that the front office wants to manage the cap and roster more effectively over the long haul now that Flacco’s contract is off the books except for a whopping dead-money charge this year. They’re going to try to lock up young players to relatively affordable deals before free agency looms, avoiding the deadline situation that led to Mosley’s departure.

It’s also 100 percent true that the team’s cap situation will be markedly better a year from now with the dead-money charges for Flacco and Michael Crabtree (more than $20 million combined) in the rear-view mirror.

The departures of Flacco and Suggs do signal that the franchise is transitioning from one era to another, and yes, such significant changes can take time to implement.

But while they move from one era to another, the Ravens are still trying to win.

That was clear at Friday’s introductory press conference for Thomas and Ingram. Asked about his salary cap situation after these not-inexpensive moves, DeCosta said, “We’re kings of the world right now. We still have some money available to make additional moves in the next few weeks.”

Within hours, Thomas was on Twitter actively recruiting free agent linebacker Justin Houston, exactly the kind of pass rusher the Ravens need.

Does that sound like a team dismissing the present to focus on the future?

I don’t think so.

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