Eisenberg: Ravens Fall Off Playoff Radar Sans Lewis?

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The Ravens have the NFL's fifth-oldest roster according to ESPN, with thirtysomething stars such as receiver Derrick Mason, linebacker Ray Lewis, center Matt Birk, safety Ed Reed and tight end Todd Heap all expected to play significant roles in 2010. This inevitably raises the question of whether the team's window of opportunity to win a Super Bowl is on the verge of closing.

The Baltimore Sun wrote an article on the issue Sunday. Other analysts and league observers constantly comment on it. It's all interesting stuff. But is it true?

When Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti replaced head coach Brian Billick with John Harbaugh in early 2008, it was made clear that the organization's goal was to become a perennial contender, always in the playoff mix. Billick won a Super Bowl and had his plusses and minuses like any coach, but his teams were wildly up and down in his final years. The Ravens finished 6-10 in 2005 and 5-11 in 2007, but in between, they went 13-3 and won the AFC North. Bisciotti didn't like the uncertainty.

When Harbaugh came on board, his mandate was clear: A Super Bowl title or three would be terrific, but becoming a consistent contender was goal No. 1. Harbaugh has repeatedly alluded to it since 2008, saying the team wanted to build a "dynasty." He cited the Patriots, a team that has won three Super Bowls, as an example, but interestingly, he also cited the Eagles, a team that has never won a Super Bowl but is a consistent winner.

It seems to me that this philosophy and the notion of a fast-closing Super Bowl window are in conflict. Saying the Ravens' window might be closing, perhaps in a year or two, infers that they won't be able to contend then. That's precisely what they're determined to avoid.

So this is the question: Can they transition out of the Ray Lewis era without falling off the playoff radar? That is their challenge, and make no mistake, it is their ultimate challenge as an organization.

I'm not so sure a big falloff is in the offing. Those older team pillars are all terrific and obviously will be missed, but the Ravens also have a strong core of young stars, especially on offense, where Joe Flacco is 25, Ray Rice is 23, and the line, other than Birk, is anchored by Michael Oher (24), Ben Grubbs (26), Marshall Yanda (25), Chris Chester (27), and if the stars are aligned, Jared Gaither (24).

On the other side of the ball, Terrell Suggs is 27 and Haloti Ngata is 26 – a pair of Pro Bowl players to build around.

That nucleus would seem to put the Ravens in position to have winning teams in the coming years, albeit ones that beat you more with offense than defense. But to be a consistent contender, they'll have to continue to evolve on the fly, build around their offensive nucleus, develop suitable replacements for the old guys as they go along.

If you look closely, you can see that process in motion. Reed, probably a future Hall of Fame selection, can't be replaced, but if this year's training camp is any indication, Tom Zbikowski, 25, is becoming a solid NFL free safety. He won't be a Reed-like game-breaker, but it appears he'll be able to man the position just fine. And the other starting safety, Dawan Landry, is just 27, with many years to go.

Lewis, the team's centerpiece for more than a decade, is also a future Hall of Fame selection who can't be replaced, but the team has a stockpile of young linebackers such as Tavares Gooden, Jameel McClain, Antwan Barnes and Dannell Ellerbe, as well as injured rookie Sergio Kindle, so the potential to evolve on the fly exists. The same is true at tight end, where rookie Ed Dickson is shining more brightly than anyone expected.

"You've got a bunch of young guys who are very good players and have had a chance to learn underneath those (older) guys," Harbaugh said. "To me, it's a little bit of the ideal mix right now, and hopefully we can take advantage of it."

He meant this year and also in years to come.

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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