The Ravens have held a training camp every year since they arrived in Baltimore in 1996, but I dare say they've never held a training camp as important as the one beginning this week.
That sounds like hyperbole, but a unique combination of factors is raising the significance of what's about to unfold at the Under Armour Performance Center.
Basically, the team is good, very good; and the coronavirus pandemic is complicating matters … seriously complicating matters, resulting in a run-up to the 2020 season that is laden with consequences.
Initially, the virus wiped out the normal offseason program and spring practices and minicamps, denying players and coaches a time usually devoted to personal conditioning, building team chemistry and implementing tactical changes. Virtual training sessions were a decent fallback option but no match for live training and practicing, especially for young players.
Now the preseason also has been wiped out over safety concerns, taking away another tool that teams use to develop players and polish their act.
The Ravens have a lot to accomplish between now and their regular season opener against the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 13, and they're going to have to accomplish it all in training camp at Owings Mills.
So (you're asking), exactly what is it they need to accomplish?
Start with their version of a meet-and-greet, in which they meld their many newcomers into their locker room culture – a vital and organic process long delayed by the pandemic.
Veteran defensive lineman Calais Campbell almost surely will assume a leadership role, but, ahem, you do need to get to know the guys you'll be leading. It'll have to happen on fast-play mode this year, with everyone standing six feet apart if/when possible.
The Ravens also are hoping to see several rookies emerge as significant contributors, starting with their top draft pick, Patrick Queen, who'll start at inside linebacker if he is ready. Without spring practices or a preseason to help him acclimate to the NFL, Queen will need to get a whole lot out of training camp.
The same goes for running back J.K. Dobbins, receiver Devin Duvernay and inside linebacker Malik Harrison, other rookies the Ravens envision as viable puzzle pieces when they're ready.
Of course, the Ravens aren't unique; other teams also need to get their players acquainted with each other and their rookies up and running after an unexpectedly long layoff. One could argue that the Ravens are in better shape than most because they have the same starting quarterback and same coaching staff as a year ago. This isn't the year to be undergoing a big transition.
Some analysts predict the circumstances will produce a rough start to the season across the league in terms of quality of play. If so, the Ravens really want to minimize it, as the stakes couldn't be higher. They're widely regarded as top-tier Super Bowl contenders.
No doubt, if they can check off some or most items on their training camp to-do list in the coming weeks, the possibilities are rich.
Aside from what I've already mentioned, they also need to settle on who makes up the interior of their offensive line; check if young players Hollywood Brown, Miles Boykin and Jaylon Ferguson are progressing as envisioned; and shake off the rust after being off the field for so long. As always, they need to avoid major injuries.
Meanwhile, there's the elephant in the room looming over all – the importance of players buying into what they have to do to keep themselves healthy and keep the season on track. It goes without saying that training camp will be a key adjustment period as they become accustomed to repeated testing, distancing measures, etc.
It'll be a camp unlike any we've seen – a long, hot run uninterrupted by preseason games or joint practices, with every move carefully monitored to ensure safety protocols are being met.
It's a lot to take on, with a lot at stake … important stuff unfolding in the dead of summer with an eye toward playing big games in the dead of winter.