Eisenberg: Ravens Set for Looming Offseason

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Now that the offseason has arrived, the Ravens are facing numerous questions. Will Ed Reed and/or Derrick Mason retire? Will unrestricted free agents Mason, Justin BannanDwan Edwards and Kelley Washington leave or stay? Will the front office use the draft, a trade or free agency to upgrade the wideout corps? Will Willis McGahee return or, with his value, be used in a trade? And what will happen if, as expected, the entire league operates without a salary cap?

That's a lot of questions -- and I could list more. But let's not get carried away with their overall weight. For the most part, these are typical personnel issues, the byproduct of the inevitable changes all teams experience. I have heard and read some suggestions that the Ravens' uncertainties could result in a major shakeup for a team that has won at least one playoff game in each of the past two seasons. I disagree. With the exception of the uncapped landscape, this is fairly routine stuff.

I'm not trying to diminish the importance of the decisions the Ravens have to make before next season. It's really, really important that they upgrade their play-making potential at wide receiver, and that they maintain their depth in the defensive line. It certainly would be helpful if they made a big play to bring Mason back. Even if they land a new No. 1 receiver, they could use his steady production.

But I expect the Ravens to navigate these uncertain waters with relative aplomb. They're pretty good at the offseason.

Teams understandably get a lot of attention for how they fare on the field, but there is a parallel NFL universe that unfolds beyond the public's view, behind closed doors, where teams scout, draft, manage their finances and generally put one foot in front of the other as a business. It's a critically important realm that obviously impacts how things play out on the field, and a few teams are known for excelling in it, for operating soundly and methodically from year to year. The Philadelphia Eagles are one. The Oakland Raiders are not. Nor were the Washington Redskins, although that might change now that Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan are in charge.

The Ravens rank high on the list of teams that fare well behind the scenes. They're known for being shrewd drafters, for managing their finances appropriately, for generally making sound decisions. They're deliberate and methodical as opposed to rash, an approach that tends to pay dividends later, on the field.

Are they perfect? No. They're going to make mistakes. Did they overpay for cornerback Domonique Foxworth? Yes. Should they have figured out a way to keep kicker Matt Stover around? Yes. Should they have addressed their receiver issue before this season instead of after it? The verdict is in.

But while their misses stir debate, the Ravens usually get a lot more calls right than wrong. Drafting Ray Rice in the second round in 2008 worked out fairly well. Ravens coach John Harbaugh described center Matt Birk as "a "home run" free agent signing. I could go on. But make no mistake, the Ravens have gone to the playoffs in three of the past four seasons precisely because they're so adept at the offseason.

An uncapped landscape, which will become a reality if the players and owners don't sign a new collective bargaining agreement soon, would certainly add a new twist to their circumstances. Having made the final eight of the Super Bowl tournament, the Ravens would only be able to sign free agents at the rate they lose them – a handicap, for sure.

But while it wouldn't be a surprise to see some teams react wildly to the situation, spending foolishly or cutting their payrolls to the bone, the Ravens can be expected to proceed methodically, within a reasonable business framework. That's how they always operate.

They're eventually going to put a new team on the field, and in the end, I expect it to look a lot like this past season's team. Will there be changes? Absolutely – some big, some little. But the team's key personnel and style of play will, for the most part, remain unchanged, and given where this past season ended – just short of back-to-back conference championship game appearances – that's the right way to go.

John Eisenberg 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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