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Eisenberg: Rebound Year Rests Upon Ozzie Newsome's Problem-Solving Ability


The opening Sunday of the NFL season is a happy occasion. Everyone is undefeated. Almost everyone is optimistic. The league is unpredictable enough that almost anything can happen.

On the opening Sunday in 2015, few expected the Carolina Panthers to end up in the Super Bowl, and they did. Few expected Denver's defense to drag Peyton Manning to the mountaintop, and it did.

A lot of people thought the Ravens would go far, maybe very far, and, cough, they didn't.

But as the old saying goes, enough about that!

A new season is beginning. The Ravens have re-booted. Some new faces are in, which needed to happen. Some old faces are back, which really needed to happen.

Will the pieces form a winning puzzle? I think your answer to that question corresponds directly to your response to a broader philosophical question:

Do you trust the Ravens?

That is, do you believe in their ability to see a problem, address it and fix it?

"In Ozzie we trust" is a popular chorus, reflecting the public's longstanding faith in GM Ozzie Newsome. So ... are you walking that walk in 2016?

The rest of the football world evidently has some doubts after seeing the Ravens miss the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. I've seen a few analysts predict a major bounce-back season, but more suggest they'll finish around .500 and continue to lag behind the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North. A few are calling for the sky to fall.

If you trust the problem-solving ability of Newsome and the Ravens, you're expecting a markedly better season. I am. Yes, the NFL is tough and the Ravens didn't measure up in 2015, but they haven't had back-to-back losing seasons in this century. To me, that suggests Newsome and his crew are pretty good at identifying problems and fixing them.

By the end of last season, the Ravens knew they needed to tighten up their secondary, get stouter against the run and force (a lot) more turnovers. Offensively, they needed to get their running game going again and become more explosive.

They've tackled those issues throughout the offseason with free agent signings and the draft while counting on the renewed health of key veterans who suffered injuries in 2015. Believe me, they're as curious as anyone to see whether, or how, all the pieces fit.

"I can't wait to see what this team is and where it's going," Head Coach John Harbaugh said.

But make no mistake, he's optimistic, as is the whole organization. The secondary has been overhauled, with safety Eric Weddle providing glue that was missing. Offensive Coordinator Marc Trestman insists he got the memo about re-establishing a viable running game. Joe Flacco's supporting cast is deeper, and he's being protected by a young franchise left tackle for the first time.

Are there lingering questions? Plenty. Mid-thirtysomethings are being counted on, always a risky business. That young tackle, Ronnie Stanley, is a rookie, and another rookie, Alex Lewis, might line up beside him Sunday against Buffalo. The starting defense did its share of bending in the preseason. The Bills will surely test cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Shareece Wright right away.

My two cents, the Ravens will be in good shape Sunday IF they can run the ball. A Rex Ryan defense wants to stop the run, make you one-dimensional and attack your quarterback. You interrupt that chain of events by enjoying success on the ground.

As feisty as the Bills are, though, there's no doubt the Ravens' opening-day assignment is easier than last year's, when they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions in Denver.  A home game against a team that didn't make the playoffs in 2015 (Buffalo went 8-8) sounds better.

The Ravens' entire 2016 schedule actually is more forgiving, potentially aiding any bounce-back scenario. Their first four opponents were a combined 23-41 last season. They only have three games all year against teams that won a playoff contest in 2015 – two against Pittsburgh and one against New England.

Between the schedule, Newsome's overhaul and the motivation 5-11 inspires, there's a framework in place for a better season. I think 10 wins and a return to the playoffs is a real possibility.

But a lot is on the line Sunday. The "happy" opening day of the season is a vicious dream dasher in the end – half the teams lose. The Ravens really need to avoid that after 2015. It's a long season, but a good start would begin to re-establish their credentials as fix-it specialists.

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