The Ravens can attest that there's no better feeling than landing where the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots are this week – at pro football's pinnacle, headed toward a meeting in Sunday's Super Bowl.
But while this week is a dream, one is advised to enjoy the ride because what follows it is usually not a pinch-me experience.
For the Ravens, things have gotten complicated after both of their Super Bowl successes. It's actually a familiar tale for pretty much every team besides the Patriots, who are on their seventh Super Bowl in 15 years.
Any franchise will gladly take the trade-off, of course. A period of difficulty in exchange for the chance to raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy? Shoot, where do I sign? The salary cap and injuries make every day a period of difficulty, constantly conspiring to level the playing field. Meanwhile, only one of 32 teams celebrates in the end every year. If you can beat those tough odds, sure, it's worth putting up with anything.
But your euphoric moment doesn't make the period of difficulty that follows any easier to swallow, as (again) the Ravens can attest with their post-Super Bowl history.
After they destroyed the New York Giants to bring home their first Lombardi in January 2001, they kept their roster mostly intact, kicking some sizable salary-cap obligations down the road to keep a veteran cast together. The idea was to win again immediately, with the fact that then-owner Art Modell was 75 playing into the decision, GM Ozzie Newsome said recently.
"Where he was, at his stage of his life, he was part of that decision for us to (say), 'Let's try to go get it again,'" Newsome said.
When they didn't repeat, those salary-cap issues did arise and the Ravens pretty much had to tear their team apart and start over. As a result, they went 32-32 from 2002-2005 while sitting out the playoffs three times.
Newsome later vowed to take a different approach if the Ravens were ever in the same position, which, to their delight, they were after winning another Super Bowl in February 2013. Sure enough, they were much more proactive, unloading a batch of key veterans instead of trying to keep their winning window open with the caveat that salary-cap issues would soon arise.
But the different approach has produced similar results – almost identical, in fact. In the four years since they won their second Super Bowl, the Ravens are 31-33 and have sat out the playoffs three times.
At the team's season-in-review press conference earlier this month, I asked Newsome what he thought now about how to follow up winning a Super Bowl. He explained that the Ravens took a different approach this time because they had Joe Flacco. I took that to mean he felt they could survive a deeper whack to their depth chart because a franchise-caliber quarterback should make up for a lot of ills.
"We just made a conscious decision that, over the long haul, because of Joe, we would take a different route," Newsome said.
He added, "It's tough."
Yes. Tough. That's the lesson in this story. Just look around. The New York Giants went four years without a playoff appearance after winning the Super Bowl in 2011. The Denver Broncos missed the playoffs this year after winning the Super Bowl a year ago. After making back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in 2013 and 2014, the Seattle Seahawks have lost twice in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Take away the Patriots, who have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to serve as a kind of insurance policy against post-Super Bowl slumps, and it's clear that following up your success is a daunting task.
The Ravens were set back the first time when they drafted a franchise quarterback who didn't pan out (Kyle Boller). This time, too many of their top picks at other positions haven't panned out, and Flacco hasn't always performed at the level that enabled him to command a big contract.
Nonetheless, Newsome sounded an optimistic note. "I don't think it's going to take us 12 years to get back" to the Super Bowl, he said, referencing how long it took the first time.
Some fans are growing anxious, but it's worth noting that they've been in this exact position before and the story turned out quite happily.