As trash bags filled with the contents of messy lockers were dragged out of the Ravens' training facility on Monday, players painted a glum picture following a 20-3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Obviously, the season didn't end the way Baltimore envisioned, a 9-7 regular-season record and a trip to the divisional round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year wasn't enough for many to call 2009 a success.
Amid the solemn goodbyes, Head Coach John Harbaugh maintained a rosier disposition.
"They're going to feel that way because our guys are competitive," he said in a season-wrapping press conference Tuesday morning. "Our guys expected to be playing this week, so that's a natural disappointment. But, I want them to understand how well they played this year. I want them to understand the accomplishments of the last two years.
"I want them to understand what we're building, and I want them to have a vision for where we're going. Because, if they don't have a vision for where we're going, we can't get there. But if they understand where we're going, they can build themselves into that, you know? That's what I'm excited about."
Even so, ending their playoff run earlier than expected was not easy to swallow. Last year, the Ravens advanced all the way to the AFC Championship game, dropping a heart-breaker to the Pittsburgh Steelers within a sniff of the Super Bowl.
Many Ravens set the bar even higher this year.
"I felt like such a loser coming in [Monday]," said cornerback Chris Carr. "When I was in Oakland, you'd be out of it in Week 10, and it was kind of like a countdown. But really, everyone on this team was pretty much like, 'Hey, next week,' and everybody was very optimistic and positive-thinking. We thought that we could be in the Super Bowl. So, you lose the game, you kind of go home and wake up saying, 'Man, this is it.' It really kind of hits you when you come in here."
The Ravens did show improvements in Harbaugh's second year, however.
Baltimore got younger on its offensive line, successfully plugging rookie right tackle Michael Oher into the starting lineup while Jared Gaither* *continued to improve on the left side. Quarterback Joe Flacco made improvements in his sophomore season, even if he dealt with a painful hip and thigh bruise through the final few games. Ray Rice even emerged as one of the NFL's top playmakers.
A defensive unit that finished as the third-stingiest in the league excelled in the transition from Rex Ryan to Greg Mattison.
And on special teams, the Ravens managed to withstand several key injuries – most notably to former Pro Bowl special teamer Brendon Ayanbadejo – by developing other hungry players in their coverage units.
As such, Harbaugh believes the Ravens are becoming the club he originally envisioned.
"We'll continue to be the kind of football team that we want to be," said Harbaugh. "We're going to be a rough, tough, disciplined, hardnosed, clean-playing football team. That's what we're all about from beginning to end. And I think we keep chasing those goals, and you see those things express themselves on the field."
The Ravens' identity on defense is easy to pinpoint. The group is tough against the run and a boasts a secondary that got better as the season progressed despite being ravaged by injuries. With middle linebacker Ray Lewis in the locker room, there will always be an intense mindset and a sense of accountability, as well.
Baltimore's special teams units will continue to be scrappy with Harbaugh's background of nine years as the Philadelphia Eagles' special teams coordinator and Jerry Rosburg's mentoring.
But, one of the loudest criticisms from both fans and media was a perceived lack of offensive identity.
The Ravens began the year amassing yardage by letting Flacco air it out, but reverted to a run-oriented attack down the stretch. Neither worked against the Colts.
Harbaugh said he isn't worried about one distinct personality in coordinator Cam Cameron's* *system.
"We need to be able to run the ball, we need to be able to throw the ball, we need to be aggressive across the board," he explained. "We need to be able to spread the ball around, get the ball to all of our receivers in different situations, run the ball inside and outside, throw the ball down the field, and from sideline to sideline and over the middle. And that takes time to develop."
Moving forward, none of the Ravens feel they are far from taking the next step. With free agency and the draft looming, not to mention the potential retirement of wideout Derrick Mason and safety Ed Reed, there will undoubtedly be many new faces in the locker room.
Areas of interest definitely include receiver, tight end and defensive line, but the Ravens will evaluate the roster from top to bottom.
"We want to hold all the good players together as much as we can," said Harbaugh. "The more guys we can keep here, then we can build on that and improve our team and get better, have as much competition in training camp as we can. I would say foundationally, fundamentally, culturally, yes. It should look the same, but better as we improve ourselves as coaches and improve our roster."
Despite the melancholy that hangs over move-out day every year, there is definitely room for optimism in 2010. The Ravens simply need to stay true to the collective "vision."
"I would say it's a matter of sharpening what you've got," cornerback Domonique Foxworth stated. "I mean, it's not a coincidence that we made pretty deep runs in the playoffs the last couple of seasons. You can't do that without the type of talent that you need in this league. I think we have championship talent here."