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Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome likes to tell the story of how he built his Super Bowl-winning defense.
He starts at the beginning, in 1996, when "we couldn't stop water." Then he progresses to visionary draft picks, key free agent signings and trades.
And eventually Newsome's point is made, that over the process of four years the Ravens built one of the greatest defenses to ever step on a football field.
The point is, if Newsome and the rest of Baltimore's front office set its mind to improving one aspect of the team, they're going to do it. But that process doesn't happen overnight.
When the task of significantly upgrading the Ravens' offense began several years ago, Newsome used his same tried-and-true strategy – most importantly scout and draft well and then make a few key signings at the right times.
And he's already seen results. In 2009, the Ravens tied the franchise record (set in 1996) for most points scored in a season. They notched their best offensive game in Week 1, then beat that record twice during the season.
Now, with the free agency and trading period starting Friday and the NFL Draft less than two months away, the Ravens are hoping they can fill in the missing pieces.
"Any time you enter a new season, you have to go in saying, 'We've got to get better,'" Newsome said last month. "The good part of that is we've got some young players, and those young players are ascending. And they should be better players. So, when you add that to [Joe Flacco's development], and with us knowing that we are going to add pieces to the puzzle, then that should help us to improve."
### The Starting Point
The Ravens try to improve their offense every year, but history shows a concerted effort beginning in the 2005 offseason.
Baltimore's offense had just finished the 2004 season ranked 31st in the NFL in average yards per game (273.4 ypg). The Ravens didn't have a single player who notched more than 35 catches that year.
It was the lowest output in franchise history, yet the Ravens still finished with a 9-7 record. But if Baltimore was going to get back to winning championships, it was clear it had to improve the offense.
In 2006, the Ravens took defensive tackle Haloti Ngata with their first-round draft selection, making him the only defensive player Baltimore took with its first pick over the past five years. But that same offseason, the Ravens traded for former Pro Bowl quarterback Steve McNair.
In 2007, the Ravens drafted three-fifths of its current starting offensive line. Baltimore snagged left guard Ben Grubbs with the 29th pick in the first round, right guardMarshal Yanda in the third round and left tackleJared Gaither in the supplemental draft.
"We [didn't] have an offensive line, and now you look at our offensive line, and we've got youth, we've got depth, and they're pretty good," Newsome said.
Newsome made more progress in 2007 when he traded for running back Willis McGahee and then signed him long-term. Baltimore also drafted two-time Pro Bowler Le'Ron McClain in the fourth round of the 2007 draft. That supplied two-thirds of the Ravens' current rushing game.
The 2008 offseason brought the most drastic change – a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback.
"We could build this offense several different ways," Cameron thought. "But ultimately you've got to be able to come up with a quarterback, ultimately, if you don't have a great running back, you've got to have great receivers."
So Baltimore went about finding its quarterback first. And, luckily for them, they had a few options in the 2008 draft. Not surprisingly, the Ravens took a good one in Flacco with the No. 18 overall pick.
In that same draft, the Ravens found their "great running back" in the second round in the form of Ray Rice. All-of-a-sudden, Baltimore had the keys to the car.
"Anyone would tell you it starts with the quarterback," Cameron said. "Great running backs can buy you some time before you have to have to put all the passing pieces together. But by the third year you should be able to put the whole thing together.
### Putting It All Together
Cameron teases his current young offense, saying that if LeBron James can dominate the NBA at 18 years old, there should be no excuses for his players not to do the same in their first few years in the NFL.
Of course, Cameron knows that the precision mechanics of the modern NFL offense takes some time. But his message is clear.
"Your window to put together a Top 10 or Top 5 offense, it shouldn't take more than three years," Cameron said. "You better make a mark for yourself quickly because there's another draft class coming right behind you."
The Ravens, with Flacco growing in his second year under center, finished the season ranked 13th in the NFL in total offense and ninth in total points scored, the category Cameron cares about most. That's was an improvement from 11th in the NFL in total points in 2008 and 24th in 2007.
Now Cameron and the rest of the Ravens are hoping to take the next step in year three of this coaching regime.
Cameron said it partly depends on if the Ravens can resign all their key offensive weapons. Clayton, Gaither, McClain and Yanda are restricted free agents and Mason is an unrestricted free agent. That would allow the offense to build upon the timing and chemistry it has already developed.
Adding more weapons to the arsenal would be a bonus. The top priority on many fans' lists this offseason, as it has for the past several, is a wide receiver. Newsome has said that the organization is looking to improve at the wideout position.
"We've always felt that that's the component that comes together last," Cameron said of the wide receivers. "Joe with the right kind of receivers, you'll see some pretty special things in a short period of time."
With that said, Cameron asked for "supportive impatience," from Ravens fans.
As Newsome proved more than a decade ago, dominant units don't take shape in a day, or a week or a year. It's a constant building cycle, and the Ravens offense is well on its way.
"We're not afraid of high expectations and we're not afraid of criticism," Cameron said, addressing Ravens fans. "But we just need you to be part of it with us."