TAMPA, Fla. — So much can change in six months. The confetti has long since tumbled and Super Bowl celebrations enjoyed, tears for a future Hall of Fame linebacker shed and goodbyes given to one of the NFL’s most feared safeties.
It was under a dark sky Thursday night that coach John Harbaugh led the new Baltimore Ravens onto the field at a humid Raymond James Stadium. The “Imperial March” played over the loudspeakers before they emerged from a tunnel, but this was a far different group dressed in a familiar purple than the one that marched through the playoffs last winter and basked in an emotional Super Bowl XLVII victory in New Orleans.
This moment, before a sparse crowd to begin the preseason, represented another marker in their movement past linebacker Ray Lewis (retired) and safety Ed Reed (now with the Houston Texans). This was another step into an era without former contributors such as wide receiver Anquan Boldin (San Francisco 49ers) and safety Bernard Pollard (Tennessee Titans), cornerback Cary Williams (Philadelphia Eagles) and linebackers Paul Kruger (Cleveland Browns) and Dannell Ellerbe (Miami Dolphins) who made last season memorable in Charm City.
Yes, these are still the Ravens, and Harbaugh remains their even, proven leader. Yes, this is football in early August, and a 44-16 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was only a tease of how this first fall without Lewis and Reed could go.
Still, there was a sense that this was a start, something different, as Baltimore moved into its new normal. The time to look back, to reflect, was over, the Ravens’ big party in the Big Easy appearing distant.
“That’s the thing — we’re a very different team than we were,” Harbaugh said. “So we were really anxious to get on the field and just see who we are, because we really don’t know, in a lot of ways. We suspect we have a chance to be a good team, but we’ve got a long way to go as far as being on the same page, in a lot of ways. So it’s a good thing we have preseason.”
As these changed Ravens move forward, there is an opening to evolve. Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, one of the NFL’s sharpest front-office minds, staged a face-lift of necessity in the offseason. With an exodus of proven talent — Reed and Lewis boasted 22 Pro Bowl appearances between them — new names entered that will leave their own fingerprints on Baltimore’s physical brand of play.
Among the arrivals: Linebacker Elvis Dumervil (formerly of the Denver Broncos) and defensive ends Chris Canty (New York Giants) and Marcus Spears (Dallas Cowboys). Also, linebacker Daryl Smith (Jacksonville Jaguars) and safety Michael Huff (Oakland Raiders), plus top draft picks safety Matt Elam and linebacker Arthur Brown.
“We’re still trying to get chemistry rolling,” said Dumervil, who had one tackle Thursday. “As you can see today, it was a good win. But there’s still a lot of room for improvement. . . . I’m sure those guys (Lewis and Reed) are legendary here. They will always be. But we’ll just try to continue what they started.”
With Lewis and Reed, the Ravens built a fierce defensive identity, though that reputation showed wear near the end. Despite claiming the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy, Baltimore lost some bite on that side of the ball last year: They finished No. 12 in scoring defense (21.5 points per game), the lone time they failed to close within the top five in the category since Harbaugh was hired before the 2008 season.
Certainly, this Ravens’ defense will be younger, perhaps more sharp at times with the new influences. Dumervil, tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Terrell Suggs will be charged to fill the emotional void left with Lewis’ and Reed’s absence.
That will be no easy task. Especially for Suggs and Dumervil, their value will be judged in their ability to pressure the quarterback, given how two of the Ravens’ top three sack earners from 2012 (Kruger with nine and Ellerbe with 4-1/2) have departed.
Yes, Lewis, Reed and other key pieces that made the Ravens’ Super Bowl run possible are gone. But their influence, their example, remains part of an approach that lives on.
“The identity was already set by those guys like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed,” said Ravens running back Ray Rice, who had three carries for 7 yards Thursday. “What we’re trying to do is establish our own identity but keep what we already had in place: It’s physical football, it’s go out there and execute at a high level. As long as have the guys to put ourselves in a position to keep our identity, we’ll be all right.”
That is possible. Of course, this is still quarterback Joe Flacco’s team, despite all the change Baltimore has lived since letting the good times roll on Super Sunday. The Super Bowl victory altered his image from a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time talent into someone his franchise deemed worthy of a record six-year, $120.6 million deal.
Flacco’s reputation underwent a transformation in those defining weeks at Denver, New England and New Orleans in the postseason last winter. Now, he has a fresh task: He must be a stable leader to guide the new Ravens into a time when this is, unquestionably, his team in the post-Lewis era.
The work began Thursday. The night offered a glimpse of Baltimore’s new order, however fleeting it may have been. As the organized chaos of a postgame locker room carried on around him, wide receiver Torrey Smith considered a clean start.
“Changes happen in the league every year,” he said after earning two catches for 16 yards. “We just won it, so that’s a bigger microscope. Obviously, we lost a couple legends in the sport in general. It comes with the territory and everyone understands that. We brought in some great guys, some key players for us. It’s all about us jelling now and working hard so we can try to be the best we can.”