Ravens clear out lockers earlier than usual

The Baltimore Ravens went from Super to mediocre in 2013,

finishing 8-8 following an offseason in which the NFL champions

shuffled the roster because of salary-cap concerns.

In the months ahead, general manager Ozzie Newsome will resume

the rebuilding process for more conventional reasons: To improve a

flawed team that missed the playoffs.

For the first time in six seasons under coach John Harbaugh, the

Ravens cleared out their lockers one day after the conclusion of

the regular season. It was a dreary Monday for a franchise

unaccustomed to failure.

”It just feels like it’s too early to be packing up,” running

back Ray Rice said. ”It’s not normal, especially for me. I’ve

always been in the playoffs, every year. ”

Baltimore’ running game struggled in 2013, in part because Rice

wasn’t 100 percent healthy. After reaching the 1,000-yard mark in

four straight seasons, he garnered only 660 yards rushing.

That’s due in part to his ailing hip and because Rice was

running behind an offensive line that never really meshed.

Second-year center Gino Gradkowski had to learn under fire after

taking over for retired Matt Birk, left tackle Bryant McKinnie was

traded in October and replaced by Eugene Monroe, and left guard

Kelechi Osemele played only seven games before being placed on

injured reserve.

The ineffective offensive line also impacted the passing game.

Forced to throw under duress virtually every game, Joe Flacco

tossed a career-high 22 interceptions and was sacked an alarming 48

times.

This, after Flacco lost one of his favorite targets, Anquan

Boldin, during the post-Super Bowl roster purge.

Clearly, there were no shortage of reasons for the inconsistency

of an offense that performed so well just one year earlier.

”It wasn’t Joe that led us to this point or the offensive line

or the receivers,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. ”There’s no

one group you can point to. It’s on all of us.”

Baltimore’s problems were made apparent in the opener, a 49-27

loss at Denver. The Ravens were 4-6 before a four-game winning

streak gave them a chance to win a third straight AFC North

title.

But a horrid 41-7 home loss to New England knocked Baltimore out

of the division race, and Sunday’s 34-17 defeat at Cincinnati ended

their playoff hopes.

”We’re an 8-8 football team,” Flacco said. ”We don’t deserve

to be there.”

After they won the Super Bowl in February, the Ravens knew they

would begin defense of the title with a revamped squad. Soon after

that 34-31 win over San Francisco, Birk and linebacker Ray Lewis

retired, Boldin was traded and Newsome made little effort to sign

free agents Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe

and Cary Williams.

Similarly, the 2014 roster will bear only a vague resemblance to

this one.

”Next year, it will be a brand new team,” Smith

acknowledged.

The list of unrestricted free agents includes Pitta, wide

receiver Jacoby Jones, Monroe, right tackle Michael Oher and

standout safety James Ihedigbo.

”I loved my time here and feel like I fit in pretty well,”

Monroe said. ”I came in here and played well every game, and I’d

like the opportunity to do that here again.”

About the only good thing about heading home in December is that

the Ravens will have more time than usual to address their needs

for next season.

”We weren’t good enough this year,” Harbaugh said. ”That’s

what we’ll have to go to work on now going forward to get back to

where we need to be.”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org