Ravens shift focus to 2016 season
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Joe Flacco and Steve Smith would have preferred to be talking about the playoffs, the usual topic of conversation this time of year for the Ravens.
Instead, Baltimore's starting quarterback and its most dangerous receiver spent the first Monday after the regular season discussing the rehabilitative schedule for their injuries.
"It's going to be a long road for him, just like myself," Flacco said.
He spoke with his back to his locker as his teammates packed their belongings into large garbage bags — an appropriate conclusion to a horrid 5-11 season.
Flacco tore ligaments in his left knee on Nov. 22 and Smith tore his right Achilles tendon on Nov. 1. They were among the 20 Baltimore players who ended the year on injured reserve, no small factor in the Ravens' first losing season since coach John Harbaugh took over in 2008.
Baltimore reached the playoffs in six of seven years before this one. The Ravens opened the 2015 season by losing their first three games, a first in the 20-year history of the franchise. Baltimore then beat Pittsburgh, but lost three more.
By the time it was over, the Ravens went through four quarterbacks and lost nine games by eight points or fewer.
"We need to improve, there's no doubt about it," Flacco said. "We're a 5-11 football team and we feel like we're a lot better than that."
Mallett makes his mark: With Flacco out, Ryan Mallett established himself as the favorite to serve as the backup quarterback in 2016. Mallett played in the final two games, which included a win over Pittsburgh and a 24-16 loss Sunday against AFC North champion Cincinnati.
If Flacco isn't ready to start the opener in September, Mallett will be.
"I always go into the offseason and prepare like the starter," Mallett said. "If you don't prepare like a starter, you're not going to be ready when your number is called."
Free agents: One of the items on the Ravens' offseason checklist is figuring out what to do with pending free agents such as kicker Justin Tucker, linebacker Courtney Upshaw, and offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele. There's also a strong likelihood Flacco will be asked to renegotiate the contract he signed after leading Baltimore to a Super Bowl in 2012.
"You know this thing is going to come no matter what you do," Flacco said.
Smith, 36, was poised to retire after this season but changed his mind after being short-changed on his 15th year in the league. He, like Flacco, expects to be ready to roll by training camp.
"I do have a desire to play and I also have an organization that wants me to play and is encouraging me to keep playing," Smith said. "That's what I want to do. I'm under contract for one more year."
Suggs' status: Clearly, the Ravens are a better team with Flacco, Smith and linebacker Terrell Suggs, who tore his Achilles tendon in Week 1. But even if everyone on injured reserve comes back, that may not be enough for Baltimore to be a contender in 2016.
"I think there's going to be additions to the offense, defense, special teams," Smith said. "Obviously, when you have a disappointing season statistically, you have to make changes."
Suggs was in the building for the final meeting between the coaches and players, but the 33-year-old who's still in a walking boot didn't make an appearance in the locker room.
"Suggs is a little vulnerable right now," Smith said. "He's not a ray of sunshine like he usually is."
Disappointing year: This was not a day for smiles, fun and laughter.
"It's definitely not the year we expected," left tackle Eugene Monroe said. "At this point, we can only go forward."
The Ravens will probably move forward without Monroe, who played in only 14 games in 2014 and started only six this season because of injuries.
Tight end Dennis Pitta is also a big question mark in 2016. Pitta missed the entire season while recovering from a second hip operation and is still waiting to receive medical clearance to resume his NFL career.
"I feel good physically and I feel like I can go out and run," he said. "It'll be about weighing the risks versus the rewards at this point. We'll do some thinking over the next few months and the offseason, and get with the doctors and go from there."