As the Ravens filed into the locker room yesterday following a season-ending team meeting with head coach John Harbaugh, few wore smiles on their faces.
Saturday's playoff loss to the Steelers still stung, for sure, but as the players started to clean out their lockers and pack their things, many turned their attention to the offseason and the uncertainty that faces this team going forward.
What uncertainty, specifically?
"We don't know who will be here and we don't know when we'll be here," linebacker Jarret Johnson said.
Yup, that about sums it up. Don't look now, but there are a number of major issues that loom over this Ravens team as it begins its offseason.
Here are the big three, as I see them:
1. The Ravens have a whopping 17 players who are unrestricted free agents, including nine starters.
2. Former Ravens quarterback coach Hue Jackson has been named head coach of the Raiders (good for Hue, a guy who is well-liked around the league), and he could be bringing a few of his former Ravens coaching colleagues with him out to Oakland.
3. A lockout would begin March 4 if a new collective bargaining agreement isn't reached.
Let's work in reverse order here as we break these down. Issue No. 3 isn't one that's exclusive to the Ravens. The lack of a new CBA would interrupt the normal offseason schedule and prevent teams from making trades or signing free agents. Minicamps wouldn't be allowed to take place - which, believe me, players wouldn't be all that upset about - but if a lockout drags on, the 2011 season itself could be in jeopardy.
"I think there's uncertainty that a lot of us don't know about," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "From the owners (to the) players, we just don't know. You don't know what to expect, what to do. All you can do is prepare properly and be ready for whatever happens."
It's impossible to say exactly how long the lockout would last, although many believe the union won't be in a hurry to strike a deal initially. For his part, Harbaugh said he doesn't expect the lockout - assuming there is one - to carry over into the regular season.
The Ravens have probably seen Issue No. 2 coming for a couple weeks now, as Jackson appeared to be the favorite to land the Raiders' head coaching gig since previous coach Tom Cable was fired at the end of the regular season.
Jackson, who spent the 2008 and 2009 seasons here in Baltimore tutoring Joe Flacco, could very well decide to bring a few Ravens coaches with him out to the West Coast. Senior offensive assistant Al Saunders, secondary coach Chuck Pagano and running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery are some names to watch there, and if those guys (or others) leave, the Ravens will need to conduct a search for suitable replacements.
Then there's Issue No. 1, which will keep members of the Ravens' front office up at night. General manager Ozzie Newsome and his staff will have the difficult task of determining which of the 17 unrestricted free agents are worth trying to re-sign, and which they could afford to lose.
Because of the sheer number of free agents involved, it would seem the Ravens' locker room will look significantly different next year. Harbaugh disagrees with that notion, however.
"There's always a chance it could, but I don't think it will," Harbaugh said. "I think these guys want to be here, and I think Ozzie and (president) Dick (Cass) and (owner) Steve (Bisciotti) are committed to bringing as many of them back as we can. And I think we have the means to do it."
Many of the players had a different - and possibly more rational - take on the matter yesterday.
"That's one thing about the NFL - everybody can't come back," said cornerback Josh Wilson, a free agent himself. "Everybody's not going to be back. This team is never going to be the same again. There's guys that this is going to be the last time I see them. It might be the last time you guys see me here. So, it's definitely going to be something that changes."
Added cornerback Chris Carr, who is also a free agent: "You wish everybody would come back, but that's just not the nature of the business."