Ravens pack up lockers, head home earlier than they’d like

The 2013 Ravens were together intact for perhaps the final time Monday, as players packed up their lockers, preparing to begin the offseason far earlier than they hoped they would.

Baltimore saw a proud string of five consecutive playoff appearances end with an up-and-down 8-8 campaign that was capped by two straight losses and the Chargers taking the AFC’s sixth seed.

“That’s what happens - when you don’t play good enough football, you end up in here early,” cornerback Corey Graham said.

The Ravens hoped for better when winning the Super Bowl in February, even after experiencing significant turnover on both sides of the ball. Instead of getting back to the playoffs to defend its crown, Baltimore will be watching from home as the 15th champion to fail to qualify for the postseason the next year.

“It’s tough when you’re home this early. Certainly, it will spark a fire for next year,” running back Ray Rice said. “I ain’t even unpacking my locker. I’ll be around, but I just feel like it’s too early to be packing up. We’ll get back. It’s not easy. It’s tough. But this is a hard-working bunch. We’ve just got to find things that fit us and we’ll get back to being better.”

The Ravens finished with the NFL’s 12th-ranked defense and 29th-ranked offense, including the 30th-ranked rushing attack. The Ravens’ 1,328 rushing yards were the fewest in team history.

The lack of a running game was perhaps the main contributor to Baltimore’s offensive woes. It’s hard to move the ball with any consistency when you don’t offer the threat of balance, and the Ravens were essentially a one-dimensional team from the start.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say there was one thing that went wrong,” fullback Vonta Leach said of the ground game problems. “There was times when running backs and the offensive line weren’t on the same page, and there were other times where it just wasn’t working. So we’ve got to go back and overall just look at things and see what went wrong.”

Rice said he never would’ve believed it if someone told him before the year that the Ravens would have the worst rushing season in club history.

“No. We’ve always been able to run the ball,” he said. “I’m sure that will be an offseason study to get things back to the running game to help Joe (Flacco) out in the passing game. They all offset each other, so we’ll get back to that. I know running the ball is something we’re good at and we’re capable of doing. But we’ve just got to look at it.”

Health was a factor for Rice, who suffered a significant hip injury in Week 2 but only missed one game. He never was back to full strength, but ...

“I got healthy enough to help my team and my deal is a rest deal. So right now, I get to rest on my leg. I’ll come back in the best shape of my life,” he said.

Even though the Ravens defense could arguably be considered the team’s MVP collectively, its negative hallmark was struggling late in games by letting opponents embark on lengthy drives, many times directly contributing to close losses.

The inability to make those big stops baffled members of the unit.

“I wish I knew (what went wrong),” linebacker Daryl Smith said. “If I knew the answers, we would have benched all of that. Just unraveling, I guess, toward the end, and not being able to get off the field, make the play that we need to make or miscommunication. I mean, hey, it was a number of issues that came up over the season, and that hurt us.”

The Ravens learned a difficult lesson this season, one many teams before them have been taught - it’s difficult to repeat as Super Bowl champions in a salary cap world where parity rules and dynasties are in the past.

“Everybody’s gunning for you when you’re champions and we don’t make any excuses for anything, and we own our losses and we own our wins at the same time,” tight end Ed Dickson said. “We just weren’t good enough this year. That gives you kind of an answer going into the offseason; you’ve got something to work on in areas you want to get better.”

Rice tried to find some positive to take from the Ravens’ worst season under coach John Harbaugh and from missing the playoffs for the first time in his career.

“It’s tough. It’s not normal, especially for me (to miss the playoffs). I’ve always been in the playoffs every year,” Rice said. “But I wish I would take something, to take the load off - maybe more time with my daughter, to watch her grow up a little more. I get to celebrate her birthday, and actually get to be around for my birthday, and I never was around for my birthday. So I wasn’t looking forward to that.

“But more time with the kid, more time with the family, you never can take that away. But when you’re here, this was your family. This is your family and for the last couple months we battled, and it’s tough to just see it end like this. We could’ve done some great things and we’ll just try to bounce back and get back to where we need to get back to next year.”