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Pressure on Flacco to lead more balanced Ravens to Super Bowl

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens understand the immense expectations of this 2010 season. In fact, they embrace the challenge.

You won't find anyone making proclamations about being Super Bowl favorites, or entering the Rex Ryan stratosphere of boasting, but there is a refined, cool brashness to the way the team is going about its business this offseason. It doesn't have to be said, because it's felt. Spend any time around the club's immaculate practice facility, and the vibe is palpable.

The Ravens know they have a team capable of doing great things this season. Now, after setbacks in the playoffs each of the past two seasons, they must go out and do it. In the offseason, Baltimore added receivers Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth for young quarterback Joe Flacco (and retained retirement-pondering Derrick Mason). Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is entering his second season molding the defense, and with the their heated rivals, the Steelers, enduring one of the more trying offseasons in franchise history, this just might be the Ravens' year.

"Our aspirations are always to be the very best Ravens we can be from one day to the next, from the start of camp through the opening game against the Jets and until the end of the season," coach John Harbaugh said. "And where that takes us is where it takes us. But we've made no secret that this organization is run by (owner) Steve Bisciotti with excellence in mind. The idea is to build a dynasty; that's what we're trying to do.

"And to do that you've got to win multiple championships. We've said that. And to win multiple championships, first you've got to win one. They won one in 2000, and we need to win our next one, and this year is as good as any to get that done."

It's not as if a window is closing. Despite the increasing age of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, this roster is well stocked with youth and promise throughout. It's not do or die in Baltimore (think the Vikings and Brett Favre), but the Ravens are certainly among the teams I'd put in the Super Bowl or bust category.

Minnesota, Indianapolis, San Diego, New Orleans, and Dallas would also fit in that description. Failure to at least reach the final game would be, well, a failure. Some would make the case the Jets and Patriots merit consideration here as well, and I wouldn't put up too much of a fight. The Ravens welcome the distinction.

"The last two years we've been close," said Mason, a veteran vocal leader, "So anything less than a trip to the Super Bowl, and even a Super Bowl win, it would be all for nothing. Regardless of who we've brought in and what changes we've made on offense, defense and the coaching staff, if we can't put ourselves in a position to get a championship out of this at the end of the year, then it's a failed season.

"And I think that's the attitude you have to have in this locker room. Because if you settle for short, you're going to get short. I think guys in this locker room are looking at the potential of winning a Super Bowl, and it's a real thing, it's tangible. It's not like we're just going to think about it, and hopefully we can go. This team has a realistic shot of making it to the Super Bowl and winning it."

For the Ravens, 2010 is about the immediacy of winning now, but also about maintaining the progressive growth exhibited since the dismantling of their last title winner. General Manager Ozzie Newsome and his trusted top assistant, Eric DeCosta, have stockpiled abundant talent culled through all rounds of the draft, un-drafted free agents, compensatory picks, trades, and free agency, both pricey and shopping in the bargain bin. They excel at finding players who fit perfectly into the system, mentality and style of play that defines Baltimore Ravens football, and instill confidence in the coaching staff about their prospects for years to come.

"The philosophy here is not to take a shot, the window closes, and then we start all over again," Bisciotti said. "The plan here, and this is something I've talked about with Steve and Ozzie and (team president) Dick Cass from Day One. We're going to try to build a team that is a contender every year for as long as we can.

"And that means when your veteran players move out, you've got other players who are ready to push them out. But you want those guys to play at a high level as long as they can. So I think we've got a veteran team with a veteran presence, but we've also got a good young team. And when you can say that on both ends, that's what you're trying to do."

To that end, Flacco enters his third year with fans looking for a breakthrough in terms of his decision making in the red zone and late in games. Fans also want to see an improvement in his efficiency distributing the ball in the middle third of the field (Boldin's hulking presence alone should be a major asset in that regard). Flacco will be working behind the best young offensive line in football, and Ray Rice enters his third season as one of the most explosive multi-threat backs in the NFL. On the other side of the football, Haloti Ngata is one of the most dynamic game-changers in the NFL on the defensive line and Terrell Suggs is a dominant pass rusher still in his mid-20s.

Flacco, above all others, will be dissected weekly. The Ravens have never had anything close to a franchise quarterback, and after years of the defense carrying the offense, everyone associated with Ravens football is desperate for more balance. Baltimore will remain a run-heavy team -- with Rice, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain in the backfield, that's a given -- but getting more of a vertical threat and better consistency from the passing attack is a must. The lack of those final pieces of the puzzle is precisely what has derailed their last two playoff marches.

For Flacco, it means execution, but also continuing to evolve as a presence, a leader, a huddle general. With three former head coaches on the offensive side of the ball -- Cam Cameron, Al Saunders and Jim Zorn, something few teams could boast -- there should be no shortage of ideas for how to bring the youngster along.

"He has to be the guy that drives this offense," Mason said. "The guys around you are only as good as the quarterback, and the quarterback is only as good as the guys around him. But for us, Joe, because he is so young, has to be the guy that drives this offense.

"The more confidence he has, the more confidence this offense will have, because I think we have enough guys at the skill positions who have enough years and enough experience around them. We have the confidence at the skill position and on the offensive line. Now what Joe has to do is to find a way to make sure this team all stays on its course no matter what happens during the season. And I think he's doing that and he understands that, yes he has to be the driving force, but he don't have to be the only driving force. He understands that and he's really comfortable with the role that he's in right now."

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Team officials already feel like their entire rookie class stands a good chance of making the final roster. Getting Terrence Cody and Sergio Kindle -- first-round talents -- in the second round was typical Ravens' acumen. But lesser known tight end Dennis Pitta is drawing rave review from veterans; look for him to be a part of key personnel packages right away. Also turning heads are fifth-round picks David Reed, a receiver from Utah who some feel already could be the heir apparent to Mason, and Arthur Jones, a versatile defensive tackle.

It's not all perfect in Baltimore, however. Suggs has no excuse for not attending organized team activities (OTAs). Last year he signed a massive contract and then he didn't seem to get in shape and in form until the final weeks of the season. Reed, as much as he intends to return, is a question mark of sorts following hip surgery and his neck is always a concern. The secondary could be vulnerable with corners Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb trying to come back from major surgery and unable to do much this offseason (which explains why free agent defensive backs Walt Harris, Ken Lucas and Ken Hamlin are in town for a look-see this week).

Then there is the matter of the Ravens being stripped of their final week of OTAs following violations of league rules. During the first week of offseason work six players were kept too long in meetings and two were kept too long on the field. The team's player reps informed Harbaugh of the issue right away, and the team complied fully with the NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) investigation.

Mason, who has long been active in the NFLPA and serves as Baltimore's primary player rep, repeatedly referred to it as a mere "miscommunication about the time we're allotted," and downplayed its significance. Harbaugh was overtly apologetic, "I agree with (the penalty), and I'm accountable for that," he said. "We deserved to lose those last two days."

Above all else, however, it just wasn't the way the franchise ever intends to operate. "It's a little bit embarrassing," Harbaugh said of the infraction. That's a feeling he and his players can't much stomach. It's a sensation I don't anticipate them experiencing much more in 2010, either.

It's always sunny in San Diego?

The San Diego Chargers have every right to decrease the contract tenders extended to restricted free agent OT Marcus McNeill and restricted free agent WR Vincent Jackson, as per the intricacies of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA). And while few in football are surprised that rugged general manager A.J. Smith took a hard line with those players, I'm not sure it's the best way to go.

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In years past, both players would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency, or franchise designations, if nothing else. They would be among the highest paid players at their positions, period. Paying them the high tender -- roughly $3 million -- is, in and of itself, a major bargain. Lowering them to roughly $600,000 could prove demoralizing to the locker room, and it sends a skewed message.

In years past, the Chargers would have already been forced to consider long-term deals for these two -- along with LB Shawne Merriman and WR Malcom Floyd -- and of that group, McNeill and Jackson are by far the most important. Both players anticipated the Chargers lowering the tender offer, according to sources, and neither plans to report by June 15, when those tenders can be slashed.

This could get ugly, folks.

If you were to crawl into Jackson's mind, you would be wondering why after years of Pro Bowl work and outperforming your contract, the Chargers seem more interesting in "dating" you, than marrying you (via a long-term contract extension). For a team in which the offense carries a heavy load, only QB Philip Rivers is more important.

And, for as much as the Chargers are following the letter of the law in terms of the CBA, so too are the players by staying away from offseason work that is voluntary. San Diego is facing a crucial season in terms of securing a long-term solution to its stadium crisis and with fans frustrated with playoff failures. There's a lot at stake. If I'm the Chargers, I'm not sure I'd be doing much to antagonize or prod critical players. If, in the case of Jackson, his troubling string of DUI incidents are an impediment to entering into an extension, fair enough. Then I'd try to find some compensation via trade and move on.

But every step in this dance, thus far, has been curt and at arm's length, and I can't see any of it aiding San Diego's spirit or mentality in the locker room.

Extra points

Union bigwig Kevin Mawae was asked during an NFLPA conference call on Wednesday whether or not he felt his active role with that organization had something to do with the fact that he is still on the market despite another Pro Bowl season. Mawae, who is pushing 40 and realizes that is certainly part of the equation as well, gave the impression that while he doesn't think his union leadership at a time of labor unrest is the driving force behind his status, it is somewhat connected. ... Hard to be heartened by the latest lashing out between the NFLPA and NFL, but I remain steadfast in my belief that the 2011 will not be compromised by any labor issues. ... My money remains on Kyle Orton to open Week 1 for the Broncos. ... All the best to Isaac Bruce in his post-playing career. He was all class during his playing days, and I expect him to be enshrined in Canton one day. It may take a little time, but I see a mustard-colored jacket in his future one day.

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