Still, the future brings considerable challenges that could, in fact, be far greater than what the Ravens faced in 2008 with a first-year coach and rookie quarterback.
Can Ryan fulfill father's legacy?
The biggest is the loss of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who is the new coach of the New York Jets. His game-planning and play-calling were largely responsible for the Ravens defense consistently ranking among the best in the NFL. While Ryan was fired when the entire staff was let go after the 2007 season, Harbaugh and the rest of the franchise's hierarchy recognized the value he brought and rehired Ryan as the defensive coordinator.
If Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau is the best defensive coordinator in the league, Ryan was not far behind. In fact, some coaches would give Ryan the edge for being more exotic and creative in his thinking because of the many different places that every player can wind up in any given situation. Offensive coordinators and quarterbacks have long struggled to figure out ways to cope with Ryan's strategy, which could change from snap to snap. In some cases, they didn't and would simply hope for the best.
Filling that sort of hole will be extremely difficult. It might not be impossible, but don't be surprised if Baltimore's defense loses something in the transition from Ryan to his replacement.
The Ravens are likely to fill the defensive coordinator spot from within, which makes sense because the other assistants on the defensive staff have a good understanding of Ryan's philosophy and that would help maintain continuity in the scheme. They have solid candidates in special assistant Vic Fangio, linebackers coach Greg Mattison and secondary coach Chuck Pagano. But whether any of them has Ryan's feel and touch when it comes to calling a particular blitz or making a particular adjustment at exactly the right time remains to be seen.
Salary cap realities suggest that the Ravens' best hope would be to put a franchise tag on one of the three and sign a second to a long-term deal. Suggs and Lewis are the priorities, although Scott's loss would be felt. And it won't be easy to convince Suggs or Lewis to accept a franchise tag. In 10 years, Lewis has never been able to explore the open market. Another consideration is that Ryan could very well have his eye on taking at least one of those players with him to the Jets.
Another concern is the Ravens' ability to enhance their receiving corps. Joe Flacco's performance was impressive, but could have been so much better had he had more game-breakers beyond veteran Derrick Mason. The search for a new deep threat from free agency won't be easy because the pickings are slim. The Ravens might be able to swing a trade for such a player, although the price will likely be steep and could weaken them in another area.
Mason also has some advice for Flacco, who now faces the enormous task of avoiding a sophomore slump after an incredible rookie season that brought him to the doorstep of the Super Bowl.
"Don't be satisfied," Mason said. "Understand that these opportunities don't come around too many times. You have to take full advantage of them. When you don't make it, you have to work even harder next season to get back to the same point to get over that mountain the next time."
Eagles' future for the birds?
As much as the Eagles are trying to press forward with the notion that their two most important areas (coach and quarterback) are stable, it's hard to imagine that they can feel comfortable with either spot.
The burden of losing yet another NFC Championship Game will weigh heavily on the entire organization. Andy Reid's job as coach is secure, but one can't help but wonder just how enthusiastic he can be about enduring another season when the question of whether he can lead this team to a Super Bowl victory will hang overhead like a bad odor.
Donovan McNabb is still under contract, but the quarterback wants a new deal -- something that reflects the Eagles' commitment to him -- and it remains unknown whether he will get one.
"You never say, 'The next time,'" Reid told reporters after Sunday's loss to Arizona. "You can't do that in this thing. That's not how it works."
It certainly could be argued that the Eagles' late-season surge warrants that Reid and McNabb have a chance to reach a sixth conference title game. But howling fans and media in Philadelphia -- the same fans and media that wanted to dump the coach and quarterback at midseason -- will express dissatisfaction because they see no reason to believe that anything better is ahead. And we haven't even mentioned the fact the Eagles have several key players -- offensive tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas, safety Brian Dawkins, defensive back Joselio Hanson and running back Correll Buckhalter -- who are due to become unrestricted free agents.
Is a golden dome in Gruden's future?
Jon Gruden is a lot of things: Fiery, demanding, hot-tempered.
One thing he is not is predictable. Gruden's next coaching stop has prompted rampant speculation, and could end up producing an even greater surprise than his being suddenly fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with general manager Bruce Allen, three weeks after the season.
It seems reasonably safe to say Gruden won't be with another NFL team in 2009, but what about the college ranks? There are all sorts of media rumblings that have him winding up at Notre Dame. Charlie Weis remains under fire in South Bend. Although he is supposed to have at least one more year as coach of the Fighting Irish, Gruden's availability could end up changing that.
Gruden is almost as well known for his affinity for Notre Dame as he is for his facial contortions and setting his alarm clock for 3:17 a.m. He played quarterback at South Bend Clay High School while his father, Jim, was an assistant coach at Notre Dame. Back then, the basement of his house was a shrine to Notre Dame.
Consider this excerpt from a book I wrote with Gruden, Do You Love Football?!, published in 2003 after the Buccaneers' victory in Super Bowl XXXVII: "Where it all really kicked in for me, where football became a part of my very soul, was in 1978 when the late Dan Devine hired my dad to be the running backs and special teams coach for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. You had that enthusiasm -- that genuine enthusiasm -- around the program. You had the class and mystique of The Irish. You had the pride of the gold helmet. You had the special kind of kids that go to Notre Dame. Those were the guys I wanted to be like: Joe Montana, Blair Kiel, Vegas Ferguson. All highlighted by that unbelievable fight song: 'Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame …' Hell, I still get the goose bumps whenever I hear it or whenever I see the Fighting Irish on television."
Here's another reason a number of people in NFL and college circles are connecting the dots: Gruden and Weis have the same agent, Bob LaMonte. LaMonte excels at moving his clients around to various places and replacing one with another (as he did with Mike Holmgren and Jim Mora in Seattle). For the record, Mark Dominick, Tampa Bay's new GM, also is a LaMonte client.
Gruden has taken his share of bashing from Bucs fans dissatisfied with the mediocrity that followed the Super Bowl win in his first season with Tampa Bay. Many have pointed out that the Vince Lombardi Trophy he hoisted truly belonged to the coach he replaced, Tony Dungy. And perhaps that's true. But the team the Bucs beat in the Super Bowl, Oakland, was one that Gruden had a strong hand in putting together, along with Allen. Gruden also gave the Bucs an offensive spark they sorely lacked under Dungy.
One other point about the man known as "Chucky": He is his harshest critic. A few years after the book came out, he suggested to me, in a crowded hotel lobby at the league's annual meetings, that the title be revised to, "Loser!" After the death of Bill Walsh in 2007, Gruden gave this gem to Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi in response to a question about his being one of many proud products of the Walsh coaching tree: "Right now, I'm one of those acorns that has fallen far from the tree."
Don't rule out his ability to get back up and make an impact somewhere.
The first time I met Raheem Morris, Gruden's replacement in Tampa Bay, was at the Buccaneers' minicamp last spring. He was impressive, showing the dynamic personality reminiscent of his predecessor. I found it interesting that the team's public relations staff made a point of my speaking with him; clearly, there was a vision of a larger future for the man who, at the time, was a defensive backs coach. And, after speaking with him for about 15 minutes, it was easy to understand why. When he was a cornerback at Hofstra University, his nickname was "The Coach." I thought, at the very least, he would be the perfect successor to then-Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin (which, of course, he was before his prompt promotion to the top job).
It was great to read this quote from Bubba Tyer, the long-time trainer for the Redskins who recently retired, in the Washington Times about his first retirement (in 2002), which lasted a year: "(Redskins owner Dan Snyder) gave me great seats right under his box, but I started hollering and cursing like I used to on the sideline, and I decided I couldn't stay there. I'm going to talk to Dan about getting seats right behind the bench so I can holler and curse." By the way, although Tyer is a native Texan, he reserves the brunt of that hollering and cursing for (you guessed it) the Dallas Cowboys.
On the bright side
Maybe it's the glass-is-half-full part of me, but I don't buy the notion that the Detroit Lions should feel worse about their futility now that the Cardinals have broken from the ranks of the only teams prior to the 1970 NFL-AFL merger not to reach the Super Bowl. Cleveland and New Orleans are also among the four pre-merger clubs never to go the distance, but the Lions stand out as having the greatest ineptitude because of their 0-16 finish. The Lions should draw inspiration from the Cardinals, who were long seen as one of the most bungling and clueless franchises in the NFL. If the Cards can do it, anyone can. And, yes, that includes Detroit.