John Eisenberg: Let The Fun Begin

Opening day of training camp still stirs broad smiles across Ravenstown.

Posted by John Eisenberg on Tuesday, July 24th, 2012 at 10:38 am | Categories: John Eisenberg

The Ravens opened the 2012 season Monday with their first training camp practice in Owings Mills. I doubt anyone will weep.

The phrase “quarterbacks, rookies and injured veterans practice” doesn’t quite bring the same emotional heft as “pitchers and catchers report,” baseball’s famous phrase signaling the start of its annual cycle.

Of course, baseball’s first stirrings come in gloomy February, when everyone desperately needs the promise that winter eventually will end, its white landscape to be replaced by green.

Football starts up in July, when half of the world is either already on vacation or dreaming of it. The promise of snowy December games doesn’t exactly grab you with its lyricism.

But having said that, the return of the NFL still stirs broad smiles across Ravenstown. The return of pro football, America’s true sports obsession, is celebrated everywhere.
Baseball is a grand game, long known as the National Pastime and certainly popular in my house, but there’s no debating the towering primacy of the sport of pro football these days.

The NFL has shot to the top for, in my mind, two reasons, the biggest being that everyone has a legitimate chance to win every year. Baseball is generally dominated by a ruling class of “haves,” the absence of a salary cap enabling them to dwarf their competitors. In the NFL, the cap, draft and balanced schedule level the playing field, leading to less predictability.

The New York Giants finished 10-6 and didn’t make the playoffs in 2010. A year later, they went 9-7 and won the Super Bowl. Go figure.

Such craziness is pretty much the norm in the NFL. There are wild swings from year to year, even week to week. The line separating success and failure is amazingly thin. The best of teams (Ravens) can lose to the worst of teams (Jaguars) if they don’t bring their “A” game.

The byproduct of all that is today, as training camps open, every fan across the country can rightfully envision their team going far.

Sure, there’s still somewhat of a ruling class in the NFL, as in baseball, but it’s composed more of the smart and steady franchises than just the rich ones. You have to earn your way above the level playing field.

The Ravens, with their four straight playoff appearances and eight since 2000, have done just that, joined the ruling class. Pro Football Talk, a plugged-in place, has them at No. 5 in a preseason power poll, even with Terrell Suggs out indefinitely. That’s high praise, the foretelling of yet another interesting season at the very least.

It doesn’t mean there aren’t major questions simmering as camp opens. Is the offensive line too old? Can the new outside linebackers set the edge of a run defense and get to opposing quarterbacks? Is Joe Flacco ready to take another step forward under Jim Caldwell’s tutelage? Can Suggs’ absence really be overcome?

But their No. 5 ranking is attributable to what the Ravens are known to have going for them, questions notwithstanding – a long history of playing strong defense, one of the game’s best running backs, a fleet of young cornerbacks, veteran leadership, a winning habit.

Most fans are, of course, already well aware of the pros and cons heading into camp. That’s the NFL’s other powerful institutional asset, which has helped it soar to the top of the sports pile – its ability to keep itself in the headlines, spin a year-round narrative.

Tell me when the Ravens aren’t in the news, folks. In some respects, the offseason has ceased to exist.

Since the AFC title-game loss in late January (sorry for the mention), we have followed the Ravens through the highs and lows of the combine, free agency, the draft, Organized Team Activities, minicamps – let’s see, did I leave out anything?

They haven’t played a single game, but they have continually spun out a narrative. What happens starting today is just a continuation, the next chapter, with more to come. Can they bounce back from that dramatic season-ending loss? It’s time to start finding out.

Let the fun begin.

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