Greeting the start of the new Ravens season today might feel a lot like anticipating what's under the tree while padding downstairs on Christmas morning.
Will the big package tucked beneath the lower branches be a second Super Bowl appearance, which fans have dreamed of since 2001 — or just a cruel regifting of seasons past, when the team went to the playoffs and left empty-handed?
"I'm looking forward to going to a Super Bowl. I need a Super Bowl," says Mel Topa, president of the Council of Baltimore Ravens Roosts, an umbrella organization for 69 fan clubs. "Will making the playoffs be enough? No. I don't think the fans think so, and I don't think anyone in the Ravens organization thinks it's enough."
Steve Hoffman, a Baltimore native and manager of the 28th Street Pit and Pub, an Ocean City restaurant that becomes a Ravens hangout on game days, says he'll be opening at 9 a.m . — two hours early — to get the celebration going.
"Of course we're all optimistic. We're all talking Super Bowl. I'm happy we've been in the playoffs three years in a row, but it would be nice to go a little deeper this year," he says. "That would be a nice present to the fans who have been so supportive."
One thing is certain: The bow will come off the package with a flourish, when the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens' arch rivals, run onto the field at M&T Bank Stadium. Their appearance will serve as a bitter reminder of Baltimore's 31-24 divisional playoff loss on Jan. 15.
"This is the table-setter for how the season is going to go," says Topa.
New billboards heralding the start of the season dot the highways around Baltimore — even the purple E-ZPass signs seem a little brighter. And downtown sidewalks were sprinkled Friday with purple-clad pedestrians, dodging cars and raindrops.
"Bring on Festivus Maximus," said Yvonne Bentley of Columbia, invoking the Super Bowl code name used by the players in 2000, as she crossed Pratt Street, her dangling Ravens earrings keeping time with her steps.
Despite the optimism, fans acknowledge an anxiety fueled by the unknown. The strike-shortened pre-season barely gave the faithful a chance to get reacquainted with the team. The training camp in Westminster, which attracted thousands in years past, was canceled, and practices at the Ravens' Owings Mills headquarters were closed to the public. Meanwhile, a $120 million salary cap imposed under the new collective bargaining agreement meant a flurry of roster moves.
"If I were a Ravens fan, I'd be anxious," says Thom Loverro, who hosts the ESPN radio show "Sports Fix" in Washington. "The team you can't get past is the team you've got to get past in the first game of the year. It's like a playoff game the first day of the season."
There are plenty of familiar figures still wearing the purple and black: linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed anchoring the defense, fourth-year quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice making the offense go. And coach John Harbaugh still calls the shots. The team has gone to the playoffs for the last three seasons; the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles are the only others to do that.
But gone are fan favorites Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Willis McGahee and Kelly Gregg, all victims of the salary cap. Fans say it might take some time to get used to the new guys, including wide receivers Torrey Smith and Lee Evans and tight end Ed Dickson (Nos. 82, 83 and 84, respectively).
"I grew up with Bert Jones and Brooks Robinson. Colts were Colts, and Orioles were Orioles. Now you get your kid a jersey, and you don't know how long it's going to be current," says Hoffman. "It's the nature of the beast, I guess."
"It was a little disillusioning, sure," says Topa of the roster moves. "But when we went to the Super Bowl, not everybody knew all the players' names. It's time to give the younger guys a chance to show what they can do."
The region's sports fans are to be forgiven if they cling to their Ravens like a life raft. After all, the Orioles are wrapping up their 14th consecutive losing season and the team's general manager could be packing his bags. Maryland supporters still don't know if they dare have hoops dreams now that Gary Williams has retired, while the football team's new uniforms have been the butt of jokes by bloggers and TV comedians.
So a lot is riding on the Ravens.
"If they stumble, it's going to be a long winter," Topa says.
But after a four-month lockout and rancorous labor talks, just having the Ravens back is reason enough to smile.
"There is anxiety, but there's also hope," says Loverro. "When your team is zero and zero, your fans are at their most optimistic. Anything is possible."