As Ravens players packed their bags in Cincinnati after the final game of the season, Head Coach John Harbaugh slowly made his way around the entire locker room.
Instead of going directly to his post-game press conference like most weeks, Harbaugh stayed in the locker room to spend more time with his team. He went from player to player, shaking hands, patting their backs and having extended conversations with some.
He made a point of talking with every player on the roster, from the veteran leaders to the practice squad, and he repeatedly expressed how proud he was of the team despite their 5-11 record.
“This has been one of the most rewarding seasons I’ve had,” Harbaugh said after the season ended with a 24-16 loss to the Bengals. “Maybe people on the outside will have a hard time understanding that, but if you’ve ever been on a team, I think you’ll understand that. If you’ve ever coached, ever played, you kind of understand how that can go.
“I really think these guys will stand together for what they accomplished – not in the win-loss column, but in the team column, the family column.”
The 2015 season certainly didn’t go the way the Ravens envisioned.
They came into the year with expectations of returning to the playoffs and competing for another championship. Sports Illustrated predicted them to win the Super Bowl on the cover of their NFL preview edition.
But the combination of injuries and missed late-game opportunities were too much for the Ravens to overcome. They ended up missing the playoffs for the second time in Harbaugh’s tenure, and endured the first losing season since he arrived in 2008.
“I’m not big on moral victories, but this team endured so much,” outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. “I’m proud of the tough-minded team we have from the top to the bottom. We fought all year. Teams got our best shot, no matter what the circumstances were. We’ll take that and we’ll be back for sure.”
The circumstances of Sunday’s game were foreign to most of the players on the roster. For the first time since 2007, the Ravens went into a regular-season finale knowing they wouldn’t advance to the playoffs.
The Bengals had plenty up for grabs. They were still jockeying for playoff seeding and had to win to keep alive their hopes of getting a first-round bye.
Despite the completely different circumstances, the Ravens played Cincinnati tough all afternoon. Players throughout the locker room praised Harbaugh for the way he kept the team motivated in the difficult season.
That resolve was never more evident than the last two weeks. They beat the rival Steelers and then played a close game on the road against the division-champion Bengals.
“He’s a players’ coach. We love playing for him. He treats the guys right,” Dumervil said. “He expects the best out of us, and that’s why we come out and compete week in and week out, for him, for our families, for the great city of Baltimore.
Players also stressed that the locker room never fractured. Teammates shared hugs and handshakes in the locker room as they prepared to head into the offseason, and they said the team was as close as ever.
“This has been a pretty tough year, but every single man in this locker room has stuck together,” kicker Justin Tucker said. “I don’t have any experiences from elsewhere, but guys who come from elsewhere say it’s pretty rare that a team that’s been through what we’ve been through has been able to stick together the way we have. That’s something we can all be proud of.”
The Ravens now go into a critical offseason where they have to make significant improvements to get back to where they expect to be every season. They need to get healthy after a franchise-record 20 players ended the year on injured reserve, and they need to inject the roster with additional playmakers.
But the Ravens don’t feel like they are far from where they want to go, and they believe the challenges of this last year have prepared them for the season ahead.
“It’s a failure in a sense, but not a complete failure,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “In all these losses you kind of see the character of the team. It’s a losing situation not to be in the playoffs, but it’s a winning situation because we know what type of team we have.”