By Steve Ginsburg
OWINGS MILLS, Maryland (Reuters) - Just days after winning the Super Bowl and being hailed as a hero by several hundred thousand fans, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh is already preparing for next season.
"We talk to our team about, 'We've got to improve,'" Harbaugh told reporters on Thursday. "We have to get better next year as a football team, just like we always do.
"That's going to be our goal. (Guard) Jah Reid's in the weight room right now lifting as we speak, so that's what we're going to be about going forward."
Harbaugh, general manager Ozzie Newsome and team owner Steve Bisciotti, though still euphoric over Sunday's 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, are formulating a gameplan to sign their key free agents.
Six starters, including Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, nine-time Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed and starting outside linebacker Paul Kruger are eligible to flee to the highest bidder.
The top priority will be keeping Flacco, the soft-spoken quarterback who threw for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions during the Ravens' improbable postseason run.
He emphatically silenced his critics who said he was not demonstrative enough to be an effective leader.
Bisciotti compared Flacco to another reserved quarterback, Eli Manning of the New York Giants, who has won more Super Bowls than his more effusive brother Peyton.
"Joe proved that you can win being like Joe and we're thrilled because we never thought we needed to change the way that Joe was," he said. "Now he gets to say, ‘I told you so.'
"He went to the Eli Manning school of disrespect. They gave Eli the same business and now he's got two Super Bowls and Peyton's got one, so we'll let Joe do it his way."
Bisciotti is confident he will be able to sign the 28-year-old Flacco, who has guided the Ravens to the playoffs in each of his five NFL seasons.
"This is history," he said. "I have faith that it didn't set us back in our negotiations. We offered him a top five contract last year and we will be back at the negotiating table.
"It was pretty close last year. I don't see us winning the Super Bowl making the negotiation any more difficult than it would have been had we gone out in the first round of the playoffs. That might have been more difficult."
Bisciotti was adamant the club would not repeat the mistakes made after the Super Bowl-winning 2000 season when too much of an effort was made to keep the team intact. Instead of letting players go, too many contracts were restructured so they team could remain under the salary cap, he said.
"We're not going to get caught up in the moment and do things to our salary cap and make decisions in the euphoria of winning that could hurt us in 2014 and 2015," he said.
"Every single veteran (in 2001) was restructured so that they could stay, and then we ended up losing so many people the next year. We don't want to do that.
"You have to make sure that the excitement of the day doesn't cloud what we promised to build, and that was a consistent winner."
While Bisciotti was thinking of the future, Ravens fans remained ecstatic over Sunday's Super Bowl, with so many people attending Wednesday's parade in downtown Baltimore they spilled out in the street and walked alongside the players' vehicles.
When the procession reached already-filled M&T Bank Stadium, officials had to close to gates due to the unexpected crush of people trying to squeeze in. People scaled the stadium fences to catch a glimpse of the brief ceremony.
Harbaugh, who already had the title game in his rear-view mirror, said he will treat the upcoming season like any other.
"The word repeat means nothing," he said. "You sink the pilings deep every year, and we're going to try to sink our pilings deep in the bedrock against this year starting this week, the day after the game. You just go back to work."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)