It’s a question that I’ve seen asked time and again, after the Ravens missed the playoffs for the third year in a row – unheard of in the Ravens’ short history, at least since their inception. The first four years of their existence, there was no postseason in Baltimore. They were miserable years, netting no more than 4-8 wins, until that dominant defense won the first chip for the franchise, in 2000. In the 18 years following, the team has gone to the postseason 50% of the time (9 years), and won another chip behind Joe Flacco’s historic postseason run. John Harbaugh guided the team to the postseason every year from 2008-2012, and again in 2014. Since then, the team has been bad-to-average, getting 5 wins in an injury-riddled 2015 campaign, then following up with 8-8 and 9-7 campaigns. Granted, the last two seasons, the Ravens were one defensive play away from the postseason, but the question remains – how long will the Ravens remain mediocre? Let’s talk about some of the things that have led us to this position.
The Offensive Coordinator Carousel: Joe Flacco has been the signal caller of the Ravens since he was thrown into the lineup in 2008 due to injury. 10 years, he’s been in the league. In those 10 years, he’s had 5 offensive coordinators. The first was Cam Cameron, who was fired with 3 games left in the 2012 season. Next was Jim Caldwell, who left in 2013 to go to the Detroit Lions. Gary Kubiak was next in line, and he led Flacco to career numbers in 2014, but abruptly left for Denver (after telling Baltimore he was staying). Enter 2015, where the Ravens made a huge mistake, and hired Marc Trestman, who was fired mid-season in 2016, and is now in the CFL. The current OC is Marty Mornhinweg, who was promoted from QB coach to take over for Trestman. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for any team to succeed when they go through this much flux, so points to John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome for keeping this team competitive (lead the league in games decided by single digits) through it all, but.. Points for mediocrity.
Joe Flacco: I always catch heat from certain fans (homers) when I bring up the negatives about Flacco, but I’m going to do it anyway, because it’s my opinion, and it isn’t wrong. From day one, he looked like the makings of the franchise QB that we had been searching for, right up until that second chip that I mentioned earlier. Since that Super Bowl MVP award, and massive contract that followed it, Joe has been – in a word – mediocre. Sometimes, describing him as mediocre is being very nice. The past few seasons, Joe has been ranked near (or at) the bottom of the league in almost every statistical category that counts. The fans I mentioned earlier (homers) would have you believe that this is the fault of the OC, the scheme, the supporting cast, the offensive line – you get the point. Anything and everything other than Joe himself. While I believe that some of it (statistically) can be chalked up to those reasons, the bottom line is that those things do not affect your footwork, your decision-making, your mechanics, or your fundamentals. Joe is a major reason that this team has waded in the mediocrity pool for the past few seasons, and he’s the starting QB for at least the next season. Point for mediocrity.
Dean Pees: Oh, man. I’ll never understand why he thought it was okay to go to a soft zone coverage with a small lead, especially when man coverage was working the entire game. I’ll never understand why he thought exotic blitz packages were overrated. I’ll never understand why he thought using transition backers out of position as starters made sense. Do not misunderstand me – there are times when I was very impressed by his play-calling, and times when I thought he may have ‘gotten’ it. Spoiler alert: He didn’t. We have the players. The starters, the depth, it’s all there. The entire defense (minus Webb) is returning from 2017, a year in which they pitched 3 shutouts, and ranked first in takeaways. Add in the off-season additions, and a more aggressive scheme, as promised by new defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale, and we should see a very impressive defensive effort in Baltimore this season. Point against mediocrity.
Supporting cast: For many moons, the Ravens have been a team that is relatively quiet in Free Agency, outside of a couple seasons. That being said, they are also known to sign aging veterans, and inject some final life into their careers (Boldin, Smith, etc). This has worked in some cases (Boldin), had little impact in some cases (Smith, though I love that man), and sometimes, it’s actually been detrimental (looking at you, Maclin). For the past couple of seasons, I’ve been completely against signing FA WRs (2016 and 2017), because I wanted the young guys to have a chance to grow and learn. They can’t do that if they don’t see the field. This creates more flux, as veterans come and go, forcing Joe to gain chemistry with yet another face, another number. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t. The point is, too much flux is never good in football. It breeds mediocrity. The front office finally seems to be trying to rectify that with the signings of Snead and Brown, and the drafting of Hurst, Andrews, Scott, and Lasley, all young guys (they also added a proven veteran in Crabtree). One can hope that this is a turning point for an offense that has been hard to watch. The Ravens have shown that they only need a slightly above average offense to succeed, when the defense is playing like the Top 10 unit that they are. Is that too much to ask for? Point against mediocrity.
Draft picks: Breshad Perriman (I guarantee somebody disagrees with me about him.) Maxx Williams. Bronson Kaufusi. Kamalei Correa. Matt Elam. The list goes on and on. Too often as of late, the genius of Ozzie Newsome has failed us in April. High draft picks become busts (looking at you, Perriman), or simply underperform, while other players leave Baltimore to become the highest paid players at their position (Osemele, Wagner, Jensen, etc). [Some players just go on to be the highest.. looking at you, Elam.] The front office has long stuck to the ‘Best player available’ mantra during draft weekend, and recently, that has hurt the team. The 2017 draft has yet to see the field much, so the jury is out on them, and the 2018 draft class looks very promising, up to and including a potential franchise QB, in Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. What went differently this year? Ozzie filled needs instead of sticking to his BPA mantra. He took 12 players in 6 rounds, and looks to have filled holes for now, and in the future, trying to put this team in a good place for Eric (not Eddie, SteelersWire) DeCosta to take over next season. Unknown.
Contracts: Ahhh, Joe Flacco. 5 years ago, you were the Super Bowl MVP. You rivaled Joe Montana for the best postseason run in NFL History (it’s a Joe thing). You had our hearts, and our trust. How were you rewarded? With $120 million. Look what you’ve done since then. Then, we paid Jimmy Smith. Injuries abound. Dennis Pitta forgot he had hips after his contract. We paid the big man, Brandon Williams, an obscene amount of money to be a double-team swallowing run stuffer. Do you guys see where I’m going with this? We are not good at valuation when it comes to handing out contracts. (Yes, I’m aware, large contracts are handed out based on promise of future performance. Quiet.) Year after year, we wonder how Pat Moriarty is going to get us out of cap hell, so we can go after that coveted free agent, or simply have operating expenses throughout the season. 2019 looks to be the first year in awhile that we have breathing room, with a projected $40M in cap space – and $120M the year following. When you take into consideration that we currently have about $5M, that sounds pretty good. Point against mediocrity.
Injuries: Let me start off by saying that injuries should never be used as an excuse. So, in this scenario, I’m using them as a reason. Fight me. Over the past few seasons, injuries have been so frequent in Baltimore that we, as fans, tense up any time there is any sort of practice. We hit F8 repeatedly, hoping to make it through the day unscathed. The offensive line and secondary always seem to take the worst of it, two of the most important position groups on the field. In 2014, the defense was ravaged by injury, and it resulted in not one, but two blown 14 point leads in our playoff game against the rival Patriots. 2015, we led the league in players on IR, as well as starters on IR. Year after year, we see key players go down for the season, before the season ever starts. A lot of this can’t be avoided, but an even larger part falls on the strength and conditioning staff, something that we’ve made tweaks to, but not really fixed. Points for mediocrity.
There’s so much that goes into a successful NFL season. There are so many variables, some controllable, some are out of anybody’s control. However, I don’t think anybody can look at the Baltimore Ravens, what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished, the talent they have, and the management, and say that this is a team that is destined to remain mediocre for the foreseeable future. This season? Maybe. That hinges on Flacco, as well as the revamped offense. There are a lot of changes that have been made this off-season, and nobody knows how they will mesh when the clock starts. If this is Flacco’s last season (we can save $10.5M by cutting him, and split the cap hit over 2 years if it’s after June 1st), then you have to wonder what Lamar Jackson brings to the table. Can he be a successful NFL quarterback, amidst all the question marks? Will Eric DeCosta pick up the mantle from Newsome, and continue down the path of greatness that Ozzie set out? Will the new wideouts produce and grow together to form a formidable passing attack? These are all questions that can’t be answered right now. But you have to believe, based on history, that this team isn’t done yet. Yes, it’s a ‘What have you done for me lately’ league, and maybe I’m letting a hint of bias creep through. But I pride myself on being a very realistic fan, and I just don’t see it. Feel free to argue in the comments.