20 Years of Ravens – Chapter 7: One we’d Like to Soon Forget
Be Sure to check out previous entries in this series
Prologue: Give Baltimore the Ball
Chapter 1: Art Modell Gives Baltimore, The Ravens
Chapter 2: The Marchibroda Era
Chapter 3: Festivus Maximus
Chapter 4: Eight Quarterbacks in Seven Years
Chapter 5: The Third Era Begins
Chapter 6: One Last Ride
Fox Sports, “Setting Sights on the Super Bowl”
The Sporting News, Like the Ravens to win the AFC North
Sports Illustrated, Ravens have “Your Super Bowl Formula”
Grantland, “Ravens Will Regain the Throne”
See. Not even the experts saw this travesty of a season coming. The Ravens entered 2015 fresh off a return the playoffs, and a playoff win on the road which has become commonplace for Baltimore.
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Heralded offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak, was responsible fore Joe Flacco’s best statistical season, and making a top flight running back out of Justin Forsett, who led the league in yards per carry. When you do a job like that, teams start calling and offering head coaching jobs. He would be off to Denver for that reason, meaning Joe Flacco would now have to gain instruction from yet another offensive coordinator. His fourth in as many years.
That man would be Marc Trestman, former head coach and play caller of the Chicago Bears. Trestman just couldn’t get the most out of a talented group of players, but also had a head case, turnover prone quarterback in Jay Cutler. A failed stint as head coach could almost guarantee that Trestman would bring continuity to the coaching staff on the offensive side of the ball.
On the field, the Secondary was the Ravens downfall in 2014. It needed to be addressed heading into 2015. They got to work adding a safety in Kendrick Lewis from Houston. They also added Kyle Arrington from rival New England to take hold of the nickel corner position. A position he was one of the best at.
They address the teams biggest need in the Secondary. They draft the fastest WR in the draft with their first round pick to help Joe Flacco and spell aging Steve Smith. They re-sign Justin Forsett after his career year. The stellar O-line returns completely in tact. The Front seven is one of the best units in the NFL, even without Haloti Ngata (traded to Detroit). Brandon Williams had Pro Bowler written all over him. Timmy Jernigan was poised for a break out season. A linebacking group bookended by Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, rookie of the year candidate C.J. Mosley roaming the middle, also poised for a breakout campaign. Joe Flacco is what he is, good enough, and will be running the same offense Gary Kubiak installed. What could go wrong? These are the reasons the experts and the fans expected another 10+ win season and picked the Ravens as a Super Bowl favorite.
What could go wrong? It was the epitome of Murphy’s Law. Everything. Starting with injuries.
2013 First round pick, Matt Elam, was on his last chance to make an impression, and was finally looking good according to the coaches. A torn biceps ended his season before it started. Brent Urban suffered the same injury and would return late in 2015 to make some plays, but it became his second stint on the IR in as many years.
Perhaps the biggest setback for the Ravens as the season was starting, was not having first round pick, Breshad Perriman. He tweaked his knee during the first practice of the first day of training camp. His injury listed him a day-to-day, which turned into maybe next week, then maybe next week, then maybe next week, until ultimately he would be ruled out indefinitely. The closest he got to seeing the field was running around on the turf during pregame warmups early in the season, and re-aggravating the knee. He got his knee scoped after finding out it was likely a PCL sprain. That set him back a few more weeks, and eventually the Ravens placed him on IR, ending his season.
Perriman was an asset the Ravens badly could have used to aid Joe Flacco in Trestman’s offense that called for a lot of passing attempts. Without Perriman, Steve Smith would be your top option. Followed by Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown, Michael Campanaro, rookie Darren Waller and Jeremy Butler. Butler wouldn’t come on until late in the season. Waller and Campanaro also ended up on IR. Marlon Brown was, for lack of better terms, useless in the Ravens offense. It was a steep drop off from his rookie season when he caught seven TDs and looked like a steal in the undrafted free agent market. Kamar Aiken showed he at least belongs on an NFL team playing good enough in an increased role. A role increased when Steve Smith suffered season ending injury, but more on that in a bit.
Unfortunately, injuries played a key role in the 2015 season. A theme carried over from training camp. In week one, a loss at Denver, Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles tendon for the second time, ending his season. As a duo, Suggs and Dumervil are one of the best. Dumervil by himself was good, but not as effective. Courtney Upshaw would see an increased role, and it is safe to say his time as a Raven has been a disappointment.
Eugene Monroe also left the game and missed a few weeks with concussion symptoms, paving the way for James Hurst to play left tackle. Hurst was a turnstile there, grading out by Pro Football Focus as the worst tackle in the NFL.
They would suffer a bad loss to a bad Raiders team in week two before returning home for the opener in Baltimore against Cincy. Another tough loss setting them back to 0-3 and hitting the road again for the rival Steelers.
Pittsburgh started Michael Vick at quarterback for the injured Ben Roethlisberger which gave Baltimore a decent chance. More poor football, lackluster defense, turnovers on offense, put the Ravens behind late in the game. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made some questionable game management decisions that could have ensured a win for them. The Ravens were given a second chance they probably didn’t deserve, and the leg of Justin Tucker sent the game to overtime, and won it for them, getting the Ravens in the win column.
The celebration would be short lived as the Ravens suffered an inexplicable home loss to the lowly Cleveland Browns. Then it was back on the road for two more west coast stops in San Francisco, and Arizona. Two more losses and the Ravens stand at 1-6. Playoffs are an afterthought. But not impossible. Kansas City started 1-5 and got hot enough to make the playoffs.
But if the wheels hadn’t already started to come off, they certainly did, albeit in a win against the Chargers. It was during that meeting that Steve Smith suffered a torn Achilles, just like Suggs had. He went down around midfield, pointed to his foot, and Ravens fans already feared the worst. He was helped off the field, towel over his head, and straight to the locker room. Smith had vowed that 2015 would be his last, but no competitor with the intestinal fortitude of Smith would want to end his storied career being carried off the field. Just before the end of the 2015 season, Smith said he would return in 2016 to give it one more year.
The Ravens entered the bye week at 2-6. But four winnable games were up next on the schedule starting with the Jaguars at home. Getting to 6-6 would put the Ravens in the hunt down the home stretch. Some might call it a blessing that the Ravens didn’t lead us on, immediately dropping another game to the poor Jaguars. Undisciplined play, another common theme of the year, really stuck out when Elvis Dumervil earned a face mask penalty on Blake Bortles on the final play, extending the game for one untimed down. The penalty moved Jacksonville into field goal range, and they kicked a game winner, sending a stunned home crowd, what is left of it at this point, to the exits. The play shouldn’t have happened, as the officials did not flag Jacksonville for an apparent false start in the rush to get the last play off in time. So the Dumervil face mask shouldn’t have happened, the Ravens should have won. Alas, these things happen when you put the game in the hands of the officials. If you just handle your business and beat a poor team like Jacksonville by 20, the officiating hardly matters. I digress.
When Steve Smith went down, one would think the emphasis would switch to the running game, with Justin Forsett now the focal point on the offense. That was all well and good, until the injury bug bit him the following week against St. Louis. A broken forearm ended his season. Rookie Buck Allen, from USC, would take his spot with Lorenzo Taliaferro already on IR for the second straight year, and Allen held his own. Should be interesting to see how he develops heading into 2016, as he looks like a great fit in Marc Trestman’s system, using RBs in pass catching roles quite often as an extension of the running game.
No Smith, no Forsett, Joe Flacco and a team of nobody’s. Then the bombshell was dropped when we learned after the win against St. Louis, that Joe Flacco suffered a torn ACL and MCL on the final drive of the game. It was James Hurst who got rolled up on his knee in a freak accident way that happens year after year in the league. Flacco wasn’t even having his best year, but this was the sign that the season was over.
Practically second and third stringers across all the skill positions meant that the Ravens got to look at a lot of young players over the next six weeks. The Ravens went through Matt Schaub, Jimmy Claussen, and brought in Ryan Mallet to finish the year as the quarterback. It was open auditions for the role of backup QB in 2016, and there isn’t much denying that Mallet won the job, after a terrific performance his first game, week 16 when he beat the Steelers. A season sweep of the Steelers is a small victory in an otherwise down year.
I mentioned Buck Allen’s increased role. Terrence West, Towson graduate, was also brought in and contributed.
As for the tight ends, Dennis Pitta didn’t get clearance to play, came off the PUP list, and went to IR. Crockett Gillmore in his second season showed flashes of beast like physicality with the ball in his hands. But, again, injured reserve. Rookies Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle got a lot of play. Boyle more than Williams until Boyle was placed on IR. Williams is young, drafted shortly after his 21st birthday. Given a year to bulk up, Maxx could be a force in 2016.
If all goes to plan, Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman would headline the receiving group next year. Kamar Aiken behind them, the afore mentioned Campanaro, Waller, Butler, and Chris Matthews was signed and played quite a bit as well. It still doesn’t mean the receiving group couldn’t use one more weapon. Perriman still being an unknown commodity.
Another rookie, fourth round draft pick Za’Darius Smith saw considerable playing time down the stretch. He saw the most snaps during the preseason, and looked to be a project type of player. He’s got the size and speed to play, just needs to refine his technique this offseason. He’ll be a guy the Ravens will count on with Upshaw’s time likely over, and Suggs and Dumervil not getting any younger.
Injures. Undisciplined play. Poor defense particularly from the secondary. Lack of aggression. Lack of urgency. Poor game management. Just a few of the reasons the Ravens suffered the worst season in the Harbaugh era spanning eight seasons now. Given all that went wrong, the Ravens still found themselves “in” almost every game they played. The first 12 games of the season were all decided by six points or less. One less turnover here, one more interception held onto there, any number of breaks go the Ravens way and they are in the hunt, until all the top skill position players find the infirmary, then there isn’t much you can do.
The Ravens caught a lot of breaks, for a lot of years. It’s as if they were due for a down year. They finish 2015 at 5-11, and will pick sixth in the upcoming draft. Put this one behind them, get everyone healthy, load up on a new draft class worth of talent, and here’s to a better outcome in 2016.
Notable draft picks
Breshad Perriman (1st round, 26th overall), Maxx Williams (2nd Round) Javorius “Buck” Allen (4th round), Nick Boyle (5th round).
Marc Trestman (Offensive Coordinator), Marty Mornhinweg (Quarterbacks).