Ravens: How to Build a Contender (Part 1)
In this three part series, we’ll take a look at one of the most consistent winning franchises, in recent history, that is also similar in a lot of ways to the Ravens. Where have the Ravens gotten off track, how can they get back on it following another model.
Part 1 – The Brass/Coaches
Part 2 – The Offense
Part 3 – The Defense
Discuss your thoughts on this topic on our message board.
We are entering uncharted territory as a fan base. It has been a very long time since the Ravens have been left with so many questions that need answering in one offseason. Even in the past, problems were easy to spot. In 2007, the last losing season, it was quite obvious that the Ravens needed to address the quarterback position. The end of 2007 also meant finding a new head coach. When you have to replace those two positions, you are practically starting over as a team. The new coach hires his own staff of assistants, and the unit’s schemes can become completely different. It takes time to learn to gel, to communicate properly.
2008 appeared to be a growing year. Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, rookie head coach, John Harbaugh. We expected to see a team that needed to get their legs under them, figure things out. Joe Flacco was still the third string quarterback going into the back half of the preseason. Timely injuries thrust him into the starting role. Instead of growing from 5-11 to say 7-9, 8-8, the Ravens shocked us all and went to the AFC title game.
The Ravens have never needed a rebuild. Not since their inception in 1996. I’m not suggesting that this Ravens team needs a rebuild. But the question marks on this team are much more vauge. It’s not as black and white as “they need a quarterback”. They have that. Despite the injury, Joe Flacco is still the franchise quarterback, and will be for the next four years at a minimum.
It’s getting to be too late to keep asking, “how did the Ravens get here?” We need to ask, “how do we get back to being a contender?”
How do other teams do it? You can’t look at a team like the Patriots. They have Tom Brady. You can’t look at the Broncos (prior to 2015) because they have Peyton Manning. With all due respect, Joe Flacco is not on that level. But the sum of parts is greater than one position. It’s why the Broncos and Patriots try to load up on the defensive side of the ball when they can. The Ravens had great success with a solid team across the board. Good players, leaders on each unit. But that narrative has changed here.
One team we can look at is the Cincinnati Bengals. Andy Dalton is not Brady or Manning like. They play in the same tough division. They have been to the playoffs four, going on five straight years. January performance aside, they are the new perennial favorite in the AFC North. How did they do it, and how can the Ravens learn from them, from the top down?
Bengals Owner, Mike Brown, acted as the team’s general manager from 1991 through 2009. During this time the Bengals were the laughing stock of football.
Mike Brown turned down the absurd trade of the decade in 1999, when the New Orleans Saints offered the Bengals nine draft picks in order to move up and draft Ricky Williams number one overall. Nine draft picks could have helped rebuild a team, but instead he kept the one pick and took…Akili Smith.
Brown was horrible in the draft. He often had just one or two scouts when other teams paid to have five or six. He was frugal when it came to shelling out money for free agents. It wasn’t until 2010 that Brown got the hint and gave more control to family members who assist him with GM duties and scouting these days, as well as the coaches on the staff.
It took a long time to get out of his own way. He now lets the football folks make the football decisions. It was Jay Gruden who lobbied for Andy Dalton when Brown wanted to draft Colin Kaepernick, when the team was looking for a Carson Palmer replacement, who had had enough of the owner’s antics. Palmer held out of camp, willing to walk away from $46 million just to be done with Mike Brown.
It was Hue Jackson who wanted Giovanni Bernard in the 2013 draft when Brown thought he wouldn’t be a fit for the offense. Turns out he is a great fit, and we’ll get to that in part two. He ceded a lot of control to the smarter football people on his payroll, and it’s led to being a threat in the division, a well rounded roster, and their first 8-0 start in team history.
The Bengals are no longer a doormat.
Ravens Owner, Steve Bisciotti, has always done what Mike Brown is beginning to do, which is let the football folks make football decisions. But he will step in when he feels the need to, which isn’t often. One instance was when the Ravens drafted Joe Flacco. They traded back in the draft, thinking they could still land Flacco in the back of the first round. And if they didn’t, they could settle for Blaine Gabbert. (I threw up just a little). Bisciotti was nervous that Flacco wouldn’t fall that far, wanted him, and demanded that they stop hogging mid round picks (as they stockpile the compensatory picks), demanded Ozzie Newsome and Dick Cass give up a mid round pick and move back up to take who they hoped would be the franchise quarterback.
He runs the team with a combination of feel, gut instincts, and knowing when to empower those under him. It has always worked for him, even as a young man building AeroTek into a billion dollar business.
I just wonder when Jerry Jones will wise up and get out of his own way. Probably never, and I love watching the Cowboys continue to be a disaster and a fluke come January.
Both Marvin Lewis and John Harbaugh, are veteran coaches who are well respected around the league. I’m sure Lewis has found himself on the hot seat before as the Bengals have had some down years under his control. When his seat gets hot, he bounces back strong. He just needs that January win that has eluded him as a head coach.
John Harbaugh, I wouldn’t call his seat hot, or even warm, but missing the playoffs two out of three years, and likely about to lose double digit games, the question of whether he is losing the locker room is at least valid. For years Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were the leaders of that locker room. Now, it’s Harbaugh’s. Terrell Suggs would rally the troops pre-game, but he’s not a leader of men. He’s not a captain. You can’t be that captain, and show up to camp out of shape, heavy, more often than not. Even if you are good enough to get into shape during camp. I digress.
Harbaugh bounced back after an 8-8 2013 season. The Super Bowl title certainly buys him more lee way than most coaches get. But eventually, even Brian Billick had to be shown the door. That was two years after a franchise best 13 win season. Harbaugh’s job is safe, I would think, but he will need another bounce back to regain some of the faith. To prove to the fanbase that this season was more of an anomaly and not trending toward he norm here.
Lewis and Harbaugh have proven track records of winning for more than a few years. Couple with that the fact that the unknown replacements if you go down that road, are probably not going to be as good.
Bengals Offensive Coordinator, Hue Jackson, runs the West Coast offense. He has worked with great coaches during his time, such as Steve Spurrier, Marty Schottenheimer, our own John Harbaugh as Joe Flacco’s first QB coach, and Marvin Lewis on more than one stint. Now in his second season as the OC, the Bengals offense is top ten in just about every category (12th in rushing yards), and very efficient with the 9th most passing yards, despite only 21st in passing attempts.
Defensive Coordinator, Paul Guenther, has been an assistant under Lewis since 2005. He is in his second year as DC, and the defense ranks 4th in points allowed. They are 13th in rushing defense and 15th in passing defense. Pretty well rounded. Not amazing, not bad. Good enough to win any given game for sure.
Looking at the Ravens, we’ll start with OC Marc Trestman, also a west coast guy. He has been around the game a long time. He has had plenty of success. He was the OC on two of the mid-90’s 49ers teams. He went to Super Bowl XXXVII as the OC for the Oakland Raiders. He, like Hue Jackson, had a failed stint as a head coach. That could mean that for the first time in four years, Joe Flacco could have some continuity at the position. He has the Ravens passing game ranked 7th in yards, but the running game is 22nd. They are also 17th in points scored. I would expect better in 2016, but for his first year here, getting to know his guy’s strengths and weaknesses, I’m okay with what we have seen. There must be better numbers in 2016 though.
On the defense, it’s Dean Pees. He is in his fourth season with the Ravens. He should know his team. He’s never been a head coach in the NFL, and if he was any good at his job, he would be on the hot list of coaches each season interviewing for a promotion. In his fourth season, the Ravens defense is 20th in points allowed (the worst of his tenure) and 18th in total defense (also the worst in his tenure), 12th in rushing allowed and 24th in passing defense (again…worst in his tenure). There is no excuse for this. Jimmy Smith played at a Pro bowl level a year ago. C.J. Mosley was a Pro Bowler last year. Elvis Dumervil is still one of the best rushers of the QB. Will Hill is a very good safety, Brandon Williams is in line to be an All-Pro defensive tackle. What the hell is going on? If you google “Dean Pees Patriots” you will find a lot of articles where the narrative is the same as we are experiencing in Baltimore. Just change the names, and the narrative is the same. “His defense makes Blaine Gabbert look like Joe Montana”. Just change out Josh McCown or Derek Carr among others that have shredded his defense, in for Gabbert. Patriots fans were tired of his defenses fourth quarter collapses. Ravens fans are too, and this is a franchise synonymous with having a scary defense. That notion is pretty much all but lost these days.
Diagnosis: At the top of the organizations, the Bengals and Ravens are doing it right. Not flip flopping head coaches on a whim. Letting smart football people make the football decisions. Have their scouting and draft skills in order (which we’ll get to some of those players over the next two parts). The Ravens fall behind when it comes to coordinators though. Marc Trestman is possibly a year away from having a successful unit, given that it takes a year to put “your plan” in place, and get “your guys” operating in it. Defense is another story. Paul Guenther with the Bengals is in year two, and his plan is working well. Dean Pees is in year four and still doesn’t get it, still doesn’t get the most out of his players. The narrative of being a poor coordinator, lack of understanding game situations, has followed him from New England to Baltimore. To get better in 2016 and beyond, the Ravens might want to make a change at defensive coordinator.