The Ravens lack identity and direction, and it could force sweeping changes
When the Baltimore Ravens last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, they possessed a defined identity of both sides of the ball.
Their defense, headlined by linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, terrorized pass-catchers and forced countless mistakes from opposing quarterbacks. Their offense didn’t offer the same fire. It could, however, deliver in the clutch, whether an inexplicable fourth-and-29 conversion by Ray Rice or a 70-yard touchdown from Jacoby Jones with under a minute remaining to force overtime. That team didn’t finish the regular season with the best record, but it had established strengths and forced its way through the playoffs.
The Ravens lost that identity in the time since, a stretch in which they produced just one winning record. Neither the 1990s-inspired West Coast offensive scheme nor hammering defense that propelled Baltimore to their last title remains intact. In their stead, the team features a less-than-pedestrian offense with no strengths and numerous issues and a defense that, while capable, has already fallen off as injuries ravaged the roster. All the while, scrutiny has increasingly surrounded the organization’s principal partners, general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh.
As currently constructed, the Ravens’ roster looks like a mishmash of spare parts, like furniture assembled from multiple Ikea boxes. The defense has developed some legitimate star power in the form of edge rusher Terrell Suggs and linebacker C.J. Mosley, but it also relies on a secondary composed almost entirely of assets from other teams. Additionally, key cogs such as defensive tackle Brandon Williams have battled injuries and have hurt the effectiveness of the entire unit.
While the defense can occasionally carry the team, the offense lets it down more often than not. The receiving corps features past-their-prime Pro Bowlers Jeremy Maclin and Mike Wallace and underachieving, oft-injured youngsters like Breshad Perriman. Meanwhile, the huge investments at tight end have produced a subpar return on investment, with Dennis Pitta and Crockett Gillmore spending the entire 2017 season injured on the sidelines. The offensive line began the season with as many former undrafted free agents as All-Pros and first-round picks combined, a balance that has since tipped the wrong way with Marshal Yanda’s the season-ending ankle injury. It certainly doesn’t help that nine of the 15 players the team has placed on injured reserve came on the offensive side of the ball. And, of course, the offense puts Joe Flacco under center, a highly polarizing figure across the league and a point of great contention among fans.
Flacco’s play has most visibly weighed down the franchise over the past three years. He tossed 27 interceptions between 2015 and ’16 and has eight already in six games. The last four weeks have bordered on disastrous, with Flacco throwing six interceptions against only one touchdown. At his current pace, he would finish the season with over 20 picks, a threshold he has only surpassed once in his career.
The poor quarterback play has predictably derailed the Ravens’ passing attack. Through six games, the team has averaged less than 160 yards through the air. That figure ranks 31st in the NFL behind the run-oriented Buffalo Bills (fewest pass attempts of any team) and just ahead of the Jay Cutler-led Miami Dolphins. Baltimore meanwhile ranks in the middle of the pack for pass attempts (194, 17th in the league), making their lack of productivity with Flacco even more jarring. Even with the receiver and offensive line issues, the buck stops with Flacco, whose tepid play has fueled speculation that the Ravens might jettison him after 2017.
In a literal sense only, the Ravens can move on from Flacco this offseason. The veteran quarterback’s dead-money hit drops from over $47 million to a shade below $29 million as a traditional release in the new league year, but that maneuver would still bite into the team cap space. With Baltimore’s books already pushed to the limit — Over The Cap estimates about $3.6 million in available funds — parting ways with Flacco in this manner makes little sense.
Instead, the Ravens could make Flacco a post-June 1 cut and spread out the dead-money ramifications over multiple years. Doing so would save $12 million in 2018, but with significant caveats. With Flacco out of the picture, the team would need to identify and obtain a new starter under center. Any decent veteran option would likely exceed the savings with no guarantee of improving the quarterback play. The front office could look to the draft for Flacco’s replacement, but even on the depressed rookie contract scale that too would significantly eat into the reclaimed cap space. And, of course, Flacco’s contract would weigh down the books through 2019, a less-than-desirable option for the cap-strapped Ravens.
Practically speaking, the Ravens have no choice. Flacco must remain on the roster for at least one more season. If he continues to flounder, the team can finally severe ties in the 2019 offseason.
The inevitability of Flacco’s situation doesn’t mean sweeping change couldn’t come to Baltimore, however. The Ravens have faltered since Newsome mismanaged Flacco’s contract situation, making the playoffs just once over the last four seasons while paying the polarizing quarterback over $100 million during that span. The resources tied up in Flacco have forced important players to depart, specifically in the trenches where Kelechi Osemele and Ricky Wagner left massive voids. The Ravens have won two Super Bowls in their brief existence, and Newsome deserves considerable credit for those achievements. However, his gamble on Flacco during the 2012 season and subsequent decisions with him have put the franchise in a bind that could require a full rebuild.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti has favored stability over everything else, and the team has benefited for it. However, if he does decide to move on from Newsome, he might need to make the call soon. Eric DeCosta, the Assistant GM, has turned down overtures from multiple franchises. He is the GM-in-Waiting, and by all appearances, will succeed Newsome when the long-time personnel man steps down.
Still, at some point, will DeCosta decide he can no longer decline opportunities to run his own team elsewhere? If Bisciotti lays enough blame for the franchise’s post-Super Bowl swoon at Newsome’s feet, the time to force a change in Baltimore could arrive as soon as this offseason.
Regardless of what changes the Ravens ultimately undertake this offseason, they must work towards re-establishing a winning identity. That doesn’t necessarily mean recreating the past; Ray Lewises and Ed Reeds don’t come along twice. Rather, Baltimore has to decipher the right approach to constructing the roster and commit to it. Without a plan and subsequent follow-through, the franchise has little hope of pulling out of its current tailspin.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at NFL.com, SB Nation, Sports Illustrated, and other outlets.