After Sunday’s heartbreaking 31-27 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, it appears that our Baltimore Ravens are at a crossroads, and have potentially franchise-changing decisions to make this offseason. On one hand, the Ravens were one defensive stop away from making the trip to Kansas City for the AFC Wild Card game. Such an outcome, though agonizing, has some fans feeling hopeful for the 2018-19 season that should bring the return of steady starters such as guards Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis, as well as cornerbacks Tavon Young and Jimmy Smith. On the other hand, this is the second straight season in which the Ravens’ playoff hopes have been spoiled by a late defensive collapse, and Baltimore’s fourth season out of five that has ended without qualification for the NFL’s second season. Unsurprisingly, this has much of the fanbase calling for sweeping change across all levels of the organization: management, coaching, and personnel. Just as us fans dispute the team’s direction, owner Steve Bisciotti must do the same, as he will act as the ultimate decision-maker throughout. Bisciotti’s all-important determination of trust in his organization’s current state is a challenge I find worth unraveling myself. However, while the issue is one mainly dealing with the future, the first step towards its resolution is a review of the team’s recent results and the questions that those leave moving forward.
As I alluded to earlier, the inconsistency of Baltimore’s defense – particularly late in games – has been a recurrent issue for John Harbaugh’s squad. Last year the Ravens watched their season effectively end on Christmas Day, as Antonio Brown’s “immaculate extension” granted the Steelers a 31-27 lead with 9 seconds remaining. The crushing loss prompted full-fledged efforts to revamp the defense, with the Ravens spending their first four draft picks on defensive prospects and signing free agent safety Tony Jefferson to a 4 year, $34 million contract. Further, Bisciotti and the organization brass preached to the fanbase that the team would make “finishing” a priority. Still, in 2017, “finishing” games appeared too daunting a task for this Ravens team. While Cincinnati’s touchdown on 4th and 12 looms largest as it lies fresh in our minds, the Ravens suffered two other late-game losses, losing 23-20 at Tennessee in week 9 and 39-38 at Pittsburgh in week 14, making their week 17 matchup with the Bengals an unnecessarily decisive one. Although offensive ineptitude appeared to be the lone question to be answered after the unit’s slow start to the season, flaws were abundant on both sides of the ball. While a lack of weapons at Joe Flacco’s disposal, paired with his consistent inaccuracy, certainly hindered the offense, an inability to generate pass rush and an old, slow secondary proved detrimental as the defense failed to show up against competent offenses. Let me be clear; the Ravens fielded the same team as that of last year, and, though their favorable schedule clouded this for much of the season, change of some sort is needed.
To start, John Harbaugh and company must address the vacancy at defensive coordinator. In reality, the retirement of Dean Pees may actually be timely. Though he seemed widely respected both in the locker room and across the NFL, he must shoulder considerable blame for the inconsistency of his clearly overhyped unit. Sure, Baltimore’s defense looked dominant at times, and they impressively delivered 3 shutouts over the course of the season, but when facing established quarterbacks – which, again, was rare – they looked helpless. Thus, a new voice is needed. Whoever the Ravens hire to take over must rediscover the identity that made the Ravens’ defense feared. He must continue to rebuild the secondary, while somehow getting production out of the seemingly absent young pass rushers added to provide depth. In 2017, the group of Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams, Bronson Kaufusi and Chris Wormley totalled a whopping zero sacks. Essentially, the only reliable sources of pressure were 35 year old Terrell Suggs and Matthew Judon. One way or another, that has to change. Hopefully, perhaps through the return of Chuck Pagano, the Ravens will bring pressure consistently. If they do, it’s likely that the defense’s numbers will drastically improve.
Next, Baltimore will have to pay significant attention to its offense, more specifically its woeful aerial attack. Joe Flacco averaged a grim 5.1 yards per pass play in 2017 and boasted an 80.4 passer rating at seasons end. Many have called for the firing of Marty Mornhinweg, and while that appears warranted, I believe the lack of talented personnel is the larger issue. If the Ravens hope to score with more ease, they must scratch the approach they have taken to revamp the offense in previous years. Rather than banking on stop-gap cap-casualties such as WR Jeremy Maclin and TE Benjamin Watson, they must pursue young, controllable talent at skill positions. Whether it’s through the draft or free agency, the Ravens must field at least two new offensive weapons in their 2018 season-opener. Looking ahead, potential signees include shifty WR Taylor Gabriel and massive TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins. More, the Ravens could either move up in the draft to pick WR Calvin Ridley, or stay put, seeing SMU’s Courtland Sutton or Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk as immediate contributors. Regardless, the offseason priority has to be to give Flacco a competent group of skill players, especially as he continues to show signs of decline.
Of course, to make room for additions there must be subtractions. Obvious candidates to be cap-casualties this offseason are cornerback Brandon Carr and safety Lardarius Webb, who both frequently appeared too slow to be counted on as viable members of the secondary, especially in relation to their salaries. However, other possible cuts are WR Jeremy Maclin and T Austin Howard. Maclin, one of the Ravens’ marquee signings last offseason, seemed flat-out uninterested in playing, evident in his measly 40 catches for 440 yards and 3 touchdowns. Howard, who admittedly was acceptable at the right tackle position, appears to be a luxury given the O-line depth accumulated by the myriad injuries this season. Therefore, it is quite possible that the Ravens choose to let him walk in order to make the more necessary additions through free agency. One final development to follow this offseason is the presence of Joe Flacco, whose release would save the organization $20 mil after next season. Keeping that figure in mind, it is almost probable that this may be the final year we see Flacco in a Ravens uniform, which would make drafting a quarterback yet another priority. This move could be made at any point in the draft, but I expect the scouts to look for a mid-round arm that they could develop under Flacco for a year, before giving him the reigns after cutting the former Super Bowl MVP. Make no mistake; Joe Flacco will be the Ravens’ quarterback in 2018, and the changes should revolve around him, requiring an influx of cash to be supplied by the release of veterans deemed unnecessary.
All in all, my message for Steve Bisciotti is clear. The Ravens have a plethora of offseason changes to be made if they hope to field a team that will be better than this year’s, will finish games, and will succeed in making its first playoff birth since 2014. Now for my message to my fellow fans still recovering from our apparently annual heartbreak: while the Ravens are undoubtedly at a crossroads that could shape the outlook of the next 5 years of Baltimore football, I would like to remind you that things could be much worse. Need proof? It lies just a 10 minute walk away from M&T Bank Stadium, in the warehouse that the birdbrained management group of our Baltimore Orioles calls home.