With the divisional round of the NFL playoffs underway, the Baltimore Ravens find themselves on the outside looking in for the third season in a row. To make matters worse, the AFC wild card round was uninspiring, to say the least, leaving many fans to revisit the Ravens debacle once again. The Ravens would undoubtedly present a bigger challenge to the Patriots than the Tennessee Titans. What’s more, the Ravens would surely have performed better than the lowly Buffalo Bills. Right? Honestly, though, these prospects aren’t even worth considering, as the Ravens laid an egg on New Year’s Eve and have forced us to turn the page to the offseason far earlier than we had hoped. In my last blog, I began this process, reviewing the Ravens season and attempting to project potential steps towards fielding an improved team come September. Shortly after, the Ravens addressed the most obvious of those necessary moves, promoting Don “Wink” Martindale to defensive coordinator.
As soon as former coordinator Dean Pees announced his retirement on January 1st, it appeared that Baltimore would be the premier location for defensive minds throughout the NFL. Such a young defense, especially one that has already flashed immense potential, would be extremely enticing to anyone, and as a result, Ravens fans were holding out hope for a significant addition to John Harbaugh’s coaching staff. Names such as Vic Fangio and Jack Del Rio made their way through the rumor mill; it was even reported that the Ravens had extended an offer to former DC Chuck Pagano. However, as stated earlier, the Ravens ultimately decided to promote Wink, choosing loyalty over flash and eliciting mixed reviews from the fanbase. While Martindale has been widely respected in Baltimore for his work as a linebackers coach, the team’s mediocrity of recent years has left many calling for drastic change. However, despite being one of those yearning for an identity change, I support this hiring.
I wrote last week that the Ravens defense needed a new voice, someone aggressive that would return the unit to its former glory. Yes, promoting a member of the previous year’s staff suggests more of the same, but diving deeper into Martindale’s history could shed light on the ease with which this decision could have been made. Wink’s history with members of the Ravens organization goes far beyond his 6 years as linebackers coach. First, while at the University of Cincinnati, Martindale spent a year working alongside John Harbaugh, who was the special teams coordinator in 1996. Four years later, Martindale became the defensive coordinator under Jack Harbaugh, and the two won a national championship at the University of Western Kentucky. Finally, in 2012, Wink joined John Harbaugh on the sidelines once more, acting as the Ravens new linebackers coach, and the two won Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers. What’s more, Martindale has a special relationship with the two Ryan brothers, having worked with Rex while at Cincinnati and under Rob in Oakland. Just as the two brothers preach aggressive and intense defense, Wink should bring a rapacious culture that has been sorely missed in Baltimore.
Along with his aggressive mindset, hiring Don Martindale allowed for continuity, a luxury in today’s world of professional sports. For the past few years, owner Steve Bisciotti joined Harbaugh in preaching the importance of stability along the sidelines, both considering it instrumental to the franchise’s success. Bringing a new face into the building may have seemed unnecessarily risky, given Martindale’s expertise and reputation amongst the players. If hiring a man the likes of Del Rio or Fangio was viewed by Ravens brass as potentially divisive, the only two obvious candidates for the job would have been Pagano and Martindale. Thus, as Pagano considered taking time off, Wink was rightfully promoted to the position. Make no mistake, Martindale’s promotion was overdue and well-deserved, but the opportunity to maintain balance and cohesion throughout the coaching staff would have been welcomed.
For those questioning the decision to hire Don Martindale, the most compelling argument is his unsuccessful 2010 campaign with the Denver Broncos. That year, Martindale’s unit ranked last in points allowed, yards allowed, and sacks, so the skepticism is certainly warranted. However, that Denver defense lacked significant talent, and the talent that it did have was injured throughout the year. More, the 2010 Broncos were simply a bad team. Led by New England OC Josh McDaniels, the team went 3-9 to open the year, before finishing 1-3 after his firing. To suggest that the team’s poor defensive numbers were entirely the fault of Martindale is unfair, and considering his success in molding numerous Ravens linebackers since, I remain hopeful that Wink will accelerate the development of the young talent he will now lead.
All in all, it is unlikely that the Ravens’ success in 2018 will hinge on the changes made by Wink Martindale. While his hire is one worth spending time on, he will take charge of a unit that has both proven itself capable and become a strength of the team. Instead, the importance of filling the vacancy at defensive coordinator is that it allows the franchise to move forward and make the additions necessary for improvement. The quick turnover gives Ozzie Newsome and company months to plan for the draft and free agency, the two stages of this offseason that should prove far more crucial in the coming years. With that in mind, we should welcome Wink with open arms, but do so quickly and turn our attention to the decisions Ozzie makes for improving the team’s personnel.