Just a month ago, a giddy-for-good-reason Eric Weddle danced behind the podium after a win at Pittsburgh and declared, for the second-straight week: “These ain’t the same Ravens.”
But at the midpoint of the season, at 4-4 and facing a franchise-defining three-game homestand, I can’t help but think that, actually, this is almost exactly the same middling football team we have seen in Baltimore since their last Super Bowl win in 2012. And if I am correct, and if this is a team again destined to flirt with the playoffs, only to fall just short, then the Ravens wasted an opportunity to vigorously explore compiling desperately-needed draft picks at Tuesday’s trade deadline.
An argument could be made that no team had more aging-but-still-possibly-valuable veterans who would have appealed to top-tier contenders. And if this team is in fact looking at another 8-8-ish season and facing a potentially sweeping rebuild with venerable general manager Ozzie Newsome about to retire, and esteemed head coach John Harbaugh facing a lame-duck year in 2019, then the best time to start the purge may have been this week. The Dolphins, Cardinals, Broncos, Cowboys and Jaguars are in a similar predicament, whether they want to admit it or not (all appear in various stages of denial), with 2019 now only mere months away and change already in the air.
Don’t you think names like Terrell Suggs, Marshal Yanda, Weddle and Brandon Williams (and maybe Jimmy Smith if you only watched 2017 tape) might have elicited some interest with so many teams desperate for pass rush and offensive line help and help in coverage? Guess we’ll never know, and with all of them except Suggs still signed beyond this season, Baltimore could ostensibly still deal older players in the offseason. But in March, teams will be lacking the intense adrenaline rush of a possible Super-Bowl push, and with many of the older Ravens prime candidates to be cut, one could argue their returns might have been highest this week.
Regardless, the thought was certainly on my mind these past few weeks. Any team that can go from owning the Steelers in Pittsburgh to losing 12-9 in Cleveland in the span of a week (Hue Jackson’s final NFL win with the Browns!), is by its very nature difficult to figure out with a half-season still to play. But those charged with evaluating the future of the franchise must wipe away nostalgia and what-ifs and coulda-beens. This franchise is 44-44 since the Super Bowl, and many a wise personnel man has told me over the years that in this league you are often better off being really good, or starting from scratch with top-five picks, than you are stuck in a perpetual 8-8/9-7 vortex.
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Owner Steve Bisciotti has ruminated about making macro-level changes with his team for years, with the Ravens falling from perennial contenders to securing just one playoff appearance since 2013. In the past the owner has generally defaulted to the least-messy decision: Keep an aging core together, make some restrained free-agent moves and try to fix the roster in the next draft. But with young GM-in-waiting Eric DeCosta set to take the reigns in 2019, and with Joe Flacco playing pedestrian-at-best football again (NFL’s 25th rated passer) and set to count nearly $27M against the 2019 cap — and with seven of Baltimore’s eight top-salaried players in 2019 aged 31 or older at the start of next season (and on contracts that are easy to trade or release) — punting until 2020 ain’t gonna be feasible this time around I don’t reckon.
There is no shame in winning 8-10 games most years, and there are numerous franchises desperate to taste even those modest heights (Jimmy Haslam in Cleveland can’t even dream that big as an NFL owner to this point, for instance). But for three straight years Bisciotti has been saying this team has failed to meet its own lofty standards, and a continued lurch toward .500 would surely come with major ramifications.
Bisciotti signaled as much by championing, if not spearheading, the movement to trade back into the first round to draft QB Lamar Jackson in the spring (an absolutely vital move, as coming out of that 2018 QB class empty-handed would have been Giants/Broncos/Dolphins-level quarterback negligence). The cupboard is not totally bare, and things can turn around relatively quickly for Baltimore, but this organization is going to have to embrace the future and accept significant change.
Other teams in similar spot
The Ravens are far from alone in their conundrum. It’s something of an epidemic.
The Dolphins (4-4) not trading Cameron Wake is a head-scratcher, and Miami not rebuilding in 2019 would be a shocker. The Cardinals (2-6) passing up potentially two first-round picks for Patrick Peterson and not selling off anything at all will be looked back upon as a huge whiff, to go along with a bevy of them there recently (I’d still wager Peterson is not in their lineup opening day 2019). The Broncos (3-5) making only one salary dump (Demaryius Thomas), but not adding real value picks by jump starting their rebuild by dealing Chris Harris and Emmanuel Sanders, both coveted by contenders, is ludicrous to me. Personally, I would have traded all the above, plus held an auction for Von Miller to see if I could beat the return from the Khalil Mack trade, and kickstart my future.
The Bucs, facing likely sweeping changes in 2019, will soon regret not shopping DeSean Jackson and other vets. The Cowboys (3-4) being buyers and not sellers will prove to be folly. The Jaguars (3-5) have a QB crisis, and how long will guys like Calais Campbell be around? Why stop at trading Dante Fowler? Is this team really winning anything with Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler at quarterback? Parity is a helluva drug, but once it dissipates and cold-hard reality strikes in 2019, there are going to be a number of teams who were fooling themselves about what they really are, and where they are truly going in the next few years.
Who are these Ravens?
So, what, precisely, are we to make of the Baltimore Ravens when viewed through this prism? Are they Super Bowl contenders? Have they truly changed?
They still rank first in overall defense after consecutive losses, but when they have faced competent quarterbacks (you know, guys not named Kizer or Keenum or Peterman or Cutler or Hundley or Savage or Brissett or Geno Smith or Mariota, to name a few of the lightweight QBs vanquished in recent years), they tend to suffer, especially late in games. Andy Dalton and the Bengals always give them fits (ending their season on a fourth-and-forever last year and looming, again, in Week 11). Drew Brees shredded them in the second half in Week 7 and Cam Newton tore them up all day in Week 8. The Ravens get more sacks now … but 11 of them came in the rain against a hapless Marcus Mariota. And for this defense, relying on so many older players, wilting in December has become a holiday ritual in Charm City. Will this year be any different?
The offense has evolved some in the passing game, and Baltimore certainly has more viable pass catchers than in recent years, with newcomers John Brown, Willie Snead and Michael Crabtree as upgrades. But Brown is the only one to make a consistent impact. Snead and Crabtree have made critical drops. Crabtree is catching just 55 percent of his targets (38-of-69), and the duo is averaging a modest 11 yards per catch and have combined for just three touchdowns at the midpoint. And the run game, robust once Alex Collins became the starter a year ago, has been woeful in 2018, averaging just 3.60 per carry, second-worst in the NFL and well off the league average of 4.35.
As for Flacco, his brutal outing Sunday in Carolina included a few egregious interceptions – one while heading to the sidelines that seemed almost cavalier – that sadly were not an anomaly. Once unimpeachable in the postseason, even on the road, he has deteriorated into one of the NFL’s worst quarterbacks away from home the last 5½ seasons. It really is that bad, especially when up against even modest competition.
Since the start of the 2013 season, Flacco has played 42 road games. He has completed 61 percent of his passes (1,023 of 1,667), for just 6.29 yards per attempt with 48 touchdowns and a staggering 52 interceptions. His QB rating in that span, a woeful 76.0, ranks 39th in the NFL, tucked between Brock Osweiler and Chad Henne. His yards-per-attempt ranks 40th in the NFL in that span. And yet somehow, throwing mostly check-downs and dinks and dunks, Flacco has tossed 52 picks in 42 road games – nine more than anyone else in the NFL in that span (Eli Manning, predictably, is next with 43). Blake Bortles, by comparison, on the road in that span has a 78.7 rating with 46 TDs and “just” 36 INTs.
Sorry folks, that is a problem of the highest magnitude and points to why Jackson is there to learn now, and take over in 2019. So, knowing all of that, and with the soaring Steelers up next, then the Bengals (who have had the Ravens’ number), and the Chiefs and Chargers still to come away from home, is this bunch really going to be able to prove Weddle’s proclamation true?
Since 2013 the Ravens are 7-25 against teams that went on to the reach the playoffs that season. They are currently 1-4 against teams that would be in the 2018 postseason were it to start today. Forgive me for some skepticism about the second half of the season.
Deafening trade-deadline silence
Which brings me back to Tuesday’s trade deadline, and the Ravens sitting it out save for trading a future seventh-round pick for depth running back Ty Montgomery, the lowest compensation possible to keep Green Bay from putting him on the waiver wire. Of course, it made no sense for them to be real buyers, knowing a youth movement is required. But the fact there was no word of them exploring moving on from so many old players — that relative silence I found deafening, but not surprising.
In a league of parity very few are willing to concede that maybe it’s just not our year, and that a dry roster cycle has run its course. Dismantling this team in Newsome’s swan song was always probably out of the question. But time is running out for the Ravens to accomplish anything significant as presently constructed. DeCosta should be given wide berth to completely flip this roster upside down and build it around Jackson. He should be afforded the time and space and resources to do so.
There is no other salient choice. This chart of the eight players set to earn the most money for the Ravens in 2019, and count the most against the cap, explains why:
(counts $600,000 more)
Suggs, 36 next season, is a free agent in 2019. Smith has been injury-and-suspension-riddled and is getting picked on by opposing QBs in his attempt to return from both injury and suspension in 2018. Williams is a stud run stuffer, but teams love to get Baltimore into nickel personnel and spread them out, and that’s a lot of money for a space-eater who does not get to the quarterback in this era. They can afford to keep him, with Snacks Harrison, a similar player, fetching just a fifth-round pick for the Giants last week, but he may have intrigued other teams on the trade market this week.
Jefferson struggles mightily in coverage and while still young, that’s a big salary for a box safety who has trouble defending tight ends. Yanda is a future Hall of Famer … but with offensive line in such short supply could he have fetched a quality return this week while he is finally injury-free? Weddle is beloved and the brains of that defense, but cannot span the field and ballhawk like he used to and that signing always had a 2-3-year shelf-life. Carr is durable, and valuable depth, but that’s too much money for a third or fourth corner. Crabtree was always likely a one-year stop-gap signing.
The Ravens, perpetually in salary-cap purgatory (or Hell) can finally clear the deck like rarely before in 2019. It’s difficult to fathom them not doing so, even if they go on a second-half tear and manage to get to the playoffs. I’d purge at least a half dozen of those players, let linebacker C.J. Mosley, who can’t stay with backs or tight ends in coverage, leave as a free agent for a comp pick, do what I can to extend edge guys Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon to take over for Suggs and upgrade at safety in free agency/draft.
Baltimore will finally be positioned to add a few 20-something, big-ticket free agents, if that’s the desired route (adding some protection and help for Jackson would be a good start). But draft capital will be everything, and I have to think they could have added a few potential long-term starters via draft picks had they held an auction this week.
Time will tell if the coupling of Harbaugh and DeCosta works the way it did with Newsome. Will Bisciotti step up with a long-term contract for his Super Bowl winning coach, who I can’t fathom will take another one-year extension as he did a year ago, knowing how many college and NFL teams would vie for his services? Will there be a new power structure in place?
If you believe Weddle, then maybe I’ve just wasted 2,000 words and all is well here, and Flacco will lead the Ravens on an improbable January run, and everyone will live happily ever after together. But if I’m correct, then Jackson should be starting by December and Ravens fans should adjust their expectations accordingly, and embrace an overhaul, and accept the fact that Baltimore’s baseball and football teams will both be undergoing a badly-needed, if painful, rebuild.
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