The uncertain future of linebacker Terrell Suggs and the decision to retain assistant Juan Castillo were topics that understandably garnered the most attention at the Ravens’ season-ending press conference on Wednesday.
But it was something owner Steve Bisciotti said that laid out the top priority of the offseason as Baltimore tries to bounce back from missing the postseason for the first time in the John Harbaugh era. In fact, it’s the only objective that really matters if the Ravens hope to climb to the heights they reached 11 months ago anytime soon.
Bisciotti has always acknowledged his opinions on football-related matters shouldn’t — and usually don’t — hold as much weight as those of general manager Ozzie Newsome and Harbaugh, but that hasn’t stopped the 53-year-old owner from publicly calling for more accountability from his employees in the past as former head coach Brian Billick and former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron learned years ago. That’s what made his answer over how concerned he was about the underwhelming play of quarterback Joe Flacco so telling as it spelled out what the Ravens must do this winter.
There was no over-the-top comment about needing more of a return on the $120.6 million contract he forked over to the 28-year-old quarterback last winter, even though the Ravens will certainly expect a much better Flacco in 2014. Yes, Flacco must improve, but so must Newsome, Harbaugh, Castillo, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell (if he does indeed return), Ray Rice, the offensive line, and everyone else with a stake in the Baltimore offense next season and beyond.
“When you look at these guys who have been coaching in the league and have had success in the past and you look at our players that have had success in the past, if we could have fixed it, we would have,” Bisciotti said. “I certainly expected more in the second half of the season. As interrelated as the running game is to the play-action pass and the execution of the offensive line, trying to divide up the blame is something I’m really not much more qualified than you guys are to do. But, when you have a short window of failure that comes out of the blue, the key is not to make wholesale changes.
“I know that Ray Rice was limited this year, and Bernard Pierce was limited. And, if they had been better, then maybe the offensive line would have performed better. Obviously, if the offensive line were blowing open holes, then maybe [Rice and Pierce] could have achieved more with their physical limitations. And, if that had worked a little better, then I think Joe would have performed a little better. All the things, the numbers that are so striking to me to find yourself in the bottom five in offense in almost every category is again something that — had we not had a [good] history in the last five years – then I would probably demand wholesale changes. But I think you have to be careful to not to look in a vacuum and decide you have to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and [you] let people get healthy, let these guys work together for another year, add some people to the team in the draft and free agency.
“I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to look at the offense with the same fine-tooth comb that we looked at the defense last year. I think you’re going to see a lot of changes in personnel and how we approach that. I’m pretty proud of the defense for being able to retool on the fly, and I’ve got the same amount of confidence with these guys in building the offense.”
The final few sentences of his drawn-out answer said everything you need to know. Yes, the Ravens must address Suggs’ $12.4 million cap number, find a free safety, and tinker with various parts of their defense and special teams, but building a better supporting cast around Flacco is paramount. Last offseason saw Newsome focus solely on revamping a below-average defense while allowing the offense to suffer as a result, a perplexing strategy considering the Ravens had just won a Super Bowl with their offense doing the heavy lifting.
Fixing the offense won’t be easy as the dynamic pass-catcher the Ravens covet doesn’t just grow on trees and the organization doesn’t exactly have a stellar history of developing — or even finding — many quality wide receivers in their 18-year history. Adding bulk on the interior line is a necessity, but potentially finding three quality starters — if the Ravens are unable to re-sign Eugene Monroe to remain with incumbents Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele — will be a daunting task. Flacco’s $14.8 million cap figure in 2014 will indeed be an obstacle — just like the large numbers currently held by Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Lardarius Webb, Rice, and Yanda — as Newsome tries to use limited resources to infuse the offensive side of the ball with more talent.
But the Ravens must build a better supporting cast around their quarterback, whether you think Flacco is a potential Rolls-Royce or only a Mustang in the hierarchy of current NFL quarterbacks. He’s proven he has the ability to take the franchise all the way to the top, but he can’t do it alone as last season so painfully showed. A record-setting contract understandably brought high expectations, but it didn’t suddenly change his ability or who he is as a quarterback.
Making some difficult decisions such as parting ways with Suggs and sacrificing some ability defensively may be necessary to create sufficient cap space in order to add more dynamic offensive pieces. The Ravens have no choice but to take giant leaps forward offensively in the increasingly offensive-minded NFL.
Flacco did not have a good year in 2013, and he must own his share of the blame just like anyone else involved. But the Ravens didn’t set him up to have a strong season following an offseason trade of Anquan Boldin and the retirement of veteran center Matt Birk without adequate replacements behind them. That coupled with unforeseen injuries to the likes of Dennis Pitta, Rice, and Osemele left too much to overcome.
From the Suggs financial decision to improving the offensive line and running game, nearly all offseason moves will be tied to the theme of doing what’s best for Flacco so the Ravens can get the most out of their steep investment.
It’s fair to expect much more from the quarterback, but only if the front office, coaching staff, and supporting cast hold up their end of the bargain as well.
Even after handing Flacco the richest deal in franchise history last year, Bisciotti could recognize that simple truth on Wednesday.