Were the Ravens Built to Win?

November 16, 2011 | Thyrl Nelson

It’s been another odd NFL season in Baltimore, and when all is said and done maybe one for the ages. From a fan’s perspective, sometimes we allow expectations to rob us of our enjoyment. That’s par for the course. But in a season where the wins have been so exciting and encouraging and against such high caliber competition, the losses by contrast have been inexplicable, deflating and outright maddening. That probably explains why the amount criticism levied against this team seems extremely overblown for one with a 6-3 record.


That said, I still believe wholeheartedly that this isn’t the best time to be playing your best football, that teams who aren’t beating themselves up over how to get better won’t and that these Ravens have been and remain a work in progress that will be fairly judged in its entirety at some point down the line.


While the coaching staff has rightly caught the lion’s share of the blame, there’s plenty to go around. The Ravens still have gaping holes in their collective game, and as he readily collects his fair share of deserved credit for the way that he has built the Ravens, perhaps Ozzie Newsome has some answering to do of his own, relative to a number of shortcomings apparent in this year’s version of the Ravens.


The Makeshift Offensive Line – Things there began encouragingly enough as the Ravens found the means to re-sign Marshal Yanda and hoped, if rookie right tackle Jah Reid could get up to speed quickly enough, to carry 80% continuity from last year to this on the offensive line. A funny thing however happened on the way to playing football. Panicked over their tackle situation the Ravens brought in Bryant McKinnie moved Michael Oher to right tackle and hoped for the best with regard to Matt Birk being ready to begin the season after knee surgery.


The result has been a makeshift offensive line, made even more piecemeal by a foot injury to Ben Grubbs. The Ravens have struggled to protect Joe Flacco as he acclimates to his relatively new receiving corps, and haven’t done enough on the ground to make the coaching staff confident or willing to run the ball behind this line all too often in recent weeks.


Speaking of the Receiving Corps – The Ravens continuity there and the expectation for improvement is the most realistic place that fans can look for upside on the offense this season. While guys like Todd Heap and Derrick Mason were referred to as crutches, there’s no doubt that Flacco knew where they’d be at any given time. Their absence has left Flacco and the offense without the escape valves that have served them well for the past 3 seasons. The wide receiving corps consists of Anquan Boldin a fine receiver, but one only in his second season with the team, followed by rookie Torrey Smith, rookie LaQuan Williams, second year receiver David Reed who was an afterthought in the offense before falling out of favor with his special teams play in Seattle and rookie Tandon Doss who has struggled to simply get listed on the active game day roster.


Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are also valuable parts of the passing game and as each is in his second season and looking to step up and command targets that went to Todd Heap last year, they too seem to be learning on the fly. That makes Ray Rice the longest tenured member of the receiving corps, a role he’s played even more than running back in recent weeks.


The Ray Rice Situation – At times (more often than not) Ray Rice is the most dangerous weapon on the Ravens offense. This makes it all the more perplexing and tough to take as a fan, when he is seemingly so underutilized. As mentioned above, he’s a big part of the passing game, but balance is necessary on offense and Rice is one of the NFL’s true homerun hitters in the ground game. Lately though it seems that the Ravens are reluctant to feature him in the offense and outright averse to running Rice between the tackles. If that’s not something that the coaches feel comfortable doing, that’s a big hole in the offense. If the Ravens don’t have an option to run for tough yards between the tackles, they’ll be hard pressed to win tight games against good teams when it matters most.


Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, Rice at about $550k this season is one of the NFL’s best bargains as well. Next year he won’t be. It’s a fair guess that franchising Rice for 2011 will cost upwards of $8.5 mil. If the Ravens look to keep him happy and keep him around it’ll cost a lot more. Running backs are supposed to be disposable in today’s NFL. If the Ravens see Rice’s game as deficient between the tackles, they’ll have reservations about investing long term anyway. It’s inconceivable, yet seemingly apparent that these Ravens have a capable option between the tackles in Ricky Williams, but no good options there. And no good options for the future if they’re hesitant to pay the price for Rice.


The Ravens Don’t Know Their Identity – Or maybe they do, but it seems the front office and the coaches on the field have different ideas about what that identity (particularly on offense) is. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is infamously “under fire” and seems hell bent on opening up the offense. Ozzie Newsome however, went out and spent legitimate money on a “true fullback” yet as mentioned above the team either can’t or won’t simply run behind him.


As a result the Ravens “wide open” offense (3rd in the NFL in pass attempts) is built around a fullback, two young tight ends, a field stretching rookie with inconsistent hands, and a rookie free agent who didn’t see much time on the field at the receiver position in college. Dickson and Pitta are nice young tight ends but as 2nd, 3rd, or 4th wide receivers in a high-powered offense they leave a lot to be desired. These Ravens simply don’t have the horsepower to be high throttle yet seem to insist on being just that.


Missing on First Round Draft Picks – This used to be Ozzie’s “bread and butter”. The consistency these Ravens have enjoyed throughout their existence has been directly attributable to the draft wizardry of Ozzie Newsome, especially in the first round. Lately though, the wizard has been the whiffer.


Make your own decision on Michael Oher, you probably already have. I’m referring, here to the understanding that so far, the first rounds of the last 2 drafts have produced one embarrassing “war room” episode for the Ravens and Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson (I know it feels like I’m killing these two, but I really like them…just not split out wide on every play and just not as our first round bounties for 2010 and 2011).


Yes, it’s too early to indict the Jimmy Smith pick and most are truly encouraged by his potential (as am I). That he hasn’t been a contributor at much of anything so far is discouraging. It’s especially discouraging on the heels of the 2010 draft where the Ravens traded out of the first round (to Denver to pick Tim Tebow) and got picks that amounted to Sergio Kindle, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta in return.


No Kick or Punt Returners – Nine games into the season and no one has established themselves as worthy of this job…it’s pretty unbelievable. Even more unbelievable is that the best options available are starting corners or wide receivers high in the hierarchy. Surely a team that prides itself on special teams and routinely points to availability on special teams as the catalyst to game day activation could find room on the roster for someone to take this job. Special teams overall are an issue, but this might be the biggest. Or maybe…


The Kicking Problem – After setting an NFL record for touchbacks last season Billy Cundiff is 7th among kickers in touchback percentage in 2011 from 5 yards closer and seems hopeless on anything from 50+ yards. Good thing they got him inked to a 5-year deal this off-season.