Fans are allowed to have an ‘off-year’ too

December 29, 2007 | Drew Forrester

All this talk about selling tickets to Pittsburgh fans…not going to the game…"sending a message to the Owner"…it’s all part of a Baltimore fan base that has clearly NOT adjusted well to the first awful season in the Brian Billick era. 

But, like the players themselves, aren’t the fans entitled to an "off-year"?  I think so.

Let’s get this out of the way first.  This current generation of Ravens’ fan is basically 12 years old.  The team returned to Baltimore in 1996 and I can’t imagine that any more than 20% of the people who are current PSL owners were ardent, every-game Colts supporters before the team left town in 1984.  So, if that number (20%) is right, then 56,000 of the 70,000 who attend games at M&T Bank are relative newcomers to the game – as a paying customer, that is.  It takes a while to figure out how to be a great fan.  It doesn’t happen in 5 or 6 years…it might take 12-15 years for someone to fully grasp what it means to run an organization and how that relates to your measure of support for the club.

Second, I think we can ALL agree that Ravens football as we know it really didn’t start until the team moved into the new stadium and Brian Billick took over as Head Coach in 1999.  Before that, it was just good to have football back and even though the first few years under Ted Marchibroda featured more losing than winning, no one really seemed to care that much about who won or lost – except the team.  The fans, the city, etc….we were just happy to have a team to call our own on Sunday afternoon.

Move ahead to our current situation, which, based solely on expectations, has to go down as the worst campaign in the 12-season history of the Ravens. 

The organization clearly had an off-year.  The players – for the most part – had an off-year.  And, if I critique the fan’s "performance" based on calls, e-mails, internet submissions and behavior at the stadium – well, they definitely had an "off-year" as well.

But that’s OK.

Everyone is entitled to an off-year every now and then.

Someone named Jack – I’m assuming he’s a Steelers fan – e-mailed me on Friday and said he just bought four seats in Section 517 from a disgruntled Ravens supporter who sold him the seats at $10 below face value (each) just to get rid of them.  I’m not 100% sure the story is true, but if it is, Jack thinks (according to his e-mail) that Baltimore fans are "bad fans" because of how they’ve bailed on the team this week.  He laughed about it in his e-mail and was basically over-the-top in his criticism of the Baltimore football fan base.

I e-mailed Jack and gave him my insight.  Ravens fans aren’t "bad" fans.  They’re just "typical" fans.  If the roles were reversed (which they sort of were last year and I don’t remember all these Steelers fans coming out of the woodwork last season…ahem, 58-7…those numbers sound familiar?) and the Ravens were 10-5 and going to the post-season and Pittsburgh hosted the season finale at 4-11 with half their team out with injuries, how many of us could trek west on 1-70 and then head up the turnpike to catch the game at Heinz Field for face value or less?  Right…as many of us that wanted to go.

Going back to week #9 when the Ravens hosted Cincinnati, I was very critical of the 50,000 or so who skated out of the stadium with 11 minutes to go because the game was very much still in the balance at that point and the people who left that day were shortchanging the team who, more than anything else, were just undermanned that afternoon.  I thought it was wrong for the final 6 minutes of that game to play out with 12,000 people in the stadium.  And I said so.  But I’m not saying that makes Baltimore football fans "bad"…I just think we’re "typical", that’s all.

Sometimes, we all like to think of ourselves as "super fans" in Baltimore, particularly when it comes to football.  We might have a "super fan" fan-base when the team is WINNING, but this year we’ve seen first-hand that the fan-base isn’t very "super" when the team is LOSING.  And you can go into all the who-struck-John you want about offensive woes, QB development and Brian Billick…but Billick was brought here in 1999 to win football games — plain and simple.  And, without question, this is HIS worst year at getting that job done in his 9-year tenure.  Marvin Lewis wasn’t hired in Cincinnati to get their defense fixed.  He was brought there to coach the team to victories.  If the Bengals had the 29th worst defense in the league this season but went on to win the Super Bowl 48-44 over Dallas, do you think anyone would give a damn about the defensive play of the team?  Of course not.  So, while Billick and Company deserve criticism for going 4-11 (or 5-11 or 4-12), I think the over-reaction from a good portion of the fans this season indicates nothing more than a general lack of understanding on how football and life in the NFL really works.  The 60-minutes of the actual game are easy.  It’s the salary cap, the player signings, the injuries, the locker-room "issues", the ego’s, and THE OTHER TEAMS YOU PLAY (and how they’re handling all of that stuff too) that people need to be more in tune with…those elements are often times just as important in the grand scheme of things than what play you call on 3rd and 1.

What’s happened this season, more than ever, is that most everyone who packs that stadium on Sunday never thought this kind of thing could happen to the Ravens.  And, because of that, inexperience has reared its head, both with the team and the fans.  The players have spent most of their time this season trying to individually dodge bullets of responsibility, either via their ill-timed radio shows or through the press after the game(s).  Referees have been blamed.  The NFL has been blamed.  The Coach has been blamed.  Here it is week #15, and I’m still waiting for the players – as a group – to say, "we deserve to blamed as well." 

And the fans have followed suit.  Blame the refs, blame the league, blame the Coach.  It’s easy to do that, of course.  Blaming the refs or the Coach requires little thought or little debate.  "The refs and the league are out to get us" or "The Coach should be fired" are stand-alone responses that don’t demand a whole lot of contemplation.  Generally, though, those kinds of knee-jerk reactions don’t contribute to fixing the problem…they just add to it. 

Some fans, though, do understand what’s happened this year.  Wrecked with injuries from day one of the season, literally, the Ravens have never really been capable of competing at a high-level this year.  Throw in underachieving performances by a handful of key contributors, a QB situation that remains muddled, and a dose of poor coaching, poor management and bad luck and you have, as you can see, a 4-11 record. 

The people that understand how it’s happened will probably be there on Sunday to see the Ravens play their final game and, possibly, witness the final 60 minutes of football in the great career of Jon Ogden.

The people that don’t understand how it’s all happened will probably NOT be there on Sunday.  That doesn’t make them "bad fans".  If they pay their ticket invoice every spring, that probably makes them a "good fan" on the whole in my opinion. 

There will be people who don’t show up on Sunday and they’ll defend that position by pointing to the team’s record, their decision to bring Billick back or, simply, a lack of interest in seeing a game that has ZERO meaning to it.

And, that’s OK. 

Fans, like players, are allowed to have an off-year every once in a while.