Unlike last week, when the words came freely to this space by the time the Ravens and Steelers headed to the locker room at halftime of Baltimore’s loss, yesterday’s result against the Bengals had me somewhat at a loss for words — the results from the rest of the NFL on Sunday made the task only slightly easier.
So I will take a different tact based on the reaction to the 21-7 loss to Cincinnati and my experience of working for a pair of NFL organizations for seven-plus years. I’ll do it in seven steps — my first thought from yesterday and then my reasoned opinion — one for each of Shayne Graham’s field goals that made up the Bengals offensive output.
1. My first thought: At 4-5, the Ravens’ hopes for the AFC playoffs are toast. My reasoned opinion: A look at the AFC race right now puts a pair of 6-3 teams (Jacksonville and Tennessee) — both from the AFC South – in the two Wild Card spots. That leaves seven teams (including Baltimore) with either 5-4 or 4-5 records — six when you put West leader San Diego into one of the top four seeds. The AFC North title repeat chances are gone and the game with Cleveland is a must-win if the Ravens have any hope of January football. Lose Sunday and it’s 4-6 overall, 0-5 in the division and 1-6 in the AFC — no tiebreaker hopes there if the Browns win.
2. My first thought: The Ravens will go 1-3 in the next four games with San Diego the only potential win on the list. My reasoned opinion: Cleveland is for real. Don’t let yesterday’s collapse to the Steelers fool you. They are a good football team that will only get better. New England seems untouchable on the surface. Indy looked human in the loss to a Chargers team that has been up-and-down. The Ravens could go 2-2 here if the defense does what they did yesterday (allow nothing but field goals) and force turnovers deep in opponent territory that give the offense a short field. The Ravens can beat San Diego because they are a run-first team and they could beat Indy if they get a pass rush on Peyton Manning and upset his timing (crucial because of the Ravens’ depleted secondary — the less time Manning has in the pocket, the less time he can pick his spots downfield). I don’t think New England is winnable and Cleveland has enough firepower on offense to score at least 17 points. It’s hard to ask the defense to pitch a shutout each week, but the Ravens’ postseason chances depend on it. The Ravens also have to take care of the football when they have it. The amount of turnovers is inexcusable.
3. My first thought: There should be a change in quarterbacks to Kyle Boller and he should play out the season as the starter. My reasoned opinion: Up until yesterday, I thought Steve McNair gave the Ravens the best chance of winning. But, his repeated turnovers by fumbles (a career season-worst seven lost of his eight overall) and limited effectiveness (mobility and passing mechanics caused by his groin injury) make Boller the choice by default. As for Troy Smith, the third-quarterback rule is that you can’t bring him into the game before the fourth quarter unless both active quarterbacks are injured (since both can’t play the rest of the way if the third QB plays before the fourth quarter). At some point, probably in the final three games if the record continues to worsen, Smith should be the No. 2 QB and McNair de-activated as the third QB. That would allow the Ravens to see what they have in their draft pick in live game action if the situation presents itself. Until the Ravens are eliminated though, Smith remains the third QB each week until that time — no earlier.
4. My first thought: Brian Billick will be back in 2008 as the Ravens’ head coach regardless of the finish of the season. My reasoned opinion: I hold firm to the first thought. Billick was given an extension of his contract in the last offseason after a 13-3 season. Bad seasons happen in the NFL and the Ravens performance is tied to several factors. It’s easy for fans to raise the guns on the man in charge and give him his last cigarette, but the reality in the NFL is this: You evaluate everything from training camp to the final game of the season in its’ totality, not a stretch of three-four games where the house seems to be in disorder. There will be changes — there are always are after each season — in coaching staff and players. But the Ravens opted for overall stability with the contract extension last year and it would not have been done if Ozzie Newsome didn’t believe in Billick’s ability to lead and coach over the long haul. If he thought otherwise two years ago, Billick would have been history right then. The fact is that the Ravens will have a much different roster next season and many of the vets who have played a large part in the franchise’s fortunes won’t be here for 2008. It will be a younger team by default and Billick will be seen as the clear man in charge — even if he is not the offensive coordinator.
5. My first thought: Kyle Boller will be the opening day starter in 2008. My reasoned opinion: Based on the contract extension Boller received earlier this season and on the quarterbacks that could be available in free agency in the upcoming offseason, he will be the starter in 2008. Newsome would not have made the deal unless he took a hard look at the QBs available via free agency and concluded that the Ravens might not be able to do better — right now. Case in point: The Falcons signed Joey Harrington to a deal in April after Matt Schaub was traded to get value for a QB who was going to become an unrestricted free agent (without compensation) after 2007 (but prior to Michael Vick’s legal troubles coming to light).
Harrington goes through camp as the starter while Byron Leftwich is cut at the end of Jacksonville’s camp (Atlanta professes no interest in him at the time). Atlanta struggles to a 0-3 start and they go out and sign Leftwich after two weeks for about the same contract terms and amount that Harrington got. Leftwich finally gets a start in Week 7, but gets hurt in the same game. Harrington goes back in and guess what? Atlanta has won their last two and head coach Bobby Petrino has a decision to make when Leftwich gets healthy. You just don’t know what might transpire in the NFL. In the words of Jim Mora – “You may think you know, but you don’t know.”
6. My first thought: It’s a shame that the defense is keeping teams out of the end zone, but the offense can’t get in there. My reasoned opinion: The Ravens are tied for the lead in opponent field goals allowed (with Houston) with 22. Cleveland is third at 20. The defense has allowed two rushing TDs and 12 passing scores. Offensively, they have 18 field goals, five rushing TDs and five passing TDs. It has to be hard in the locker room when the defense looks over at the offense and wonders when the “O” will do their fair share of the work. That can be a big cause of stress and strain, especially when there is a three-game losing streak. The defense has to keep their head down, do their job and encourage the offense to do the same — not snipe at the other side of the room or the coaches publically or privately.
7. My first thought: This team could implode over the next four weeks. My reasoned opinion: There is too much pride in NFL locker rooms to let that type of thing happen. A current NFL assistant coach who was a former defensive coordinator said, “You are always a three-game losing streak away from a mutiny.” It’s only half-true. If the season goes south, players still have something to play for – future paychecks. Guys will play hard if they are in a contract year or have individual goals (Pro Bowl, financial incentives, etc.) to make. Notice I said individual. If the team goal of making the playoffs is gone, players will go into individual stats mode and subtly try to accomplish personal numbers to convince personnel people and owners that the team record was not due to their efforts, but someone else’s. That’s self-preservation at work and when there is so much competition for jobs, players will make sure they look good on game film – the one that every team’s pro scouts review each week when the league’s game tapes come in the mail in preparation for games and more importantly to the players, free agency.