Every game is a battle it seems in today’s NFL, and struggling teams prove week after week that unless the better teams bring their best games, lesser teams will give them all that they can handle. Therefore, to say that the Ravens are in the midst of the easy part of their schedule would clearly be a disservice to the Dolphins, Raiders, Browns and Texans. Never the less, this is the part of the schedule where the Ravens will have to fatten their record if they hope to be a playoff contender in the waning weeks of this season.
It seems to be the popular opinion this season that the Ravens may have the most difficult schedule in their short history to deal with. Surely when most factored in the rookie quarterback, rookie head coach, and the young offensive line, in the face of that intimidating schedule, their expectations were realistically modest.
As daunting as the schedule looked however, it also had the potential, and still does, to be equally as cruel. Cruel in the way, that it has the potential to raise your expectations as a fan and then drop them just as quickly. Opening the season against the Bengals and Browns, and even the Texans if they had to play that one on schedule, provided the Ravens with opponents who could be beaten by the defense, with little pressure on the young and growing offense. Playing with Pittsburgh and Tennessee, and even controlling them for most of those games gave fans additional reasons to be hopeful.
The loss to the Colts, and a passing offense that had struggled to that point, sent expectations crashing right back to earth it seemed. That was after all, their third loss in a row, and outplaying their opponents in two of them could be looked at as a source of pride or a source of frustration. In the wake of the drubbing by the Colts, it felt a lot like frustration from here.
After all of that though, the four game stretch that the team finds themselves in the middle of now, looked like a chance to get back to respectability and become a factor in the AFC North before having to run the gauntlet of the NFC East in addition to Pittsburgh and Jacksonville as the season winds to a close. Thereby bringing about the very real possibility that the hopes of the fans are lifted and crushed once again. Since the Ravens have taken care of business in the first half of that stretch, they appear to be right on course. But the events of the last couple of weeks have changed things dramatically for the Ravens, and this week’s match up suddenly looks a lot more difficult than we may have thought just a few weeks ago.
I have, for a long time held onto the belief that although it has been my distinct pleasure as a Ravens fan to have witnessed a number of superstars, and hall of famers on the field for this team, that maybe the most important of all, and probably the most underrated of all has been Chris McAlister. Shut down corners are probably the most rare and valuable commodity in the entire league, and in McAlister, the Ravens have enjoyed that luxury for most of the last decade.
I remember the early days of the franchise, when they were night and day different from the Ravens that we have grown to know and love. Once upon a time, the Ravens had an offense that could seemingly go up and down the field with anyone. The problem with that team was that seemingly any team could go up and down the field themselves, on the Ravens’ defense.
Don’t get me wrong, Ray Lewis has been worth the price of admission since the day he stepped onto the field at Memorial Stadium, Peter Boulware made a pretty special impact early on too. Another favorite of mine from the early days was Ralph Staten, he never amounted to much and got into some trouble, back when the Ravens just couldn’t tolerate any bad PR, but he was a huge hitter back in the Memorial Stadium days.
With all of that said though, they were just a few guys who were fun to watch, as long as the team has DeRon Jenkins and Antonio Langham patrolling the corners, their defense was nonexistent. The Ravens became a dominant defense when Chris McAlister stepped on the scene, and since that time, as Chris McAlister goes, so go the Baltimore Ravens.
This is not to say that McAlister has been the perfect Raven by any means. Injuries are what they are, and every team and player has to deal with them at one time or another. When McAlister has been injured, the Ravens have suffered from it. We’re talking about a defensive system that has made stars of sixth round draft choices and undrafted free agents. A team that plugged in Ed Hartwell for the greatest linebacker of all time and barely missed a beat and a defense that has now seen four of its former coaches rise to the ranks of head coach. Yet anytime they’ve had to play without McAlister for a prolonged stretch, they’ve gone in the tank. They stunk before he arrived, and have been dominant pretty much ever since.
Injuries haven’t been McAlister’s only problem. He has a reputation for being physical that seems to preceded him at times with officials, he’s always seemed to attract a lot of flags, both during, and after the plays. And perhaps most frustrating to fans, and possibly the reason for the situation that he currently finds himself in, is at times he just seems disinterested in football. Obviously that’s something that you have to deal with if you hope to be successful as a team.
Whatever is going on between McAlister and Harbaugh and Rex Ryan or whoever, we can bet that we only know a small piece of it, and it will likely stay that way. The speculation at this point seems to be whether or not McAlister is done for the season, and possibly, ultimately as a Raven altogether. Whatever happens next, it’s a safe bet that the future of this defense hangs in the balance.
Not knowing enough about what’s gone on up to this point, it’s tough for me to pick a side, or a winner in this battle between coach and player. So far, the team hasn’t seemed to miss a beat in McAlister’s absence. So far though, they’ve faced the mighty Dolphins receiving corps of Ted Ginn Jr., Greg Camarillo and Derek Hagan and the powerful Raiders threats of a shell of JaVon Walker’s old self, and Chaz Schilens, Ronald Curry and Johnnie Lee Higgins. That’s not to mention that Chad Pennington and JaMarcus Russell were the ones throwing the ball. I’d imagine if there was an ideal time to phase in Frank Walker, that two game stretch was it.
Now the second half of the “get fat” stretch of the Ravens schedule suddenly looks a little more daunting. Match ups against seemingly bad teams in Cleveland and Houston suddenly highlight glaring match up problems with the likes of Braylon Edwards, Donte Stallworth and Kellen Winslow, followed by Andre Johnson, Kelly Walter and Owen Daniels. And things won’t get any easier from there.
Whatever the final outcome of the McAlister situation is, it’s likely that Harbaugh will get the benefit of the club’s support. We’ll see if he comes out a winner though. Although McAlister has been out for the last two games, for my money, life without C-Mac officially begins this week. We’ll see if Harbaugh and the Ravens defense are up to the task.