An 0-3 record has brought many questions for the Baltimore Ravens.
Who’s to blame? Is it a lack of talent, poor execution, or the coaching?
A week after head coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees questioned the effort and energy of their defense, the Ravens were gashed to the tune of 28 points and 458 total yards by Cincinnati to fall to 0-3 for the first time in franchise history. Meanwhile, an offense too reliant on Steve Smith in the passing game has lost its way on the ground, ranking 28th in the NFL at just 3.3 yards per carry.
While fans and media try to hand out blame to coaches and players or point to a tough schedule for the poor start, below are seven realities that have contributed to the predicament of the Ravens being the only winless team in the AFC. Some were the result of bad decisions while others were out of their control.
These factors are in no particular order and some clearly hold more weight than others.
Dead cap money
Dead cap space is a reality for every NFL team from year to year, but the Ravens are carrying an incredible $17 million in dead money for two former Pro Bowl players no longer on the roster: Ray Rice and Haloti Ngata. With the cap set at $143.28 million for the 2015 season, general manager Ozzie Newsome was without nearly 12 percent of his cap because of those two alone. When you combine that with the rest of their dead money, the Ravens were unable to utilize more than $21 million (just under 15 percent) of the salary cap for 2015. Baltimore rarely spends big in free agency, but they might have been able to make an impact signing or two with those resources tied to star players who aren’t even on the roster anymore.
Recent draft history
To be clear, not even the great Newsome can be expected to bat 1.000 in the draft, but C.J. Mosley was the first Pro Bowl player the Ravens had drafted since Rice in 2008. The 2013 draft is particularly glaring with the top two draft picks — Matt Elam and Arthur Brown — being non-factors, but the later selections of Brandon Williams and Rick Wagner prevented that class from being a total disaster. Of course, the Ravens’ recent draft issues are only relative to their high standards, but they have selected just one player in the first or second round since 2009 — Jimmy Smith — whom they’ve signed to a second long-term contract at this point. They’ve still found talent, but Newsome must find new game-changers to be pillars of the roster moving forward. And when you miss badly on high picks like Elam and Brown, those positions have to be accounted for with additional resources that could have gone to other areas of need.
Departure of assistant coaches
Not only did the Ravens begin 2015 with their fourth offensive coordinator in four years, but the absence of Gary Kubiak has been even more pronounced with the running game looking very 2013-esque so far. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Marc Trestman is a fit in Baltimore, but it’s difficult to continue enduring annual coaching changes without a few hiccups at some point. Another oft-overlooked coaching departure from two years ago was secondary coach and current Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Highly respected by the likes of Ed Reed, Lardarius Webb, and Jimmy Smith, Austin was succeeded by Steve Spagnuolo for a year and the combination of Chris Hewitt and Matt Weiss are now coaching the secondary. It’s not an excuse for the poor performance, but that’s a lot of coaching turnover in what’s been the biggest weakness on the field for the Ravens dating back to last season.
It’s been a testament to the Ravens to seemingly be able to replace departing veterans with cheaper, younger replacements every year, but the exit of Ngata, starting wide receiver Torrey Smith, rush specialist Pernell McPhee, and starting tight end Owen Daniels was a large group to replace in one offseason, especially when you factor in the dead cap space working against Newsome. At some point, you can only lose so many established players and not have the well run dry — at least temporarily — as young players are still maturing.
Excessive reliance on rookies and inexperienced players
This goes hand in hand with the veteran departures, but the Ravens are relying on more young players at key spots than they have in quite some time. Ideally, even your first-rounders can be worked in slowly like the Ravens did with the likes of Terrell Suggs (one start in 2003) and Todd Heap (six starts in 2001). The 2015 draft class looked great on paper in addressing so many positional needs, but that never meant those rookies would be ready to contribute immediately. So far, third-round defensive tackle Carl Davis is the only pick to make a significant contribution, but the Ravens will hope to see others come on sooner rather than later to prove they can be part of the future. The presence of so many inexperienced wideouts beyond Steve Smith has hindered the offense so far in 2015.
Injuries to Terrell Suggs and Breshad Perriman
All teams endure injuries, but these two have been difficult to overcome in the early stages of 2015 with Suggs being the emotional leader of the defense and an important part of the pass rush and Perriman representing offensive upside. When you consider the exits of Ray Lewis, Reed, and Ngata over the last few years, Suggs’ season-ending injury brought the end of the old guard of Baltimore defense. Meanwhile, it was no secret that Perriman would be the replacement for Torrey Smith as the vertical threat in the passing game. The Ravens hope their 2015 first-round pick will still contribute in his rookie season at some point, but the passing game has been too dependent on Steve Smith with only a collection of late-round picks and former rookie free agents behind him in the receiver pecking order.
Big contracts not paying off
No, Joe Flacco’s record-setting deal is not part of this discussion, regardless of arguments that some fans and media have tried to make over the last couple years. But the Ravens haven’t had an impressive run with other long-term deals over the last few years for various reasons, some out of their control. Starting in 2012, Newsome has rewarded the likes of Rice, cornerback Lardarius Webb, tight end Dennis Pitta, and left tackle Eugene Monroe with big contracts that have produced disappointing results. Other deals such as the ones given to Pro Bowl outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil and four-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda have worked out, but the overall return hasn’t been what the organization anticipated with most of these big-money contracts. It’s too early to judge Jimmy Smith’s contract despite a rough 2015 start, but he’s certainly the next one under the microscope.