OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens can indeed get better.
Fans don’t want to hear it in the midst of a frustrating four-game losing streak, but winning is tough without your two best pass rushers, your top wide receiver, your best offensive lineman, your starting left tackle, and your starting inside linebacker. However, that reality lets no one — not Ozzie Newsome, not John Harbaugh, not Joe Flacco — off the hook in a season suddenly unraveling before Halloween.
Teams with sufficient talent and good coaching are able to overcome injuries against mediocre competition like the Ravens faced in the last three games. Expecting to beat elite teams with such an extensive infirmary report is unrealistic, but dropping three straight to Washington, the New York Giants, and the New York Jets is unacceptable. You have to win one or two of those if you fancy yourself to be a real playoff contender.
For a little bit of context, the Ravens went 4-2 without Ed Reed to begin the 2010 season. A year later, they won four straight games despite the incomparable Ray Lewis being sidelined with a toe injury. Yes, those future Hall of Fame talents were past their primes at that point, but the same can be said for Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Steve Smith, and even Marshal Yanda, especially if less than 100 percent healthy.
In other words, their returns alone won’t magically transform a bad team — which is what the Ravens were in a winless October — into a great one. Keep in mind that their potential presence will also be accompanied by a tougher schedule in November and December.
“It’s always way better to be healthy,” Harbaugh said. “There’s no question about that — and have your best players on the field. But we always have confidence in the guys we’re putting out there that they’ll get the job done.”
It was apparent before the season that the Ravens needed young players to take major steps forward to lessen the dependency on older talent, and that hasn’t happened so far. Though it’s only a snapshot of the current state of affairs, the Ravens had just one post-Super Bowl XLVII first-round pick — struggling wide receiver Breshad Perriman — on the field for the last two games.
Of the nine Baltimore picks made in the first three rounds of the 2013, 2014, and 2015 drafts, only three — Mosley, Brandon Williams, and Timmy Jernigan — have established themselves as meaningful contributors. That catches up with a team sooner or later.
Underwhelming drafts and several bad contracts make it fair to question Newsome, the front office, and the scouting department, no matter how good their reputation had been over the years. The Ravens are in clear need of young play-makers to make the difference in the many close games they’ve played since the start of last season.
At the same time, it’s difficult to look at Harbaugh and his coaching staff and not question whether players are consistently being put in the best position to succeed. After Sunday’s loss to the Jets, the ninth-year head coach said his team is practicing “exceptionally well” and should have won each of the last four games.
Such a statement then makes outsiders ask why the crisp preparation isn’t carrying over to Sundays and whether the coaches are teaching the right methods to begin with. Of course, head-scratching in-game decisions and the constant penalties don’t reflect well on the coaching, either.
“You’ve got to make it happen on game day,” Harbaugh said on Sunday. “For our team, where we’re at right now, we’re not going to be a margin-for-error team. It’s not going to be like that. We need to be a sound, tough-minded, fundamentally-smart-playing football team.”
Harbaugh has admirably guided his teams through trying times before, but this represents his greatest challenge with his future quite possibly hanging in the balance.
Beyond just getting healthy, the Ravens need to do whatever it takes to get Flacco back on track. Many of the problems — the offensive line, the up-and-down running game, and inconsistent play at wide receiver — are largely out of his control, but that can’t forgive him for playing his worst football at critical times over the four-game losing streak. Of course, a sore right shoulder didn’t help matters against the Jets.
In the first half on Sunday, Flacco completed 15 of 22 passes for 200 yards to help the Ravens carry a 16-14 lead into halftime. Over the final 30 minutes, however, he was just 10-for-22 for a meager 42 yards and two interceptions leading to the deciding 10 points for the Jets.
One of Flacco’s best traits earlier in his career was an ability to do more with less around him — to a certain degree — but that just hasn’t been the case this season. Even with the other problems at work, the 31-year-old’s play hasn’t offered much of a solution in these winnable games.
A week off could go a long way in helping the Ravens get healthy, both physically and mentally after a brutal month.
But it’s not the end-all, be-all for a team with too many problems to count.
And barring other internal improvements, good health alone won’t save a season rapidly moving in the wrong direction.