You could find excuses anywhere you looked after the Ravens fell to 1-6 on Monday night.
Substandard officiating and malfunctioning headsets are real issues the NFL needs to address, but dwelling on such factors serves no purpose when you’re in the midst of the worst start in franchise history.
An ever-growing list of injuries has stunted the ceiling of the 2015 Ravens, no matter if expectations were too high for such a playmaker-deprived roster to begin with.
Still a few days shy from Halloween, the Ravens face a cruel reality that no one could have anticipated.
The season is over — at least in the scope that football seasons have been viewed in Baltimore over the last 15 years. Even if you’re crazy enough to believe the Ravens are capable of winning eight or nine of their final nine contests in 2015, that still might not be enough as it was only last year that they needed a hand from Kansas City in Week 17 just to sneak into the playoffs with a 10-6 record.
Six losses by one score each might make the Ravens the best 1-6 team in NFL history, but that still only fetches the first overall pick in the 2016 draft if the season were to end today.
If Super Bowl XLVII was John Harbaugh’s finest hour in Baltimore, the eighth-year head coach is now entering his most critical one. With nine games to go in the season from hell, Harbaugh must steer the Ravens clear of the finger-pointing game the rest of the way.
Harbaugh has said this isn’t the first time one of his teams has faced adversity and has maintained that it will make the Ravens better in the long run, but it’s easier to hold the ship together in the midst of a losing streak when you’re still in the heart of the playoff race. Even when the Ravens stood at 0-3 or 1-4 earlier this season, there were historical examples from which to draw inspiration that they could climb back in the hunt.
But at 1-6, the Ravens have entered the territory when everyone — players, coaches, and members of the front office — begins looking over his shoulder. Even the bulletproof Ozzie Newsome has to be feeling at least the slightest bit of anxiety these days when he sees Steve Bisciotti’s name light up on his phone. They wouldn’t be the competitors that they are if that uneasiness didn’t exist right now.
That doesn’t mean Bisciotti will or should clean house, but everyone’s seat — some more than others — should feel at least a little warm over such a poor start.
The truth is that the Ravens aren’t fixing all of their problems this year, meaning not everyone is going to be around to see these dark times through. That goes for players, coaches, and the rest of the organization as change is an annual part of the NFL even when life is good. How much change remains to be seen, but that uncertainty for everyone is what Harbaugh must weather as the face of the organization over the rest of the season.
Right or wrong, it’s human nature for coaches to want to point to the front office and to players, for players to blame coaches and each other, for the front office to point to coaches for not getting the job done with the roster assembled in the offseason, and for all parties to blame injuries, officiating, and any other variable creeping into the equation in a given week. How effectively the Ravens avoid those traps over the next two months will go a long way in determining how long everyone sticks around under Bisciotti, who once fired a Super Bowl-winning coach only a year after he’d led the Ravens to the best regular-season mark in franchise history.
It was less than two years ago that the highly-competitive owner vowed to get more involved if the Ravens repeated the mistakes of a 2013 season that ended in an 8-8 record. Two years later, those problems pale in comparison to what they face now.
“I have to be patient to let people fail, but I don’t have to be patient enough to let people repeat failure,” Bisciotti said in January 2014. “I’ll be more apt to get my way next year if their solutions don’t change the problems. That’s fair, that’s where I am as owner.”
To the credit of Harbaugh, his staff, and his players, there have been few signs of the effort coming into question despite the results not being there. It would be too difficult to continue losing games by one possession if you weren’t giving it your all — or at least close to it — on a weekly basis in the NFL. So far, the Ravens have been quick not to use injuries, bad luck, or talent deficiencies in key areas as excuses and have taken accountability for all shortcomings under their control.
But will growing emphasis on the future prompt individuals to start thinking more about themselves instead of the greater good? It’s that type of thinking that becomes dangerous to a team and an organization.
Even with factors currently out of their control, everyone needs to be better.
Harbaugh and his staff need to accentuate the Ravens’ strengths — as few as there might be — and find ways to mask their weakness — as many as there are — as much as possible.
In a unique position as the franchise quarterback and highest-paid player on the team, Joe Flacco needs to find a way to make it work — at least a little better — with Marc Trestman and an underwhelming group of talent behind Steve Smith. Flacco’s comments about the final drive on Monday night seemed to allude to more than just headset issues and wouldn’t be the first time his words could be interpreted as some disenchantment with his new offensive coordinator. Likewise, a veteran coach like Trestman needs to better organize a group that’s been prone to getting completely out of sync for large portions of games like the offense was in the second half of Monday’s loss.
A poor defense that performed better against Arizona — relative to recent performances at least — has to find a way to build on that showing, starting with a Week 8 challenge against San Diego’s top-ranked passing game. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees lacks the horses to fairly compare this unit to the many great Baltimore defenses of the past, but he’s coaching for his job at this point with the league’s 28th-ranked pass defense.
Every player on the 53-man roster down to the last member on the practice squad needs to dig deep as many will be playing for their futures — in Baltimore or somewhere else — the rest of the way in 2015.
It will be Harbaugh’s responsibility to hold so many moving parts together without the familiar carrot of postseason play ahead and with everyone now looking over his shoulder and facing the temptation to point the finger elsewhere.
And even though much of their work won’t come until the offseason, Newsome and the front office need to do much better than the roster assembled for the 2015 season. An infusion of play-making, impact talent on both sides of the ball needs to occur as quickly as possible, which won’t be easy.
Excuses are all over the place if you’re willing to give in, and playing out the string won’t be pleasant.
But each member of the organization needs to remember that every time you point a finger somewhere else, there are three fingers pointing back at you.
It’s an easy lesson to remember when times are good as they have been for a long time in Baltimore, but the Ravens have never found themselves in a position quite like this before.
In the NFL’s basement and with all hope lost for the 2015 season — at least in the way they envisioned it not too long ago.