As a card-carrying, eternal purple optimist, I suppose today is a day when my lavender heart gets tarnished. I’m going to do the unthinkable and be rational in my observation of where the Ravens are and where they could be heading between now and Jan. 3 in Oakland.
After seeing how this works over the last decade, since the Ravens really became a competitive squad in 1999, I think the NFL really boils to one thing – talent not withstanding – it’s injuries.
And this is why I think the Ravens are doomed this year, why they aren’t a good bet to make it through this minefield of games against the mostly lousy NFC North:
The most injured team in December loses. The healthiest team – with talent and key positions in tact – in January wins.
Right now, after watching them the past few weeks and after walking into the Ravens locker room last night, my veteran sportswriter eyeball test tells me that any purple Festivus miracle this year is a major, major uphill battle.
Part of why the team stinks right now is because they’re battered and bruised and the locker room looks like the walking wounded.
And it’s not just the devastating Terrell Suggs, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Fabian Washington injuries, it’s more about the walking wounded right now who are playing at far less than 90% and giving it all they have but just can’t perform at a Pro Bowl level with a variety of limiting injuries.
Let’s address the gimpy infirmary, not to mention the other aged players like Matt Birk, Trevor Pryce and Derrick Mason on the Ravens:
The three best players on the Ravens – and I’ll take any argument here – are Ray Lewis, Joe Flacco and Haloti Ngata. Right now, they are the “Purple Hearts,” if you will.
Let be honest – the NFL is all about speed. It’s the most significant attribute any player can have and it’s universal. Why do you think they spend so much time on 40-yard dashes at the combine every year? Speed kills. If you don’t have it, you don’t win.
Ray Lewis has a bad foot. Joe Flacco has a bad ankle. Haloti Ngata has a bad leg.
Lewis has shown it less in his gait than Flacco or Ngata (and the naked eye can tell from just watching them take normal walking steps in between plays what’s going on there) but he’s just as bad off from what we can tell and his several days of missing practice last week would tell you all you need to know. Lewis LIVES for practice. He loves it!
Flacco just looks like a mess right now. He’s all heart, but it’s pretty clear he’s gimpy and he got rolled up on again last night. Planting, moving, having a busted play become a big gainer – all of that is questionable on any given play. It also looks like his throws are sailing because of these subtle adjustments he’s making on the fly with monsters trying to tear his head off.
Ngata, another one with a heart the size of his own giant girth, is only playing on select downs and is about as banged up as any guy I’ve seen in my years of doing this who is still going out there on Sundays. Kinda reminds me of the year Peter Boulware played with one arm. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is mixing up the units and keeping Kelly Gregg, Justin Bannan and Brendan McKinney fresh, but there’s a major difference between a healthy Ngata and the rest of these guys – especially if you’re talking about 60-70 snaps a game.
This, my friends, is bad for the purple business and the Ravens aren’t going very far for very long with the trio of Lewis, Flacco & Ngata on the hobble.
How long will it take them to heal? Will they heal in the midst of five more games, three more roadtrips and 15 more hours of the physical hell the NFL game wreaks on the framework of these massive bodies?
We’ll see. But I wouldn’t take odds that any of these injuries are going to miraculously heal. They’re nagging, prolonged bouts.
It’s not that I don’t think the Ravens are “good” enough. Properly assembled and with less injured personnel, I’d think they Ravens would be a division winner – and that’s just if they had a kicker who was NFL-caliber the first half of the season.
But right now, at 6-5 with trips still pending to Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Oakland, the road is fraught with more bumps and bruises.
Coach John Harbaugh will downplay all of this. These guys won’t even address their injuries when we ask them on Wednesday’s media day. That’s fine. They shouldn’t talk about it.
But any astute observer would tell you that the Ravens are among the most banged up teams in the league and all at key positions. And banged up teams don’t fare well in the cold having to go on the road. And this is before we address the obvious shortcomings this 6-5 unit has as a whole.
They’re weak on special teams returns and magic. They’ve been previously weak on kicking and the team missed another 54-yarder that could’ve won the game on Sunday night. The offense has been nothing special and the wide receivers have been MIA some weeks. The pass rush has been less than we’ve known it for a decade and don’t get me started on the secondary, which is also playing with spare parts now that Washington is on IR and Frank Walker and Chris Carr continue to get exposed in key situations.
Sure Ray Rice has been explosive. And there have been times, especially early in the year, when the offense looked like it was in sync and could dazzle us with 30 points every week. But that’s not what we’ve seen in large part since September.
If Bill Parcells coined the phrase, “You are what you are!” than the Ravens of 2009 are the embodiment of that expression. They’re 6-5.
I want to believe. I’m going to pick them to win every week. I’m going to travel to Green Bay with a bus full of purple zealots on Sunday and Monday. We’re going to root hard and hope for the best.
But this injury thing, for me, it’s unshakeable. The late-season, winning NFL teams are usually much, much healthier than the Ravens appear to be here on Dec. 1.