Going into the Ravens bye week many were hoping for wholesale changes, particularly on the offensive line. Since we knew that those changes wouldn’t ( or couldn’t) come by way of new personnel, in fact the injury status of Kelechi Osemele only further limits the teams personnel options, many were instead hoping for (or expecting) a change in philosophy.
So far, Juan Castillo’s tenure in Baltimore has been met with a lot of criticism and not much patience. It’s really easy to understand why, as the offensive line’s performance in the post-season seemed to be the catalyst for the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, and since for the first time in the John Harbaugh / Joe Flacco era the line was coming back 80% intact. Add to that Castillo’s shaky recent track record and the dramatic shift in philosophy to a “zone based” blocking scheme, and many have affixed the blame for the Ravens poor offensive line play directly to their new “Run Game Coordinator”.
Whether that’s an accurate assessment or not is beside the point for now.The Ravens opened their post-bye portion of the schedule looking pretty much the same on the offensive line personnel wise, scheme wise, and effectiveness wise too. And while Sunday’s loss doesn’t officially end the Ravens run of playoff seasons under their current regime, the road to 10 wins has suddenly become really tough to navigate or even to envision.
If it is the end of the Ravens string of playoffs, it’s probably long overdue. Maintaining a consistent contender in today’s salary cap driven NFL isn’t supposed to be as easy as the Ravens have made it look, especially in a division like the AFC North 2008-2012. Given the chance to trade a Super Bowl win for a losing season thereafter, there’s not a player, coach, executive or fan who wouldn’t have signed up for that scenario before last year’s magical run. And while no trade like that was actually made, the Ravens themselves may have consciously made a similar “tradeoff” in order to lay the groundwork for their next string of competitive success.
Those that began this year expecting Joe Flacco’s new contract to sink the franchise may have been more right than we’d like to acknowledge, even if it was in a way that no one outside the organization may have seen coming. The truth is that for 2013 at least, Flacco’s contract is very “cap friendly”, but it won’t remain that way. Given the future constraints of his contract, and the turnover the Ravens have continually seen on the offensive side of the ball, it shouldn’t be a reach to think that the front office is thinking about the long term a little differently.
The problem with the Ravens zone blocking scheme, in addition to the growing pains of getting everyone comfortable in it, has been that the Ravens don’t exactly seem to have the right personnel to run it. The team that seemed to run it best, and made it most famous were the late 90’s and early 2000’s Denver Broncos. At the time, the Broncos were known for having small, athletic offensive linemen who weren’t prototypical, and who therefore weren’t in great demand by other teams. That Broncos team also developed a reputation for being able to throw any back in the backfield and pile up big yardage.
In a salary cap era, with a QB earning big money, in an organization that still sees the value of stocking the defense with talent, the Ravens have to make a conscious effort to cut corners somewhere. Continually “coaching up” offensive linemen to the point that other teams are willing to offer them big money, and having paid “top dollar” to a running back who may already be on the down slope, has put the Ravens in a tough spot…a tough spot that could be avoided in the future if they’re able to successfully implement a new offensive philosophy that gets the most out of unconventional, not in demand talent that won’t cost a mint or have to turn over quite so rapidly.
If this is the case, you have to applaud the Ravens commitment to change, even on the heels of their recent success, in order to get and remain one step ahead in the future. It’d clearly be easier to abandon the new scheme, and go back to the old, simple, conventional style of play that led them to New Orleans last year, but if the Ravens believe that this is the right path for the long term, then they just might have to be willing to suffer a little short term pain for some long term gain.
A couple of years ago John Harbaugh was selling the symbolism of the shovel and the sword, signifying the Ravens building and fighting at the same time. If this time around the Ravens have to tear down in order to build up stronger, they seem to have run out of hands for those swords. Hopefully soon enough, they’ll be able to put down the sledgehammers and get back to the fight. For now…they’ve earned our patience.