OWINGS MILLS, Md. — I was surprised by John Harbaugh’s decision to retain Marty Mornhinweg as Ravens offensive coordinator for the 2017 season.
I saw the head-scratching play calls and the lack of commitment to the running game that continued when Mornhinweg took the reins of the offense from the dismissed Marc Trestman in mid-October.
I asked Harbaugh what he saw in those last 11 games that suddenly made Mornhinweg the right man for the job after he didn’t hire him as his offensive coordinator two years ago and instead chose Trestman, someone he wasn’t nearly as familiar with. The Ravens coach offered no real specifics, saying only that he and his players believe in the veteran coordinator and believe they’re on the right track despite showing minimal improvement after his promotion.
Harbaugh proved Tuesday that he’s not afraid of making the unpopular choice. The decision now puts the heat squarely on his own shoulders if the offense fails to perform since he elected not to bring in a new offensive mind such as Mike McCoy or Ken Whisenhunt. Such a hire might have served as another scapegoat if the offense failed to improve, but Harbaugh will have no such luxury with this path.
It’s on him now with the Ravens having missed the playoffs in three of the last four years and the offense struggling in each of those non-winning seasons.
“Those decisions are taken very seriously,” Harbaugh said. “We’re not just sitting there saying, ‘It’s easier to keep everybody.’ Actually, it’s easier to do the opposite. Everybody is happy for a little while, but being pleased because something was done in January or February is different than being pleased with what you build in September, October, and through the season. That’s what I’m thinking about.”
To be fair, Mornhinweg was put in a tough spot taking over for an offense that had been a mess since the start of the 2015 season. For every success story like Jim Caldwell taking over for Cam Cameron late in the 2012 season, there are countless examples of an in-season coordinator change making little or no impact.
With a full offseason to revamp the offense, Mornhinweg could very well make improvements as he has orchestrated viable offenses in the past. Of course, much of that will depend on what players general manager Ozzie Newsome will add as the Ravens must replace wide receiver Steve Smith and may need to address both the center and right tackle spots on the offensive line.
Harbaugh and the Ravens have run out of excuses regarding the running game after throwing more passes than any team in the NFL over the last two years and setting new franchise lows in rushing attempts in consecutive seasons. Trestman was fired in large part for his hesitancy to run the football, but the Ravens averaged fewer carries per game (22.4) under Mornhinweg than in their first five contests (24.2) of the season.
It isn’t just about running more often, but Baltimore must run more effectively after ranking only 21st in the NFL in yards per carry (3.99) in 2016.
“Marty believes in running the football, and I believe in running the football,” Harbaugh said. “We have not run the football well enough or enough, really, for the last two years. That has to change. I think it goes hand in hand [with] being good at it and doing it a lot more than we do it.”
And then there’s Joe Flacco.
The ninth-year quarterback was coming off ACL surgery and was rattled playing behind an injury-riddled offensive line over the first half of the season, but he didn’t come close to playing his best football this season. Whether subconsciously compensating for a surgically-reconstructed knee or anticipating pressure when it wasn’t even there, Flacco inconsistently went through his progressions, often checking down too quickly without allowing plays to develop.
Trestman’s system wasn’t a good fit for Flacco as it required more interpretation and was more expansive than Gary Kubiak’s black-and-white version of the West Coast offense. The belief exists that Mornhinweg can cultivate a more cut-and-dry system this offseason more closely resembling Kubiak’s structure, which should help Flacco play with more confidence.
Of course, strengthening the offensive line and jump-starting the running game are musts, but the Ravens need much more from their franchise quarterback, who will have a normal offseason after rehabbing all last year and will be another season removed from the injury.
“It does start with Joe. It starts with your quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “We need our quarterback to be playing at a level that changes the game in positive ways for us and makes a big difference. There are ways for Joe to play better, and he and I talked about that at length [on Monday].”
Ultimately, Harbaugh’s decision to retain Mornhinweg reflects a belief that the Ravens need more talent rather than better coaching. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but no one would argue that the Ravens’ skill players on offense have been on par with those of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in recent years. Even with a blue-chip coordinator — and I’m not sure there’s truly one out there with Kubiak not only stepping down in Denver but retiring from coaching altogether — it’s difficult to imagine this offense blossoming without significant upgrades at wide receiver and center at the very least.
As has been the case for a few years, the Ravens need to find a high-impact playmaker, whether it’s at receiver, running back, or tight end.
With plenty of personnel turnover anticipated, Harbaugh believes coaching continuity is what’s best for his offense next season. He’s putting his own continuity in Baltimore on the line if he’s wrong.
“I believe that we’re going to be physical,” Harbaugh said. “I believe that we’re going to run good, solid concepts that Joe can execute efficiently. I believe, within that system, there’s room for a lot of creativity. That’s what we have to chase.”