BALTIMORE — The Ravens and their fans deserved to feel good after Sunday’s 29-26 win over the San Diego Chargers.
Only their second win overall and first at M&T Bank Stadium in 2015, the Ravens at least had a modest reason to smile and exhale going into their bye with thoughts of transforming a 2-6 record into a respectable second half with a favorable schedule that includes five home games.
That was until the official news came regarding Steve Smith.
With the 36-year-old receiver suffering a torn Achilles tendon late in the third quarter, we’re now left wondering if we’ve seen the last of Smith, who moved past Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter into 10th place on the NFL’s all-time list for receiving yards on Sunday. Despite recently reconfirming his plans to retire at the end of the 2015 season, the fierce competitor may not want to end his career in such heartbreaking fashion.
In the meantime, reality has yet set in for the Ravens as they try to enjoy their first win in a month and some much-needed rest this coming week. Already lacking playmakers on both sides of the ball, Baltimore just lost its best one as well as one of its most respected leaders on the field and in the locker room.
“I don’t think we’ve felt the full effects of it yet,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “I look up to the guy. It’s sad, for the moment, that he not just goes out like that [but] just for him to go down [for] the season. He’s meant so much to this team, just his leadership and the guy who he is.”
Describing any injury as crippling is difficult when you’re already 2-6 and going nowhere in terms of the playoff race, but Smith’s ability and passion are not easily replaced in the second half of the season.
As they have all year with all eight of their games decided by one possession, the Ravens will continue to compete with head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco leading the way. But much like when they lost six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs in the season opener, the Ravens can’t simply use the “next man up” mantra in response to Smith’s injury.
He’s too important.
“It’s going to be an emotional thing just to lose players like that at any point,” Flacco said. “I’m not afraid to say — when you have a guy like that — what he means to this team, this organization, myself. What he’s done and just the kind of competitor he is, it’s probably a little bit tougher when you lose a guy like that.”
How the Ravens replace Smith’s production will likely keep offensive coordinator Marc Trestman awake at night over the bye week as the 15th-year wideout entered Week 8 with more receiving yards and touchdown catches than every other Baltimore receiver combined. Kamar Aiken will become the No. 1 receiver by default — complete with all 49 of his career receptions — but finding another starter from a group including Marlon Brown, Jeremy Ross, Chris Givens, and Jeremy Butler is a sobering challenge.
The season-long absence of first-round pick Breshad Perriman now becomes even more frustrating with Smith out of the picture and the Ravens not having the opportunity to see how the rookie would fare as the No. 1 receiver, the long-term role they envisioned for him when he was chosen with the 26th overall pick this spring. Harbaugh said last week that Perriman has a “shot” to play this season, but what that means is anyone’s guess after three months of frustration stemming from the 6-foot-2 wideout’s knee injury sustained on the first day of training camp.
Flacco will do what he can to try to maximize this offense, much like he did when the Ravens managed to score 30 points against the Browns with Smith on the sideline. The running game and their trio of young tight ends will become even more important than they already were with an underwhelming group of receivers behind Smith.
With two home dates against Jacksonville and St. Louis following the bye and only two of their eight remaining games against opponents currently holding winning records, the Ravens should be able to find at least a few more wins before the season from hell comes to an end.
But losing Smith is a sickening punch to a gut already too tender from six one-score defeats in eight games and a list of other injuries.
“Obviously, it makes it a little bit tougher than we’d like,” Flacco said, “but we’ve played a game this year without him and I think our guys did a great job stepping up. We were able to put some offense up, put some points on the board. The next guy steps up.
“It’s not like we’re just going to be playing with a ghost out there.”
But it feels that way right now.
And Smith’s injury made a much-needed win feel too much like a loss on Sunday.