With only one week remaining in the regular season, the Ravens are on target to return to post-season play for the second time in three seasons. The only thing standing in their way: a visit from downtrodden Jacksonville this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
Get ready to celebrate. There’s no way the Jags come here and beat the Ravens with everything on the line for Baltimore and nothing at stake for J’ville. If, somehow, Jacksonville does win on Sunday, it goes down as the most disappointing defeat in Ravens history. Period. That Indy home playoff loss was a downer, but it WAS a playoff game and the team that beat the Ravens on January 13, 2007 went on to win the Super Bowl. It wasn’t like a 5-10 team came limping in here ready to mail it in and suddenly found a win to pull the upset of all upsets to keep us out of the playoffs. That’s the scenario the Jags face on Sunday. I don’t see it happening.
So, when the Ravens win this Sunday and scoot in as the surprising 6th seed in the AFC, the reflective question of the day will be this: “How’d we do it?”
How did the Ravens go from 5-11 a year ago, with a locker room in complete disarray and a group of mouthy, disgruntled players, to an 11-5 team just 12 months later?
There are some easy answers and some complicated ones, but they all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
First off, last year’s team might have finished 5-11, but they weren’t really a 5-11 club. They lost three games in memorable, completely unexpected (some would say “fluky”) fashion. One of the losses came at home when Cleveland’s kicker booted a game-tying field goal that hit the goal-post and bounded onto the back stantion, where it promptly bounced forward and was ruled no good. A review (of sorts) of the play resulted in a change of the call (rightfully) to “good” and the Browns went on to win in overtime. A few weeks later, Baltimore beat then-undefeated New England except Rex Ryan called a time-out in the game’s final minute…just as the Ravens were stopping the Patriots and their winning streak on 4th down. Moments later, after New England capitalized on 4th down opportunity #2, Tom Brady threw the game-winning TD and the Pats won a game they had already lost. And in week #14, ultra-reliable Matt Stover missed a 43-yard field goal in overtime that would have given Baltimore a win at Miami.
So, a 5-11 team really played more like an 8-8 team. But 5-11 it was.
Also last year, injuries played havoc with Baltimore’s starting 22 and the depth of the team was fully exposed in the latter stages of the season. At one point in 2007, 8 of their best players missed at least 20% of the campaign, some even more. McAlister (knee), Ogden (toe), McNair (everything), Lewis (hand), Rolle (health), Heap (ankle), Pryce (hand) and Wilcox (toe) were all sidelined and their replacements were not only inadequate, but in some cases, liabilities. Who can ever forget that Indianapolis home game? Peyton Manning torched the Ravens’ depth-less secondary so much the Baltimore City fire marshal showed up at halftime and issued #18 a citation for outdoor burning.
This year’s team battled injuries early on, but their BEST players, with the exception of Rolle, McAlister and Kelly Gregg, have all played the entire schedule to date: Ray, Flacco, Ngata, Suggs, Reed, Mason (banged up but playing every game somehow…what a warrior), Gaither, Brown, Grubbs, Scott, Pryce…none of those guys have missed extensive time. It helps when your best players are playing. This year, for the most part, the Ravens best players have been available.
And it also helps when the organization learns from its mistakes. Depth (lack thereof) was a major reason for last year’s failure, but depth is a big reason why the ’08 version is winning. When Dawan Landry went down in week #2 with a season ending spinal injury, safety Jim Leonhard stepped in and did the job and then some, earning the respect of everyone with his week-in, week-out hard-nosed style of play. And when Rolle and McAlister both missed time, newcomer Fabian Washington stepped in admirably at cornerback and even the oft-criticized Frank Walker has been decent enough to warrant a respectful tip of the cap. Kelly Gregg’s absence hasn’t been felt at all, thanks to a monster year from Ngata and a breakthrough campaign for erstwhile back-up Justin Bannan. And the triple-threat at running back has given the team different looks and different strengths all season long.
“Players play, coaches coach” – that’s the old adage. And it’s true. But, when dissecting this year’s success, you’d be unfair if you didn’t mention the off-season front office work of George Kokinis, Eric DeCosta and, of course, Ozzie Newsome. Via the draft and free agency, those three added depth in the secondary and on the offensive and defensive lines.
John Harbaugh came in a with no-nonsense style that ruffled a feathers at the outset, but as he settled down, so did the discontent. Coodinators Cameron and Ryan are well respected by the players and they quietly mirror Harbaugh’s confidence that this roster of players is capable of winning big games right away – even with a first-year quarterback at the helm.
But the two main components that contribute to the ’08 Ravens success are the complicated pieces that complete the puzzle. I’ll call them “Peace and Quiet” for lack of a better term.
First, and most obviously, it’s at quarterback, where Joe Flacco (“Peace”) has done the unthinkable. He’s gone from leading a Division 1AA school to its post-season to leading an NFL team to the brink of its post-season — all within 12 months. And he’s done it with a quiet, reserved, hardly-a-pulse manner that has made his teammates believe in him almost from day one in Westminster last summer. Kyle Boller NEVER had the faith of his entire team in five seasons. Joe Flacco gained it all in about five weeks.
And without that distraction at quarterback and with the team in harmony both on and off the field, this year’s Ravens have been able to focus on playing football. And good football, at that.
It’s been awfully “Quiet” this season. Have you noticed how much bickering has gone on this year? Even when the team stumbled in October and dropped three straight, do you remember any public whining and moaning? McAlister was involved in a fortnight of controversy with the coach over some misbehaving in Miami, but he suddenly suffered a season ending knee injury (*ahem*) that saved Harbaugh a tough mid-season talk. And, other than Ed Reed dropping a “we don’t like the way Harbaugh talks down to us…” hint at mid-season, you heard no other negative whispers from the locker room.
No more complaints about the quarterback. No crying about playing time. No public campaigning for new contracts, extensions, etc. No controversies, even on the occasion when results and fortune could have allowed for it.
When the Ravens got pounded by the Giants in New York, they simply said, “we got beat by a better team today…” – Early in the year they lost a heartbreaker at home to the Titans when Tennessee orchestrated a late drive that was aided in large part by a phantom “blow to the head” call against Terrell Suggs…”we shouldn’t have been in that position…can’t let a good team like that stay in the game” was what the players said afterwards. – And last Sunday after losing to Pittsburgh in dramatic fashion with a goal-line TD call leaving everyone in America wondering about the effectiveness of instant-replay, the Ravens refused to bite: “we just have to go to Dallas and win a football game…we didn’t do the job on that last drive…can’t win many games if you don’t score touchdowns.” No complaining this year. No bellyaching about the referees, bad luck, bad coaching, etc.
This team stayed positive all season long.
Looking for the BEST example of all? Willis McGahee. Essentially benched in the late stages of the season for lack of production, #23 took the chance to support his coach by saying, “If I were the coach, I’d bench me too…I’ve played like dog doo-doo.” Gone are the days of hearing a guy chastising the coaching staff for not getting enough touches on the ball — McGahee took his demotion like a pro and put the team first. It’s been a while since I felt better about a player scoring a touchdown than I did on Saturday night when Willis broke off that 77-yard TD run. He deserved that more than anyone else on the team.
The topper, though, has to be the unwavering championship play of Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott. All three are seeking a new deal and all three are – for the most part – competing with one another for that big cash cow at season’s end. If Ray gets all the money, Suggs and Scott might not. If Suggs cashes in, Ray and Scott might be looking at giving a purple discount or moving on to another team. Yet, there hasn’t been one – not one – moment where any of those three took the opportunity to bellow about a new deal either here or elsewhere.
It’s a happy house in Owings Mills these days.
The team has won.
The players have played hard. Injured players have been replaced by guys performing at unexpected levels. And certain players have battled ailments to the extent that it almost looks unhealthy for them to be out there in the first place.
The Ravens have come together as men and played for one goal.
And their focus has been on winning football games. Nothing else.
Playing time, personal friendships, money, feelings about the coach and his staff…it’s all been put on the side in exchange for trying to win.
It’s been their ’08 success formula.
Let’s hope it carries over for just one more Sunday.
Then everyone starts at 0-0 again and it’s suddenly a 4-game season.
And, based on what I’ve seen over the last four months, I like the Ravens chances in January.