OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti wasn’t going to fire John Harbaugh on Monday.
That was the emotional reaction for which some were clamoring, but what purpose would it have served right now? The Ravens are surely reeling after losing their third straight game and fourth of their last five, but this isn’t a 1-8 team with a fractured locker room that’s quit on its head coach either. Say what you want about how mediocre they’ve been since winning Super Bowl XLVII six years ago, but Harbaugh’s teams have continued to play hard — even in 2015 when a lousy start and an unthinkable run of injuries left them with a 5-11 record. And it’s not as though there’s a Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan on the coaching staff waiting to take over.
The only team to fire its Super Bowl-winning coach in the middle of a season was the Baltimore Colts in 1972 when Don McCafferty was let go after refusing to bench Johnny Unitas. Do you really think Bisciotti wants to join a club frequented only by the late Robert Irsay? It’s just not a move a good owner makes with an individual who’s meant so much to the organization over the last decade.
But changes are likely coming at the end of the season without a dramatic turnaround — a kind of run not seen in these parts since 2012. The Ravens remain in the AFC wild-card race among a group of underwhelming teams, but aspiring to sneak in as the No. 6 seed with a 9-7 record — essentially the Buffalo Bills last season — shouldn’t alter anyone’s thoughts about the future short of a deep run in January.
The clock is ticking loudly on Harbaugh, Joe Flacco, and other veterans with high salary cap numbers, which is what makes these final seven weeks of the season so awkward. Is there a way for the Ravens to find an identity and right the ship while also hedging their bets for the future?
Truthfully, there isn’t much to say about a defense that still ranks very favorably statistically despite allowing 76 points over its last nine quarters of play against high-octane offenses. Forcing a few more turnovers would certainly help the cause, but the last three weeks are proof that good defense just doesn’t mean what it used to against top competition. None of the consensus top four teams in the NFL this year — the Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City, New Orleans, and New England — rank in the top 12 in total defense or the top nine in scoring defense. Minnesota’s top-ranked defense a year ago gave up 62 points in two playoff contests, including 38 to backup quarterback Nick Foles and Philadelphia in the NFC championship game.
Today’s game played at the highest level is more about scoring points than trying to prevent them. The best offenses are innovative and explosive with the rules only augmenting those qualities. Defense may win championships again one day, but not in the present.
That brings us to a Ravens offense that’s averaged 17.8 points per game since the Week 4 win over Pittsburgh. After an impressive September, Joe Flacco is averaging 5.8 yards per attempt and has a 73.7 passer rating over the last five games. The running game continues to rank 31st of 32 teams in yards per carry (3.6). Wide receivers have struggled to beat man coverage and consistently catch the football. And an offensive line that was already having its problems has been hampered by injuries over the last few weeks.
It’s enough to question whether an immediate change is in order at offensive coordinator, but Harbaugh has pretty clearly tied himself to Marty Mornhinweg — for better or worse. If he didn’t replace him at the end of the 2016 season or midway through last year, you probably shouldn’t expect it now. Running game guru Greg Roman or even quarterbacks coach James Urban could be argued as a potential replacement, but it’s not as though the Ravens have thrived so much in their respective areas either.
Improvement should come with the healthy returns of left tackle Ronnie Stanley and the versatile James Hurst, who could shift inside with rookie Orlando Brown Jr. holding up at the right tackle spot. The bye week should allow Ty Montgomery to further acclimate himself to the playbook and potentially bring more versatility to the running back position down the stretch.
The most interesting dynamic, however, will involve Flacco and Lamar Jackson as Harbaugh reiterated his desire Monday to see even more of the rookie quarterback after the bye week. The Ravens have run the ball more effectively with Jackson in the game than they have with their “traditional” offense this season, but his usage has also been criticized for occasionally upsetting the overall rhythm of the offense and making it too predictable. In Sunday’s loss to the Steelers, nine of Baltimore’s 16 total rushes came on Jackson’s 13 snaps, which reflects how little the Ravens ran on their other 48 offensive snaps.
The Ravens need to be able to run the ball more effectively when Flacco is the only quarterback on the field, and the coaching staff must be willing to let Jackson throw the ball more frequently if he’s going to be out there. Otherwise, it all becomes too predictable and makes life difficult for both quarterbacks.
It’s a delicate balance trying to get the most out of Flacco — who’s always been a rhythm quarterback at his best — while keeping Jackson involved. The Ravens want to use Jackson’s skills to try to win in the present, but his long-term development becomes more relevant each week. Perhaps that’s why Harbaugh didn’t shoot down the possibility of Jackson playing entire series — even more — down the stretch.
A few more losses will make that choice elementary as evaluating Jackson for the future will become paramount if the playoffs are out of reach. Until then, the Ravens won’t give up on their diminishing postseason chances, hoping a week off to recuperate and regroup will put them in position to make a final run with this coaching staff and this group of veteran players.
It’s likely Harbaugh’s last stand, but it’s one he deserves to have.