With the Ravens making defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and special teams coach Chris Horton available to local media for the first time since the end of the 2019 season, below are five takeaways from their video conference calls on Tuesday:
Establishing culture was king of the virtual offseason program.
We all know coaches and players were prohibited from gathering together in Owings Mills, but that doesn’t mean spring work was limited to individual training, film study, and X’s and O’s sessions via Zoom and other virtual programs.
In addition to extensive discussions on race and social justice reform following the killing of George Floyd and the powerful video released by the organization earlier this month, building and maintaining camaraderie and a strong team culture was a top priority for head coach John Harbaugh and his staff despite the inability to congregate in person. The “Chasing Greatness” series included whole-team sessions with Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as well as former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith, but Martindale took that initiative further with his defensive meetings, seeking out prominent names from both the sports world and other walks of life.
“As an old high school teacher, I taught some boring subjects. I think you had to be creative,” Martindale said. “My challenge and our challenge as a defensive staff was I wanted to make it must-see Zoom meetings. … You do get Zoom fatigue, but I wanted to make it where [players] couldn’t wait to come to the defensive meetings. We wanted to make it an event.”
The list of guest speakers included former Ravens defensive standouts Eric Weddle and Tony Siragusa, former Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, Basketball Hall of Famer Julius Erving, former heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes, former National League MVP Ryan Howard, former All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, former NFL defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Baltimore mayoral nominee Brandon Scott, ESPN anchor Sage Steele, and former Navy Seal Commander Mark McGinnis.
Martindale said he wants his defense and the Ravens to continue to build “a champion mindset,” noting the many accomplishments of the aforementioned speakers.
Experimenting further with last year’s “revolutionary” offense will be a balancing act.
At this time a year ago, intrigue and mystery surrounded the new Ravens offense that Harbaugh dared to call “revolutionary” on more than one occasion.
What resulted was a historic MVP season from second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson and a run-first attack that set league and franchise records. The Baltimore coaching staff prides itself in remaining a step or two ahead of the competition, but visions of revolutionizing the game again should probably be tempered when the 2020 offense has yet to even huddle up on the field, let alone to try out new plays and packages.
“We haven’t had the luxury of the [organized team activities] and whatnot to really kind of test-run certain things, so we have to be really judicious with how we use that time in training camp to experiment,” Roman said. “I think experimenting this year is going to be very selective. Yes, definitely we’ve tweaked, we’ve added, updated, but how much we experiment in training camp, we’re really going to have to be selective with that.”
Of course, the Ravens have a superb baseline from which to work, and the rest of the league — that’s facing the same challenges — rarely showed the ability to slow down Jackson and this offense last year.
Improving in the return game is a point of emphasis for special teams.
Baltimore’s special teams weren’t perceived as favorably in 2019 as in previous years, but Horton downplayed any coverage concerns while stating the goal of being more productive with returns.
The Ravens ranked 21st in the NFL in kick return efficiency and 14th in punt return efficiency last year, according to Football Outsiders.
“We did a lot of studying this offseason, and that’s one area that we feel like we can be better in,” Horton said. “Whether it’s how we’re coaching it [or] how our players are responding to that coaching.”
This offseason, the Ravens re-signed return specialist De’Anthony Thomas and drafted James Proche and Devin Duvernay, two wide receivers with return experience at the collegiate level.
Expectations are high for a healthy Marquise Brown in his second season.
Many have noted that the 2019 first-round pick has looked bigger and stronger in workout videos posted on social media, a sentiment shared by Ravens coaches.
Devoting most of his rookie offseason to working his way back from Lisfranc surgery and with his left foot never 100 percent, Brown still managed to catch 46 passes for 584 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games. The 170-pound wideout was also one of the few standout performers in the divisional-round loss to Tennessee with seven catches for 126 yards.
“Last year, all of us were saying, ‘Wow, once ‘Hollywood’ has an offseason — a real offseason — that’s going to be something,'” Roman said. “I think we are going to see that this year. He’s been working really hard. He’s not dealing with certain aspects that he had to deal with last year, and he did a great job of fighting through that and battling through it.”
Those high expectations for Brown haven’t made the Antonio Brown rumors and reports go away, but it’s clear the Ravens envision a significant jump from their talented 23-year-old receiver.
Even if the NFL can endure through the pandemic, much unknown remains.
We have no definitive idea when and if football will be played this year, but plenty of mystery remains even if the altered spring program proves to be the last of the major disruptions to the league calendar.
Veteran newcomers and first-year players alike haven’t had the opportunities to build on-field muscle memory in learning their new playbooks and systems. Trying to formulate a preliminary depth chart for training camp remains little more than guesswork at certain positions without the opportunity to evaluate during OTA sessions and mandatory minicamp.
And by this point, coaches have at least gained a working idea of what they have with their rookies, spotting deficiencies that may not have shown up in the pre-draft process and identifying later-round picks or undrafted talents as potential diamonds in the rough to watch this preseason.
“The rookie minicamps [in early May], it’s like Christmas Day for coaches,” Martindale said. “You can’t wait to see the new toys you have and what they can do and how much fun it would be to put them in the package. That’s just been pushed back.”
Of course, those unknowns don’t even include the exhaustive steps required to combat COVID-19 outbreaks. All parties continue to prepare and hope for the best-case scenario of a season that’s as close to normal as possible, but the potential alternatives are unsettling and not going away anytime soon.