It has been said that the pioneers take the arrows and settlers take the land.
Make no mistake about it, Eric DeCosta and the Baltimore Ravens franchise has staked its claim to the new territory and against all odds – and perhaps the few analytics a football fan would think they understand about quarterbacks running into linebackers on purpose – plan to run to the Super Bowl in Miami, as opposed to flying.
And where it starts this Sunday amidst aquamarine fish chaos in South Florida is exactly where head coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens want this to end in early February – on the turf at the Hard Rock Stadium for Super Bowl LIII.
The NFL has had a few variations of this RPO offense in spurts over the years with running quarterbacks but this would be unprecedented in the modern era – keeping a running quarterback healthy long enough in a ferociously violent game to establish a program and win a championship 20 weeks later.
The boldness of this rather quick transition from a wannabe aerial team under Joe Flacco, with a minor in “balance” and “long field goals” that never made the grade after 2013, to a ground and pound and dazzle (on occasion) does not come without a lingering trail of limited success. Last season, when Lamar Jackson took over a seemingly forever scuffling offense and made magic happen with his feet for two months as the air chilled, it made the exit of Flacco and his exorbitant contract an easy decision for this transition period of Ravens football.
And while most of the football world thought John Harbaugh was a dead-coach-walking last November, he has re-signed on for the new youth movement and “offensive revolution” while also bringing the stability you’d want for a team with a lot to prove on both sides of the ball.
The January reality thud of the Chargers perfecting a defensive game plan (on the road, no less) to impair the Ravens and neophyte Jackson is now “to be continued” but the organization and its football cognoscenti have now built the entire operation around No. 8. The plan is to run the NFL and its defensive coordinators ragged week to week with preparing to play left-handed against a supercharged, speed offense with a quarterback who plays with the fearlessness of a kid who won the Heisman Trophy when he was 19 years old.
The Dolphins have already endured two storms this week – Hurricane Dorian went up the coast but the turmoil of the selloff of Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills and the general awfulness of everything about the team of Stephen Ross is expected to settle onto the South Florida turf at 1 p.m. on Sunday. This mess of a franchise in absolute disarray should provide an interesting backdrop for the homecoming of Lamar Jackson, who played his high school ball 45 minutes up the road and might have more friends in the stands than the Dolphins will have fans. Meanwhile, first round draft pick Marquise “Hollywood” Brown could walk this Sunday to the former Joe Robbie Stadium from his bright lights, beachy hometown just across I-95 and University.
While so much emphasis and attention will be rightly focused on the offensive concepts that Greg Roman will employ around Jackson and a plethora of speedy weapons, it’ll be a Ravens defense that many will similarly need a scorecard to identify early this Sunday.
Earl Thomas is the new Hall of Fame bully in town. Marlon Humphrey has changed his uniform number and will be moving into a new role as a team leader in a secondary that is stacked yet still depleted with the loss of Tavon Young early in training cap.
Who will rush the passer? Who will set the edge? Who picks up the slack for losing C.J. Mosley and Za’Darius Smith in their prime and the wisdom of Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs pre-snap? Will Matt Judon step into a budding role as a franchise-type that the Ravens will want to pay at the end of this walk season? Can Jimmy Smith still be a difference maker in the secondary?
The preseason showed nothing – on purpose, according to Harbaugh and virtually everyone in the locker room this week in Owings Mills.
These first two weeks of real football – visiting hapless Miami and having the scuffling Arizona Cardinals as a homecoming feast next week – might not allow the Ravens to prove much beyond what should be easy wins if this team is going to be a contender this winter. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has been very confident in his unit but the questions will certainly linger until later in the month when the Ravens see Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield and Ben Roethlisberger as the leaves begin to brown.
But will the Cleveland football franchise “brown” as well as the AFC North darling and favorite?
Will the Pittsburgh Steelers overcome the losses of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell to prosper with addition by subtraction?
The mystery is what makes this league so much fun and why I’ll be on a plane to South Beach this weekend.
Eric DeCosta is building a bold, different kind of program in Baltimore in his first effort after two decades of “In Ozzie We Trust.”
It has been called “an experiment” – trying a college offense in a pro game of adjustments and speed.
I like Lamar Jackson.
I am on the record: I have never thought it was a good idea to have a quarterback who