The 2018 Ravens were weird but fun, something that shouldn’t be forgotten in the aftermath of the ugly wild-card playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Winning its first AFC North championship in six years and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, Baltimore completed one of the more memorable in-season turnarounds in team history. Faced with a three-game losing streak and a hip injury to longtime quarterback Joe Flacco at the bye week, head coach John Harbaugh and his coaching staff turned to rookie Lamar Jackson and zigged while the rest of the pass-happy NFL zagged with the Ravens rushing for over 1,600 yards in their final seven games, nearly twice as many as their total from the first nine weeks of the season. The coaches deserve much credit for remaking the offense on the fly, and that drastic change was embraced by players, including a group of wide receivers who were marginalized overnight.
However, that ride came to a screeching halt Sunday with the Chargers defense smothering the Ravens for the first 50 minutes of play, holding them to three points and 83 total yards through three quarters in their own stadium. It was obvious Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley figured out the unconventional Baltimore running game the second time around, but the Ravens were soundly beaten in their one-on-one matchups as well, especially on the offensive line. The offense was thoroughly outcoached and outplayed, and it was too late by the time the Ravens managed two late touchdowns against a sleepy Los Angeles defense to make the final score look respectable.
With an enjoyable season coming to an end, patience is warranted, but skepticism is fair in assessing the state of the Ravens moving forward. The first playoff appearance in four years typically signals brighter days ahead, but this season was as much a last hurrah for some key individuals as it was the start of a new chapter.
Change is already underway as longtime lieutenant Eric DeCosta becomes the general manager with Ozzie Newsome stepping aside after 23 years in charge of football operations. That should be as seamless a transition as you’ll find in this position with DeCosta having been with the Ravens since their inception, but that doesn’t guarantee success or the absence of some hiccups along the way.
The Ravens have publicly expressed their intentions of keeping Harbaugh, but rumors and speculation will persist until a contract extension becomes official. How his assistant coaches fit into that future also remains to be seen as Sunday wasn’t exactly a banner day for offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
We know Flacco is finished in Baltimore as Harbaugh eulogized the former Super Bowl MVP’s Ravens career minutes after Sunday’s loss, but he’s unlikely to be the only notable veteran player to depart. Retirement, free agency, or salary-cap decisions could lead to the exit of some combination of Marshal Yanda, Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, Za’Darius Smith, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Tony Jefferson. Much will depend on how dramatically DeCosta wants to reshape the roster and reset the salary cap in his first year calling the shots.
Regardless of other changes, Jackson’s development is obviously the biggest factor in determining the short-to-intermediate future and that will require some patience and perspective. The 22-year-old is a special talent who flashed much to like on his way to helping the Ravens win six of their last seven regular-season games, but significant questions about his ball security and passing ability cannot be overlooked because of the early team success. That was apparent Sunday as he fumbled three times and completed only three passes through three quarters until regrouping to throw two touchdowns in the final seven minutes to make the game interesting. His mental toughness to fight back in the closing minutes was admirable, but he looked in over his head for much of the day.
Jackson was hardly alone in the struggles as the offensive line was awful against the Chargers front, but it was a reminder that he has a long way to go. That’s OK, of course, as Flacco was far from stellar in his first few playoff games before becoming “January Joe” a few years later. Jackson’s first postseason performance really shouldn’t change anything as he was always going to need to make marked improvement, regardless of how far the Ravens advanced this January.
But what will the organization do to help him get there?
Assistant head coach Greg Roman deserves credit for implementing the same run-game schemes successfully used in his previous stops at San Francisco and Buffalo, but is Mornhinweg the right offensive coordinator for Jackson? It’s been much advertised that he and quarterbacks coach James Urban worked with a veteran Michael Vick in Philadelphia, but that was an eternity ago in NFL years. For what it’s worth, Mornhinweg’s arrival as the quarterbacks coach four years ago — with Marc Trestman as the offensive coordinator — coincided with an immediate statistical decline in Flacco after arguably his best season under Gary Kubiak in 2014.
Sunday was damning for Mornhinweg in terms of having no plan B as the Chargers seemingly knew what plays the Ravens were running in their second meeting in 15 days. However, Harbaugh has shown much faith in his offensive coordinator over these last few years, making it difficult to expect a change now as the head coach has newfound leverage with a division championship and playoff appearance.
The Ravens are likely to remain a run-first offense going forward, but more balance will be paramount. With his mobility, Jackson doesn’t need to become Peyton Manning to be very successful at this level, but his throwing mechanics, footwork, and ability to throw outside the numbers will be scrutinized even more next season. Before anything else, however, he needs to do a much better job protecting the football as he finished with 15 fumbles counting Sunday’s playoff game.
The offensive talent the Ravens add around Jackson will be just as important as his individual development. Contrary to the lazy narrative of the last six years being strictly about Flacco’s contract, the Ravens did a poor job building an offense around him. The organization used most of its early draft picks from 2013-17 on defense — with mixed results at best — and even gave out big contracts to defensive players at less valuable positions while the other side of the ball floundered with minimal resources. Flacco’s pending exit shouldn’t leave that truth forgotten.
The Ravens will have much more cap flexibility with a quarterback on a rookie contract for the next few years, but the defense will also be undergoing substantial change with several key veterans moving on sooner than later. In other words, it will be interesting to see if DeCosta and the organization evolve toward making offense the greater priority or whether Jackson will be asked to do less with more like his predecessor. Improving the interior offensive line and addressing the wide receiver position — again — will be just two of the priorities on the offensive side of the ball.
A new era has begun in Baltimore, one that warrants some patience with a new general manager, a number of potential veteran departures, and a talented 22-year-old quarterback. These are certainly interesting and exciting times at 1 Winning Drive.
But it’s fair to be skeptical as the Ravens hand the keys to Jackson, both for his own weaknesses and those of the organization in recent years.