Baltimore Ravens team owner Steve Bisciotti provided the following assessment following the 2015 season...
The results of the 2016 season proved him to be partially correct. The Ravens were a much better team this season, in large part due to better health and a defense that created more turnovers. However, the focus on continuity was not enough to propel the team to where they ultimately hoped to be - in the postseason, contending for a championship.
After missing the playoffs in three of last four seasons, the organization has lost their place among the premier franchises in the league. The Ravens roster lacks the star power prevalent on their championship teams. The team does not have a strong identity, and plays an uninspiring brand of football. The gameday experience at M&T Bank stadium has lost some luster, and the fans have responded with a disturbing trend of leaving empty seats at home games or selling their tickets in mass to visiting fans. Enthusiasm for the Ravens is definitely waning.
Taking the pulse of Ravens nation following the loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday, and really throughout the last several seasons, it becomes evident the fanbase is not pleased with direction of the franchise. Another offseason of preaching continuity will not satisfy these disgruntled customers. Unfortunately, without a component of the organization to point at as the main culprit of the decline, no straightforward solution presents itself.
Beginning at the top of the organizational structure sits the front office. Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta and their departments made some questionable decisions since the continuity themed press conference. Specifically, extending Joe Flacco’s contract with a boatload of new guaranteed money before they were forced to and when he was coming off a down season can be debated. Spending precious salary cap space on an old tight end in Ben Watson, who was promptly injured, after the team had been decimated by injuries in previous seasons was another head scratcher. And choosing a pair of defenders on Day 2 of the draft, Kamalei Correa and Bronson Kaufusi, who did not have the pedigree or NFL ready bodies to provide instant coffee was suspect.
But overall, the front office had their best offseason in recent memory. The additions of Eric Weddle and Mike Wallace paid off in spades, and had a direct positive effect on the team’s record. Drafting Ronnie Stanley and Tavon Young, two rookies who turned in above average seasons at premium positions must be considered a resounding success. And resigning Justin Tucker instead of letting him play under the franchise tag was a stroke of genius. Still, these upgrades through the draft and free agency did not produce a championship caliber team in 2016.
Looking towards 2017, the team is at a crossroad. With some of their best players including Terrell Suggs, Marshal Yanda and Eric Weddle nearing the end of their careers, the organizations should be in win now mode. They do have an improving foundation of top young players, headlined by C.J. Mosley. The Ravens only need two or three more difference makers to field a team that can legitimately dominate and win the Super Bowl. But it would have to be a net gain of a few high level players. Adding one while losing another, as they did last season by substituting Kelechi Osemele for Eric Weddle will not be good enough to overtake the best teams without enormous injury luck.
Adding several game changers without subtracting quality is a tough ask when the salary cap limitations are considered. While not impossible, the front office would have to hit an inside straight draw to upgrade the offensive line, receiving weaponry, pass rush and secondary without downgrading in other areas. This presents quite the predicament. If they opt for an extensive roster rebuild, the Ravens would be essentially wasting the final seasons of their best veterans. Continuing to mortgage the future to partially retool the roster, while hoping the puzzle pieces fit together perfectly, could prolong the Ravens downward spiral. There is no simple solution to this dilemma, and therefore no clear justification for broad upheaval in a proven front office.
Onto the coaching staff, a similar dilemma arises. John Harbaugh staked his reputation to Dean Pees in the name of continuity last offseason. Despite a few fourth quarter defensive meltdowns, he was mostly vindicated. The Ravens defense made a dramatic turnaround in generating interceptions. from worst in the league in 2015 to best in 2016. Football Outsiders DVOA measurement reflects a massive defensive improvement from 18th in the league last season to 3rd best this year.
Dean Pees did an admirable job for most of the season. The blame for the defensive issues are shared by the front office and coaching staff equally. The front office provided a pass defense that was vulnerable to exploitation by hurry up offenses because the personnel did not contain enough defenders who could consistently win one on one matchups without the benefit of advantageous scheming.
Rumors have surfaced that the Ravens will extend Harbaugh’s contract for another season, through 2018, in the coming days. This decision seems justified considering his track record and ability to get his players to play focused, tough football through recent rough patches. A case can be made that the coaching staff actually overachieved in 2016 when the roster they were provided is fairly evaluated.
It seems logical the Ravens will rethink and revise their 18th ranked offense. The problem is that Harbaugh is a CEO style head coaching without a flourishing coaching tree to pick from. Furthermore, Bisciotti made his fortune with a staffing company, and prefers to empower his managers instead of micro managing them. Hypothetically, if the Ravens replaced both of their coordinators, there is no guarantee that the players on the team would excel in a new scheme. A learning curve would be expected that could easily derail their 2017 aspirations.
In many ways, the Ravens organization as a whole are in no man’s land. Changes are necessary, but each different direction has its own drawbacks. This coming offseason, Steve Bisciotti will be challenged to shepherd the franchise through uncharted territory. We will learn how much change he prescribes, and which direction he decides to take the Ravens soon. Until then, it is best to acknowledge the uncertainty of the Ravens current condition.