The results of the 2020-21 NFL season displayed once again that there is no singular formula for success. Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht built a championship roster in a unique fashion. Licht augmented a homegrown core that featured Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Tristan Wirfs, Vita Vea, Lavonte David and Devin White with an assortment of free agents including Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette, Ndamukong Suh and Shaquil Barrett.
Beyond player acquisition, several different styles of play have been effective in recent Super Bowls. Using Football Outsiders’ DVOA team efficiency measurement, nine of the past ten NFL champions fall into four general categories:
Supreme Pass Offense
The 2011 New York Giants, 2014 New England Patriots, 2018 Patriots and 2019 Kansas City Chiefs were carried to victory by their passing offenses. Each team fielded a top-5 most efficient passing offense and only the ‘18 Patriots had another of the four phases rank among the ten most efficient that season.
Both the 2020 Buccaneers and the 2013 Seattle Seahawks maintained outstanding balance on both sides of the ball. All four phases ranked inside the top-11 for each of these teams during their championship seasons.
Throw and Stop the Run
The 2016 Patriots and 2017 Philadelphia Eagles used this recipe to earn the Lombardi trophy in consecutive seasons. Both ranked in the top-5 for passing offense and run defense efficiency and were somewhat balanced overall, but had one unit fall below average, the Patriots pass defense and Eagles rushing offense, respectively.
The 2015 Denver Broncos were the most unbalanced recent Super Bowl champion. They fielded the No. 1 pass defense, No. 3 run defense, No. 16 run offense and No. 28 pass offense.
The 2012 Baltimore Ravens are a bit of an outlier, with a middling pass offense and pass defense complemented by the 7th most efficient rush offense and 26th most efficient run defense. Joe Flacco’s legendary postseason run probably makes them most similar to the ‘supreme pass offense’ category.
All the pieces came together at the right time for the 2012 Ravens. They were undeniably a talented roster, with seven former top-60 draft selections on the offensive side of the ball and eight former top-60 draft selections on the defensive side of the ball.
The common denominator between all of the last decade’s Super Bowl champions was their talent advantage.
Baltimore’s identity over the last three seasons has been a dominant rushing offense and top tier pass defense. There are no recent examples of this stellar rushing offense and pass defense combination winning Super Bowls. That is not to say the Ravens formula is obsolete, but skewing towards the ‘elite balance’ recipe is probably wise considering their current roster construction.
Here lies the crucial question of the offseason: What areas should General Manager Eric DeCosta address in order to nudge Baltimore over the postseason hump?
Various analysts have put the following “needs” on their Ravens offseason wishlists:
- Bonafide No. 1 wideout
- Complementary No. 2 reciever
- Pass catching tight end to replace Hayden Hurst
- Veteran or early round natural center
- Upgrade at right guard
- Early round right tackle to replace Orlando Brown Jr.
- Addition of a backup swing offensive tackle
- Defensive linemen who can provide pressure without blitzing
- Backup defensive lineman to create a succession plan behind the aging veterans
- Retention of Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee, Derek Wolfe and/or Jihad Ward
- First round edge rusher who can provide pressure without blitzing
- Backup plan at slot cornerback
- Rangy free safety to allow frequent use of dime personnel
Unfortunately the front office does not have the resources to build a complete team that combines the virtues of the 2020 Buccaneers, 2019 Chiefs and 2018 Patriots into a beautifully perfect package.
Even if DeCosta can replicate the success of their 2018 draft class that produced nine starting caliber players, these needs may not align with the players available at the Ravens draft slots and rookies often take time to develop into consistent contributors. Furthermore, the Ravens do not have the cap space to add more than a handful of impact starters in free agency, even if they stretch their cap space as far as possible.
What the Ravens do have are a few inherent efficiencies that can be used to their advantage. First and foremost is Lamar Jackson.
Jackson’s otherworldly ability as a runner, blending rare speed, elite agility and uncanny vision together, is perhaps the preeminent force multiplier in the NFL. Lamar’s presence alone can seemingly catapult any NFL offense into a top rushing unit. The Ravens have recently fortified their rush offense by signing blocking tight end Nick Boyle to a contract extension that pays him the fifteenth largest salary at the position, fullback Patrick Ricard to an extension that pays him the second highest salary at the position and spent a top-55 draft pick on exciting tailback J.K. Dobbins.
Boyle, RIcard, Dobbins, Jackson and All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley comprise a foundation that should provide a dominant run offense for years to come. Therefore, DeCosta should take advantage of this efficiency by acquiring lineman who excel in pass protection and devote additional capital towards offensive playmakers that help compensate for Jackson’s deficiencies as a passer.
The Ravens field a force multiplier on the defensive side of the ball as well in Marlon Humphrey. Humphrey is widely regarded as a top-5 cornerback in the game. His coverage ability enables coordinator Martindale to scheme up a pass defense that has been on average the 6th most efficient over the last three seasons while a variety of players and skillsets surrounded Humphrey.
Five of Baltimore’s six largest salary cap charges currently reside on the defensive side of the ball, with defensive tackles Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams accounting for $29.4 million in 2021, along with cornerbacks Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Tavon Young accounting for $29.7 million. In total, these five players will consume one-third of the club’s total 2021 cap space according to Over the Cap’s projections.
Hypothetically, DeCosta could further bolster the defensive front this offseason, aiming to recreate Tampa Bay’s success up front and perhaps the 2015 Broncos ‘suffocating defense’ championship recipe. That strategy would prove risky considering that eight of the last 10 champions ranked within the top-six of pass offense DVOA, and the 2020 Ravens were 17th best in passing efficiency.
Another primary efficiency is the franchise’s culture. Due to prudent free agent decisions, the current payroll does not contain any bad contracts. There are multiple avenues to create additional cap space by extending or restructuring the contracts of relatively safe prime-age premium position performers. This extra cap space could then be used to sign free agents that increase the talent base of the roster.
Head Coach John Harbaugh has cultivated a strong locker room culture during his tenure with the club. A locker room brimming with exemplary veterans and former collegiate team captains. This efficiency could be leveraged by taking a gamble on a worthwhile prospect who slides in the draft due to character concerns and then using the existing leadership to mentor the talented rookie.
Finally, the Ravens status as contenders could be quite beneficial in luring veteran free agents who aim to compete for a championship. Especially in an offseason where many mid-level free agents should be incentivized to accept short-term team-friendly deals.
Without taking advantage of their efficiencies, the club’s model may not be sustainable. No team drafts well enough to contend every season if they must devote significant capital to every position on the field. Requiring high paid defensive tackles along with early round linebackers and excellent edge rushers along with elite defensive backs leaves the offense underfunded. And on offense, a system that demands an MVP quarterback be surrounded by outstanding blockers at every turn, along with a tandem of terrific running backs, plus matchup tight ends and ample playmaking wideouts is inefficient.
There is certainly logic in the Ravens contrarian style of play. Approaching the game differently than the rest of the league can provide an advantage, access to a devalued talent pool allows bargain shopping. But ultimately, strengthening strengths yield diminishing returns.
Recent Super Bowl participants have taken full advantage of their efficiencies. The Buccaneers used their new standing as contenders to attract free agents and leaned on Tom Brady’s leadership to keep their stars focused on team goals. The Chiefs rely on their explosive offense to dictate game flow so that they can avoid significant investment into run defenders. And the 2019 49ers depended on Kyle Shanahan’s potent rushing scheme to maximize production from inexpensive running backs, while masking a vulnerable secondary with a ferocious pass rush.
Obviously, Eric DeCosta will chart his own course with the Ravens and their unique situation. The parity structure of the NFL prevents any team from having the best of all worlds. Whether it be a position group, a phase of the game or a possible rebuilding season in the future, sacrifices must be made somewhere.
By taking advantage of the franchise’s built-in efficiencies, the Ravens can maximize their opportunity for championship caliber performance efficiency.