Despite getting stunned in the Divisional Round of the 2019 postseason, the Baltimore Ravens headed into last offseason fresh off their best regular-season finish in franchise history.
Led by just the second-ever unanimous league MVP in QB Lamar Jackson and a revolutionary rushing attack that rewrote both team and NFL record books, the Ravens finished the 2019 season with a 14-2 record—best in the league—and were the top seed in the AFC playoff bracket.
While the upset loss they suffered at the hands of Tennessee Titans last January was extremely disappointing, considering they were demolishing opponents on what seemed like cruise control during the second half of that season, Baltimore entered the 2020 offseason firmly entrenched among the NFL’s elite and the sky appeared to be the limit.
After a record-breaking season like the one they were coming off of, opposing teams across the league typically devote a large chunk of their time in the ensuing offseason breaking down film of, trying to come up with ways to slow down and acquiring players better suited to defend their offense.
It is the responsibility of the team that suddenly finds themselves under a microscope to build on the previous year’s success, keep it fresh and add more wrinkles to the playbook on both sides of the ball.
The Ravens had every intention of doing just that before the COVID-19 pandemic derailed everyone’s lives last spring. With no in-person offseason program, no team was able to hold voluntary workouts, OTAs (Organized Team Activities), or Mandatory Minicamp.
While voluntary workouts aren’t as essential in the preparation process for the impending season, OTAs and minicamps are the periods in the offseason program where teams get to take the time to introduce and implement new or adapt existing plays and concepts on offense and defense. It’s also a time where quarterbacks can establish chemistry with their new weapons in the passing game and build a better rapport with ones that are set to return in an official team setting.
Since meetings and workouts had to be conducted virtually, the Ravens weren’t able to physically reconvene for the first time prior to the 2020 season until training camp in late July. When they did, there had to be a gradual ramp-up period to get the players as close to football shape as possible.
The lack of a traditional offseason program and the loss of the preseason were especially detrimental to the 2020 draft class. It robbed them of the extensive individual hands-on coaching and live reps against other teams before the bullets started to really fly once the regular season rolled around. One could argue that it stunted the growth of many first-year players and forced them to hit the rookie wall a lot sooner than they normally would have.
As a result of all of this in addition to some untimely injuries and a midseason outbreak, it appeared that the rest of the league had somewhat caught up to the Ravens or at least found a way to slow them down through the first three-quarters of last season. They did go 5-0 down the stretch to close out the regular season and punch their ticket to the 2020 playoffs albeit against mostly subpar competition.
With proper protocols now in place and a vaccine readily available to all those that want to take it, the NFL was able to return to as close to pre-COVID normalcy as they could this offseason.
While there wasn’t a Scouting Combine this year, there were Pro Days that team officials could attend in person and the 2021 NFL Draft was able to be physically held in Cleveland, Ohio where it went off without a hitch.
However, the most pivotal difference between this offseason and last year’s was the return of the in-person offseason programs and I believe that no team will reap the rewards of it more than the Ravens. They are a very young team at their core and are made up of a bunch of players that get better with the more reps they receive.
Players like Jackson and last year’s first-round pick, Patrick Queen, attested to the challenges that 2020 presented around this time and how beneficial the installation periods and additional time this year have been for them individually as well as the team as a whole.
“With the receivers, it’s a lot of stuff happening faster,” said Jackson. “Guys are working [very] hard. Not taking anything away from my guys from previous years, but these guys this year, for some reason, it’s like everyone is just flying around. Young guys – there are a lot of young guys here flying around and stuff, trying to get better. And our offensive line, they’re looking pretty good.”
“It’s way different, because coming out of college, you’ve got spring, so you always get to practice and stuff. And then coming into last year, I didn’t get ‘springtime,’ couldn’t train really anywhere, so I came into the season out of shape,” said Queen. “This year, this is a whole lot better. I get to train now; I get to see my teammates early and get the communication down and stuff. It’s only up from here, so it’s a big key to be here right now.”
Head Coach John Harbaugh acknowledged the youth of team and believes that the time they spent together over the last couple of months was instrumental in their preparation for the 2021 season as well.
“We’re a young team [with] a young quarterback, a young group of receivers and tight ends – the whole thing,” said Harbaugh. “So, last year really limits what you can do if you don’t have a suitcase full of plays that everyone knows how to run and execute and have executed hundreds of times together before.”
“That would’ve been a benefit last year to teams like that, and it did show up, probably. You look at even the two teams in the Super Bowl. So, I do believe that this will be a big help to us across the board as a young team, especially a young offense.”
Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman’s unit specifically will be the biggest offseason program benefactor of any in the league because now that they’ve had the time in shorts to install what they plan to execute in pads come training camp and the preseason. Hopefully, by the time the season opener gets here, they’ll have their “expanded profile” perfected or close to it as they can get.
I believe that this team has the potential to not only return to their 2019 form but surpass it now that they have better and more experienced foundational pieces and more weapons in the passing game for Jackson. But most importantly, they haven’t suffered any season-threatening injuries to key players—knock on wood— and have had the necessary time to expound on the playbook as well as get on the same page in the Spring/early Summer.