If there was one word that could be used to describe the first half of the 2021 season for the Ravens, “finish” might be an appropriate one. Time and again, Lamar Jackson and his injury-riddled team found a way to finish in the big moments, pushing them to win after improbable win.
There was the fumble recovery and fourth down conversion vs. Kansas City; Justin Tucker’s flirtation with the otherworldly at Detroit; the comeback against the Colts on Monday Night; the overtime win at home against the Vikings... if these were results that had taken place over the course of a normal year, some might throw around the term “team of destiny” in regards to Baltimore. But not this 2021 season.
Since that wild win over the Vikings the Ravens have gone 2-6, and lost their last five straight. Six of their eight losses have been by one score, which paints the picture that the second half of this year has been the inverse of the first- that is, they’ve shown anything but the ability to finish when it counts.
Anyone who follows this team closely and is informed enough to understand what’s going on realizes there a whole iceberg underneath what’s being presented. Week after week, dating all the way back to training camp, this team has been decimated by injuries to players both less consequential, and, of course, of the more key variety. Those who’d fall into that latter category would include J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Marcus Peters and Ronnie Stanley, all of whom were effectively lost for the year before or within the first two weeks of the regular season.
Since then, it’s been a who’s-who of starters, and key rotational pieces that have left the lineup for the long term in unceremonious fashion. Marlon Humphrey here, DeShon Elliott there, throw in an injury to Anthony Averett just as he was coming into his own for good measure; beyond all of that, they’ve dealt with nicks to supplemental pieces who could’ve helped them along the way such as Pernell McPhee, Sammy Watkins, Patrick Mekari and plenty others. All along the way John Harbaugh was the last to ask for any sympathy, something that was a bit easier to do when he was winning week after week, and could extoll the virtues of overcoming adversity while falling back on his age old rallying cry: “It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t perfect. But it was us!”
That’s a mantra Harbaugh has used for years at this point, and it’s something he truly believes in. It’s an admirable calling card that’s defined his tenure, stating that there are no style points for wins, and if they come ugly, we’ll take them all the same. But unfortunately for the Ravens’ old stalwart, he’s learning the hard way that the inverse of that is equally true: there are no moral victories in the NFL, particularly the closer to the razor’s edge that you dare to dance.
That’s even true when you lose your starting quarterback to an ankle injury, the most recent in the long line of superstars that left the picture for you along the way. It’s true because even in his absence, Harbaugh’s managed to largely keep the games without Jackson close.
Whether it was when the Ravens were a few first downs away from game winning field goal range at Cleveland, or a two point conversion and a defensive stop from beating Green Bay at home, the magic of Harbaugh’s mantra that shone through in the first half of ‘21 has been missing from the second.
Is it fair then to say that these historically hobbled Ravens are a victim of their own success, consistently losing in the face of double digit win expectations, and taking the heat along the way when they logically shouldn’t even be in these games to begin with? Maybe. It certainly felt that way when they staged furious comebacks against Cleveland or Green Bay with Tyler Huntley as the signal caller, and came up just short in contests that they had been chasing the entire way.
But today? Today felt a bit different.
Different, at least, than what happened in the Cleveland and Green Bay losses. Against the Browns in Cleveland (the game Lamar Jackson left early due to injury) Baltimore entered the fourth quarter trailing 24-9, and wouldn’t have had a chance to win if not for the ever low percentage break of recovering an onside kick. Entering the fourth quarter at home to Green Bay, they were down 28-17 to the NFC’s best team, and would’ve needed to not only convert a two pointer to win it (which they didn’t) but also stop the red-hot Aaron Rodgers with over 40 seconds and a timeout in his pocket to work with had they succeeded.
They were both (obviously) winnable games, but they would’ve felt of the more miraculous variety that the Ravens were more used to winning earlier in the year. But the part that really hurts is if they had simply finished even one of them (or beaten Miami or Pittsburgh with Jackson still the lineup), we’re likely talking about a playoff team. Instead, they weren’t able to finish... and it was today vs. the Rams in Baltimore that this teams’ inability to finish in the second half of the year reached it’s absolute zenith.
And it happened in a way few could’ve expected, in that the defense finally showed up to play for much of the game, with mistakes by the offense and the coaching staff undoing them at the end. Two interceptions by Chuck Clark (one of them for a touchdown), and a forced fumble and fumble recovery on Baltimore’s half of the field helped to keep the Rams offense in check for much of the first half and more. The Ravens offense moved the ball with some consistency, but were unable to convert their productivity into touchdowns time after time, something that you’d have thought would catch up with them against a high-powered offense like Los Angeles.
Ultimately, it did, but unlike some of the previous losses we’ve witnessed, it didn’t come down to the Ravens offense coming up just shy in a valiant effort. Instead, Baltimore’s attack needed to hold it together for one three-play sequence on the goal line. It was their failure to do so that likely cost their team a shot at the playoffs, which would be their first time missing the postseason since 2017.
It feels somewhat unfair to pin this entirely on Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman’s side of the ball, what with their patchwork offensive line and running back room, and the fact they were led by a second-year undrafted quarterback making his third-ever start today after missing last week due to COVID-19. But the fact of the matter is this: that same rag-tag group had just taken the ball from their own 25-yard line with 12:09 remaining in the game and a two point lead, and embarked on a drive that put them in first-and-goal from the five-yard line with 6:03 on the clock. All they had to do was ideally kill a bit more time and then punch it in, or even conservatively just score a touchdown right then and there, and the game was likely theirs.
Instead? They ran right for three yards on first, lost two yards on second down running left, and then for the coup de grace, they weren’t able to get the play off in time when they lined up for third down, costing them a critical five yards when they needed all the field position they could get. On 3rd and 9, Tyler Huntley was sacked, and out came Justin Tucker for three points.
Who knows exactly happened in this disaster of a sequence, but it’s hard not to think of it as one of the defining images of what’s become a lost Ravens season. A comically depleted offense, led by a young unknown quantity at quarterback with a chance to go and improbably win the game... and what do they do? Put themselves in a third down situation where they commit a procedural penalty that backs them up where they could absolutely not afford it, and settle for three points as a result.
After the game, Huntley pleaded his case that the officials had jumped the gun, and that the on-field play clock had them at one second left to operate when he took the snap on the critically botched third down. But, no matter. In a season where Baltimore was potentially on the lucky end of a bad call in this category vs. Detroit in Week 3, this simply felt like yet another example of the great wheel of football fortune evening itself out for a team who had initially felt charmed.
They weren’t without their chances to win it, either. When the Rams had driven down into the Ravens’ red zone and faced a 4th and 5 with 1:08 to go from the Ravens 12, a stop meant all but victory for Baltimore. Instead, an overmatched Tavon Young lost the inside leverage battle with Odell Beckham Jr. who made an impressive hands catch to pick up the first with his forward progress. On the very next play, Beckham breezed past the right side of the Ravens defense to score at the pylon, and ultimately give his team a one point lead with a minute to play.
With Justin Tucker, you’d think the Ravens would have a chance from there, but an all-too-familiar discombobulated final drive by their offense ended in a whimper, with Rashod Bateman fumbling away a hook-and-ladder attempt to seal the deal.
Sad as it is for Baltimore sympathizers, it lined up well with what they’ve gotten used to seeing in recent weeks. An uneven performance, dominated by one side of the ball, that gave them a crucial look to go and win it in the clutch. And, unlike the first half of the year, they were once again unable to finish when they faced it.
This isn’t something that this franchise’s key figures are particularly used to. They pride themselves on finishing the job in big moments and don’t make excuses when they aren’t able to. Whether you think that’s a fair standard this year considering the unprecedented spate of absences they’ve been dealing with across injuries and COVID-19 losses is up to you, but either way, they’ll likely be on the outside looking into the postseason picture when it’s all said and done, and the difference will realistically have proven to be a few yards.
What’s especially difficult to swallow about today’s loss is that it didn’t come in the fashion we had gotten used to in recent weeks. From the opening kickoff, right up until they faced that critical goal-to-go situation with just over six minutes to play, the Ravens were in control of this game. And it was thanks to a combination of poor play calling, execution, and procedural penalties that left them walking off the field with the feeling of control wrested away from them in the blink of an eye.
And from there it was a fourth-down failure, and a limp attempt at driving for an unlikely game-winning field goal that spelled the end for the Ravens in this game, and probably for the 2021 season in a forlorn but fitting twist of fate. Battered, but battling, once again in it all the way to the end, and once again coming up just shy of a needed victory over a very tough opponent. Such is the cruelty of the sport of football.
Alternatively, it can be a blast, and represent the best of what any sport has to offer. We saw it this very season, from this very team. The wins over the Chiefs, Colts, Vikings, and Bears especially stand out in this regard.
And it’s that fact that gives Baltimore something to look forward to as we move ahead into the offseason, because the main common denominator with those wins is that they featured Lamar Jackson at starting quarterback. Huntley has played admirable football, and it may be the smart move to let him start Week 18 depending on how slim things get for the Ravens already razor-thin playoff chances, but this team, and this franchise as a whole, rely on the abilities of their former MVP quarterback to take them to heights they’ve shown an inability to reach in the second half of 2021.
While some of those games of course featured Jackson, they also took place at a point when the Ravens knew this offensive line wouldn’t be good enough for a deep run. Getting back to their identity and to ultimately where they want to be means that Baltimore needs to address both of these issues. That is, get Jackson fully healthy (and perhaps signed to a long-term deal), and rebuild a strong, deep offensive line to keep him upright as he takes the next step in his career.
The 2021 Ravens will likely not be a playoff team, but they taught the organization and its decision makers some valuable lessons for the future. The first is how much value Jackson brings to this franchise when he’s healthy and ready to roll, and that in and of itself may be enough to finally finalize an extension for him. The second is just how important it is to ensure that their young quarterback is surrounded by what he needs in order to fulfill that aforementioned promise; my guess is that we’ll see some changes made to this offensive line within the next few months in turn.
The third (and perhaps most abstract) lesson is that you can only bail water for so long before your boat sinks. Whether said boat is poorly constructed, or takes on elemental damage that leads it to peril is up to you, but eventually you reach a point of no return where slogans and good vibes simply aren’t enough to keep you afloat, and in the fight against the leagues elite. I’d like to think Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta and this front office built a good enough proverbial boat this year and fall into the latter category, but let what happened with all of the injuries and COVID issues serve as a warning sign to Baltimore’s front office to never forget the importance of quality depth and consistent coaching to a football team’s sustained success.
With an offseason that figures to feature some major shakeups along this roster, they’ll do well to keep this in mind. As much as it does hurt that this years Ravens were too often unable to get it done in the big moment, it should serve as some source of confidence for next years team that they were so frequently in these games with a decimated roster on the field every week.
That’s something they’ll assuredly address when it’s an appropriate time, but for now, this team has one more game against a division rival to try and close out this year on a positive note. If there’s one thing to emphasize as they go into it, it would be the simple, elusive concept that’s evaded them for the past five plus weeks: Finish. Whether it gets them into the postseason or not, showing they can still do that would be the feather in the cap that this team (at the very least) deserves after fighting hard all the way until the end.