Considering the relative success the Ravens have had over the past four seasons, since transitioning to a new quarterback in 2018, you wouldn’t think there would be nearly as much angst among the team’s fanbase as there currently is.
Such is the case, however, when the franchise — often billed as one of the league’s best for a multitude of reasons — doesn’t hit the benchmarks it’s laid out for itself in the past. Said benchmarks can plainly be boiled down to playoff success. In the case of Baltimore, who are tied for the second-most Super Bowl wins in the 21st century, there hasn’t been much of that over the course of the last half-decade.
There are ample reasons why this this is the case. For those few strawmen who stump against John Harbaugh’s continued employment for this fact, it remains the clear and present sticking point. That isn’t an entirely fair or sensible conversation given the context, though. For as much as Joe Flacco was one of the main reasons why Harbaugh got over the Super Bowl hump in 2012, it was his bloated contract, injury issues, and subsequent decline in play that led to a four-in-five-years postseason drought between 2013 and 2017.
But in the moment, that Flacco-sized qualifier (as well as any others on offer) served as little comfort. Tyler Boyd getting behind Baltimore’s defense to miraculously knock them out of the dance in the final minute of the ‘17 season was a crushing blow to a fanbase that wasn’t used to being dealt them. In the fallout of it all, there were only a few select targets for said fans to turn their collective outrage on.
John Harbaugh. Ozzie Newsome. Joe Flacco. Dean Pees and Marty Mornhinweg, the team’s coordinators, were especially easy targets — as those in that position usually are. Over the course of the following few months after that, fans and media would come to hear from all these people in the wake of that disastrous, franchise altering loss. The exceptions were Flacco and Pees, the first of whom had no obligations to do so as a player and the latter of whom retired for a brief period which ended his run with the team.
There was little from any of them in the direct wake of the loss and in the subsequent days following the anticlimactic close of the 2017 season. It was a difficult time for the organization, so perhaps this was by design to help the franchise’s top figures regroup, and buy time while they huddled at owner Steve Bisciotti’s home in Jupiter, Florida. Following this annual meeting of the minds was typically when we’d hear from the likes of Newsome, Harbaugh, and team President Dick Cass, but the opening months of 2018 would be different.
On February 2 of that year, it wasn’t any of these top decision-makers who met with Baltimore media in the annual postmortem presser that had colloquially become known amongst that group as the “State of the Ravens.” Rather, it was Bisciotti himself who announced a few days beforehand that he’d stand up at the podium alone and take questions from a collection of scribes that would surely have some tough ones for him.
In what he called his most important speech since his valedictorian address at Salisbury University, the Ravens’ owner took 45 minutes of queries from the media. It was an effort to clearly lay out where his head was at and what he was thinking about how to move forward.
It was a rather eventful 45 minutes, to say the least. Over that time, Bisciotti told the media that he had thought about moving on from John Harbaugh after they lost in Week 17, Eric DeCosta would be taking over as general manager for Ozzie Newsome in a year’s time, and gave plenty of other informative insights about the organization’s overall process.
A few quotes in particular stood out at the time, and still do in retrospect.
When asked in not so many words if John Harbaugh was officially on the hot seat, he refused to commit to that —
“I’ll see you next year. I’m not going to give a ‘playoff or bust’ edict to you, or my coach... I may as well get rid of him now if I were to say that. That’s not how you run a business.”
He was asked if he felt that things were getting stagnant with the Ravens and summarily scoffed at the notion —
“That’s... for you guys to decide. I don’t think we’re stagnant at 1 Winning Drive. I think we’re as enthused as we’ve always been. Disappointed... embarrassed... and determined. Not stagnant.”
One reporter asked him if his passion for running a football team was still as strong as it was when he became majority owner in the early 2000’s —
“My passion is still there. My fans lose their enthusiasm for it, right? I hate losing. And my fans hate losing. And, they get angry and say things they shouldn’t. And I get angry and say things that I shouldn’t, too. Thankfully I don’t do it in front of a microphone very often. But I haven’t changed. I’m very comfortable where I am. I’m here for the foreseeable future.”
Baltimore’s obviously outdated approach to offense, an issue that really began to crystallize in 2017, was also addressed though maybe not in the most crowd-pleasing fashion —
“We need an exciting brand of football, and we need to win. But New Orleans has a really exciting brand of football that went 7-9 three years in a row. So, it didn’t help them. Exciting doesn’t necessarily mean wins. We’ve been a defense-dominant team since I’ve been here. Since long before I bought the team. And we want to keep that, because we don’t want people not to be scared of us. We’re gonna keep working on that to keep scaring people.”
And perhaps the piece de resistance of Bisciotti’s comments came earlier in the presser when he shrugged off the idea that the Ravens were heading towards a crossroads —
“I don’t even know what you mean by a ‘crossroad.’ I either keep John, or I fire John. I promote Eric to GM, and Joe has a shelf life at 33 years old. So, I don’t even know what you mean by that, and that’s what you guys talk about, and I don’t know what you mean by it. Crossroad to what?”
If you can find the time, I’d recommend going back and watching the presser in full. Not because you’ll glean anything new, or even that all of what Steve said was especially trenchant – in fact he’d go onto be contradicted in a few different ways over the coming months. The organization fully shifted towards a young offensive identity that was bolstered by a robust analytics team, something you wouldn’t expect from a franchise whose identity had been forged as a conservative, defensive-minded one. But it isn’t the content of the quotes that matter when discussing the import of this press conference – rather, the importance of his address is what it says about Bisciotti as an owner.
In a point in time where it’s become increasingly easy for powerful people to make decisions that lead them to a difficult place, and then subsequently avoid any accountability on the matter, candor and transparency are especially at a premium.
Bisciotti is not a perfect man and he isn’t a perfect NFL owner, which is partially what led him up to the podium on that day to face a frustrated media group. However, the difference between him and many others in his position (some of whom operate within the same league) is that he’s shown a willingness to face the music and answer the tough questions when things start to go awry.
He’s had his missteps. The Ray Rice fiasco, and the Colin Kaepernick will-they-or-won’t-they saga from just a few months prior to the press conference in question stand out among them. Since then, though, he’s implemented a zero-tolerance policy on domestic violence and come out in vocal (and tangible) support of his players who were sympathetic to Kaepernick’s cause.
The entire picture he’s painted in nearly 20 years of ownership is one that isn’t perfect but is at the very least clear and honest. That’s how he came across in his “State of the Ravens” address following the 2017 season and it’s something that this fanbase could use a bit more of at the moment.
While we’re not talking about anything nearly as heavy as some of what Bisciotti had to deal with over the course of the 2010’s, it’s obvious that for a litany of reasons an always-passionate Ravens’ fanbase is once again fairly unhappy. The targets of their ire are if not the exact same, then somewhat similar to the ones we saw take fire after the 2017 debacle. John Harbaugh. Eric DeCosta who succeeded Ozzie Newsome. Greg Roman, who took over for Mornhinweg in 2019.
There are the obvious key differences here that make this situation more palatable than a few years ago. A young, exciting franchise quarterback is in place who was selected to succeed Flacco just a few months after Bisciotti’s address in 2018. Although it’s the concern over his future — and what this franchise plans to do to ensure it’s as bright as possible — that has many pockets of this fanbase up in arms.
Some see Harbaugh as a staid, unimaginative football mind who doesn’t have the new-age chops to get the most out of Lamar Jackson’s extraordinary talents. Many think the same of Roman but on a scale even larger than we’ve seen with other Ravens’ offensive coordinators, many of whom didn’t have nearly the level of success in Baltimore that Roman has had. Some view DeCosta’s roster-building as either too safe or not anticipatory enough to keep things afloat when they go off the rails as we saw at the end of 2021.
Since the end of this past regular season, we’ve not only seen a tacit acknowledgement the team will retain Roman, but also the firing of his defensive counterpart Don “Wink” Martindale. Martindale was widely respected within the building and beloved by many in the fanbase. This was a puzzling move to say the least, and it set an ominous tone for an offseason that figures to be a very interesting one considering how much roster turnover is expected. A brief statement from Harbaugh was released as a comment on the matter but other than that, no information has been provided on the context of this move.
When you add it all up, it doesn’t especially look great, at least relative to what we expect from the Ravens. Just one playoff win since Jackson's emergence as the starter is the primary thing many take issue with, considering his regular season success suggests he should be competing for AFC titles year in and year out. Since that playoff win, we’ve seen an uninspired performance in Buffalo that knocked Baltimore out of the dance in 2020. Then, a 2021 season that (while heavy on fun, inspiring moments) wound up being a dud, topped off by a six-game skid, and just the second losing record of Harbaugh’s tenure at 8-9.
With all of this on the table and only Martindale’s unexpected firing to show for it, this is a frustrated, unsatisfied fanbase that has plenty of questions they need strong answers to. This, in the humble opinion of yours’ truly, is where Bisciotti comes in. While an unlikely scenario, now is the perfect time for the Ravens’ always classy, candid owner to do what he did after the 2017 season and provide some of those answers that the fanbase is seeking.
Even if he faces the media and is willing to push back and say some things that fans won’t want to hear, it would be an important message to send just by being out there to begin with. This was assuredly the case when he stepped up to the podium after 2017 and uttered the words, “We’re a long way off from having to worry about Joe [Flacco]”, in response to the embattled and injured quarterback’s future with the team.
A few months after he said that, the team traded up into the first round to pick Lamar Jackson and set the Ravens on the path their on now.
It’s been an incredibly fun and memorable path that’s featured a ton of success, but also has had its fair share of low moments as well. With Jackson’s last snap of the 2021 season coming on a play in which he injured his ankle — a cruel twist of fate that ultimately lead to an unprecedented losing streak — it’s likely that this is the lowest moment of it up to this point. It is in moments like this that strong leadership is needed.
The calm but firm voice of Bisciotti is always a welcome one to hear if you’re a Ravens fan, even if it comes during a difficult time. With things as difficult as they’ve been since the opening months of 2018, over the next few days or weeks would be the perfect time for Bisciotti to address all the uncertainty abound and either confirm fears, or put them to bed accordingly. If this is something he has no interest in — as is his right — it’s understandable.
As he said a few years ago, however, his passion and enthusiasm for running this franchise is still as strong as ever. For a fanbase that to some degree feels things are getting stale, a strong and confidently-delivered reassurance that the situation is more so the former than the latter would be welcome.
This wouldn’t be a fix-all for the litany of issues the Ravens are currently facing. They have an entire offseason of difficult decisions facing them and they’ll be solved organically in due time. However, for a fanbase (and frankly, the franchise they support), it would serve as a good first step towards doing so – even if it would be only the third most important speech Bisciotti has ever given.