The first eight weeks of this 2022 Ravens season have (even at the arm’s length experience of fandom and amateur analysis) felt like a mental and emotional grind. The ups and downs of a 3-3 start that included multiple double-digit leads blown, sideline fracas between players and coaches, and a lot of late game finger pointing and head shaking in a secondary which was supposed to be the league’s best on paper, were mind numbing at times. And like I said, these are my own feelings on the situation from the “fanalyst” perspective – thinking a bit deeper on it, it’s hard to even imagine what it was like inside of that locker room.
Now, a few weeks removed from the opening rollercoaster of this regular season, the team is riding a two-game winning streak into a chance to go 6-3 into their bye. If they can do so, they’ll be very well set up to make a serious run for one of the AFC’s higher seeds. Without presuming too much on ultimate outcomes of 2022, it’s fair to say that the worst of this schedule is behind them, and they’ve managed to weather a storm that included all the adversity already mentioned, plus the lingering cloud of uncertainty surrounding Lamar Jackson’s contract situation.
So, how did they get here? In the humble opinion of yours truly, it’s due to a reevaluation of priorities in response to the cataclysmic injury wave that derailed their 2021 season, as well as the continued shockwaves of the more severe individual cases such as offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and tight end Nick Boyle.
What were the priorities for their program in the past? According to former Ravens defensive end Derek Wolfe, it revolved around doing everything they could to peak for the start of the season. They did so by following the mantra of (in his words, at least) “work until you can’t walk anymore:”
This is the Derek Wolfe clip I mentioned on today’s @PodcastBeatdown— Jake (@jakelouque) November 4, 2022
I think over the course of his experience, this is definitely a fair critique. In the context of ‘22, though, they seemed to approach things to peak later by not going so hard in the summer. pic.twitter.com/JJ8uZvcrdP
You can make the argument that what happened to Stanley and Boyle – a fractured ankle courtesy of getting rolled up on and a shredded knee due to an awkward landing on a slick playing surface, respectively – were somewhat unavoidable. Considering they occurred during 2020 regular season games, that’s a fact. But fast forward to the summer of 2021, when running back J.K. Dobbins suffered a torn ACL in a preseason game, and cornerback Marcus Peters and running back Gus Edwards went down for the year in the same practice – it was at this point that Baltimore’s staff was assuredly left questioning where “bad injury luck” ended, and the need to re-think things a bit began.
And to their credit, re-think things they did. In years past, the Ravens received league punishment for breaking the guidelines of practice intensity during OTAs and received additional rebukes in the form of season ending injuries to crucial players, and mid-season slumps in playing form that would cost them dearly in playoff seeding (or, even the chances to make the playoffs in the doldrums of the 2015-17 stretch). This season, their philosophy has been one of abundant caution, almost to a frustrating degree at times.
“This year’s new approach to camp was on display, with more emphasis on execution and a reduced amount of physical contact,” wrote Clifton Brown for the team’s website on August 2nd. “After the players wore pads for the first time on Monday, players were in shells and shorts Tuesday. The early portion of practice featured special teams and individual drills, and the entire workout focused on technique and communication. The Ravens coaches and training staff put ample research and thought into designing a different training camp schedule after the team was decimated by injuries in 2021. The goal is to prepare efficiently for the season while reducing the potential for injuries.”
Reshuffling practice times to peak properly, adhering to nutrition science in a way they previously didn’t, and holding key players entirely out of the preseason with very few exceptions were some of the key changes we saw this summer. It all lined up with the somewhat different tune we heard from John Harbaugh when discussing the changes at the time:
“We really studied it and thought about it, that this is the best way to make our team the best,” he said in an early training camp presser. “It’s not just about injuries or it’s not just about ramping up tempos and things like that. I also have a suspicion that it’s going to help our execution in the end. We’ll see how it goes, and we’ll see how good we are, especially early in the season.”
While he may not have meant that last part as “we’ll see how good – or lack thereof – we are” early in the season, it certainly speaks to a difference in mindset for the Ravens longtime gipper. Through both his words, and his actions, it appears that he and his staff came into 2022 with the summer serving as a tune up period – for another tune up period.
While it would be a bit callow to say that September would serve as any teams’ preseason in the cutthroat world of the NFL, it would also be naïve to think that any team could withstand the rigors of an 18-game schedule without enduring valleys to go along with their peaks. Other franchises who haven’t had the same injury woes as Baltimore over the last few years have seemed comfortable to take preseason games less seriously – whether that meant they saw the opening slate of games as their proverbial ramp up is hard to say, but it does appear to be a strategy that the Ravens have tacitly taken on.
We see it in their approach to vet days, their reluctance to overly feed Dobbins, and the unconventional platoon system between Stanley and offensive tackle Patrick Mekari as the former All-Pro continues to get his feet under him during his long-awaited return to the lineup. And that isn’t to say that its all been perfect, or even defensible. Despite their caution, Dobbins suffered yet another long-term injury and in an effort to field their best lineup against Tampa Bay the other night, the Ravens fielded wide receiver Rashod Bateman who aggravated a foot injury which now has him sidelined for the year.
Some of this is the cost of doing business in one of the most rough and tumble sports leagues on the planet, and some of it is easy to nitpick with the benefit of hindsight. But for the most part, their process has been solid, and the assumed idea is that the results will bear their fruits in the middle stretch of the regular season. Predictably (and presumably by design), the opening slate was tough in that regard. A meltdown of epic proportions in which an unprepared defense came unglued led to a psyche shattering loss to the Dolphins; additional blown leads against the Bills and Giants were difficult to swallow as well, and featured the aforementioned sideline blowup between Harbaugh and Marcus Peters.
All the while, the unbiased advanced metrics have loved, and continue to love Baltimore, even at their apparent lowest. They sit at fourth in Football Outsiders DVOA, fifth (or thereabouts depending on where you look) in Super Bowl betting odds, and are getting a new infusion of talent to the defensive side of the ball in the form of Roquan Smith, Tyus Bowser, and eventually David Ojabo and Marcus Williams. Things were bleak for sure, but at just the right time in an ailing division, some light has started to appear at the end of the tunnel.
With the Bengals reeling after a long-term injury to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase being immediately followed up by a loss to the Browns dropping them to 4-4 and 0-3 within the division, the Ravens have ascended to 5-3 and face both short-term and long-term opportunities to put their foot on the gas. The last several weeks serve as some evidence that their new approach, which ran counter to what Wolfe experienced, may just pay off for them. It starts with a Monday night tilt in a hostile environment in New Orleans, and it’ll end with a second half run against one of the league’s softer schedules. If Baltimore can finish strong, and more importantly make some long-awaited noise in the postseason, this new philosophy will have proven itself to be a very welcome one indeed.