For the last 15 NFL seasons, head coach John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens have earned admiration and respect. The club has been heralded as a model franchise, a well-run operation that fields competitive teams season after season. Harbaugh’s unique ideology has blended with team owner Steve Bisciotti’s, former general manager Ozzie Newsome’s and current general manager Eric DeCosta’s own individual philosophies to create an identifiable brand of football.
Unfortunately Baltimore’s carefully cultivated identity has not produced the desired results in the postseason. In fact, the Ravens have regressed from a team that won a playoff game in each of Harbaugh’s first five seasons to a team with only two playoff wins in Harbaugh’s last ten years. With the NFL’s third-longest tenured head coach at the helm, Baltimore has fallen from a team that appeared in 60% of the AFC’s conference championship games and won a Super Bowl before 2013 to a team that has reached the divisional round at a 30% rate without a single conference championship game appearance since.
Surely injuries and random bounces of the ball can excuse away a season or few of postseason disappointment. Nonetheless, a full decade is long enough to draw some conclusions in a small sample size sport.
One consideration is that Harbaugh’s preferred play-style featuring rugged defense and smash-mouth offense is no longer effective in the postseason. According to Football Outsiders DVOA efficiency metric, seven of the eight teams that advanced to the divisional round this season ranked in the top-10 of passing offense compared to just three of the eight ranked in the top-10 for rushing defense. The average pass offense rank of the eight divisional round contenders was 6.4 compared to 12.9 on run defense.
Yet under Harbaugh, the Ravens continually prioritize run defense above pass offense, despite witnessing their own Super Bowl run in 2012 when they boasted the 7th-worst run defense in the NFL yet won four consecutive postseason contests while passing for more than twice as many yards as they gained rushing the ball. The league-wide postseason results over the last decade are irrefutable, passing offense is significantly more important than run defense.
Another consideration that may have contributed to Baltimore’s regression is Harbaugh’s emphasis on locker room culture. Since his Super Bowl victory, the Ravens have habitually selected collegiate team captains in the draft and signed high-character veterans to mentor them. By avoiding players with questionable character, the Ravens disadvantage themselves, they fish in a smaller talent pool than their competition.
The tangible benefit of fostering a strong locker room remains to be proven. Notably, Baltimore won their last Super Bowl following an in-season near mutiny when prominent players revolted against Harbaugh’s methods. Furthermore, Harbaugh’s emphasis on team-first culture has not prevented Hayden Hurst, Orlando Brown Jr., Marquise Brown or Chuck Clark from requesting trades in recent seasons. Or prevented multiple players from expressing their selfish frustrations to the media. Or kept Lamar Jackson’s contract negotiations from becoming a full-scale media thunderstorm.
The final philosophy that should be scrutinized after a decade without reaching the NFL’s ‘Final Four’ is the “Contend Every Season” strategy. Bisciotti’s exact definition of ‘contending’ is unknown but it seems unlikely that zero divisional round wins since 2013 meets his standard. 19 NFL franchises have more postseason victories than Baltimore over the last 10 seasons.
The lofty goal of contending every season often results in personnel decisions that raise the annual floor of the club. They are arguably the deepest team in the league, as evidenced by their 23-game preseason win streak. Too often these floor-boosting tactics come at the expense of ceiling-raising postseason difference makers.
Ultimately, the “Ravens Way” has gone ten years without proving the concept is viable in the postseason. Baltimore’s medieval play style, zigzag schemes, inefficient roster construction methods, culture-first locker room and stability-focused decision making do not deserve the benefit of the doubt any longer.
Whether due to complacency, stubbornness or hubris, the Ravens franchise has adamantly refused to modernize their business practices. After a full decade without a single divisional round victory, it would be misguided to rest on the laurels achieved in a bygone era before team icon Ray Lewis retired in 2013.
Despite the organization’s best efforts, Harbaugh’s version of the “Ravens Way” has not been successful in the postseason. The inherent flaws have been exposed. Adhering to contrarian strategies despite a decade worth of evidence that they do not produce the desired playoff results would be nonsensical.
Following the mismanagement of Lamar Jackson’s rookie contract window, Baltimore’s loyal fanbase is impatiently waiting for the strategic adjustments that will finally propel the Ravens back to a conference championship game. Unless Ravens brass is satisfied with their divisional round ceiling, a deviation from the “Ravens Way” status quo is required this offseason.