In 2008, the Baltimore Ravens boasted the NFL's No. 11 scoring offense. NFL can also stand for "Not For Long," though, and as we've seen time and time again, teams that fail to evolve and adapt from one season to the next do not remain on top for long.
In his first year in Baltimore, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron showed just why he is considered one of the best offensive minds in the game. Despite lacking the kinds of weapons he had during his days with the San Diego Chargers, he made the Ravens, a team with a long history of offensive ineptitude, an exciting, big-play team.
So how will his game plans be different in 2009? Let's take a look at some possibilities.
The first likely change will be the "opening up" of the playbook for quarterback Joe Flacco. The success enjoyed by Flacco in his rookie campaign was due in large part to Cameron protecting his young signal caller. Ravens receivers ran primarily short-to-medium routes, and Flacco was not asked to make many complicated reads or throws into traffic over the middle of the field.
Expect that to change this season.
Flacco's arm strength has never been in question, and his progression in diagnosing coverages and finding the open man is evidenced by his 13:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio over Weeks 7-17. Cameron will continue to ease the "training wheels" off Flacco, and the second-year player will have to prove that he can handle the increased responsibility and pressure.
Flacco will also benefit from the addition of Michael Oher, the first round draft choice from the University of Mississippi. Considered a top-10 talent in this year's draft, Oher is expected to challenge for the starting right tackle position immediately.
In 2008, right tackle was a position of weakness for the Ravens, as they were often forced to keep tight ends in to help either Willie Anderson or Adam Terry, who each saw playing time, with opponents' edge pass rushers.
If tight ends are blocking, then they aren't running passing routes, and as a result, Flacco often had as few as two options to throw to when he dropped back.
If Oher, a guy who has been bragging about being able to stop Dwight Freeney since he was in high school, can step in and hold his own, Ravens tight ends Todd Heap and the newly signed L.J. Smith, both very capable pass catchers, can become favorite targets of Flacco and draw defensive attention away from the receivers on the outside.
One of the staples of the Ravens' offense in 2008 was their own version of the "Wildcat," the "Suggs Package." Named after a comment made by linebacker Terrell Suggs on a Baltimore radio show, the "Suggs Package" featured former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith taking the snap from center, with Flacco split wide as a receiver.
The Miami Dolphins got the most media coverage for the formation, and it seemed just about every team around the league tried some version of it. Having Smith, though, who would likely have been the staring quarterback on opening day were he not derailed by an illness, really gave the Ravens' version of the specialty offense an element that the "Wildcats" of other teams were lacking.
One of the most exciting plays of the entire NFL season featured Smith hitting Flacco in stride for a 43-yard gain against Oakland in Week Eight.
However, this offseason the Ravens signed former Miami Dolphin John Beck to compete with Smith for the backup quarterback position. Many around town feel that Beck may be the better long-term solution behind Flacco.
The Ravens, like many teams, prefer to only have two quarterbacks on the active roster on game days. So if Beck outperforms Smith in training camp and gets penciled in as the No. 2, will the "Suggs Package" be a thing of the past?
Not so fast.
On more than one occasion, wide receiver Mark Clayton has been the Ravens' "emergency quarterback" on game days, even throwing a 32-yard touchdown pass in Week 13 against Cincinnati. Even if Smith isn't available to run the gimmick, don't underestimate the creativity of Cam Cameron.
The Ravens' ground attack faces some uncertainty and likely changes as well going into the 2009 season.
Although officially listed as a fullback, Le'Ron McClain was the team's leading rusher in 2008, with 902 yards and 10 TDs. His bruising style and nimble feet drew comparisons to former Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis.
The Ravens, though, did not re-sign Lorenzo Neal, who, by filling the blocking fullback role, allowed McClain to line up as a tailback. The loss of Neal may force McClain back to his more natural position.
If McClain is indeed used in more of a blocking role in 2009, his share of carries will have to be absorbed by Willis McGahee and Ray Rice. Each of them possesses his own unique strengths, but neither is capable of wearing down opposing defenses like McClain did in 2008.
McGahee had some tough luck with injuries last season and will need to prove that he can return to the feature back role after being more of a complementary player for the first time in his career in 2008.
Rice was enjoying an impressive rookie season before being injured in Week 14 against Washington. Used mainly as a third down back, Rice showed a great "nose for the sticks," moving the chains on many occasions.
His best performance came in Week Nine at Cleveland, when he ran for 154 yards on 21 carries. He had double-digit carries only one other time all season though, and he still needs to prove that he can handle those kinds of touches on a consistent basis.
For a fanbase that finally got to watch an offense that seemed to know what it was doing in 2008, all these changes can make us a bit uneasy. Ravens fans just need to have faith, though, that the mind of Cameron and the arm of Flacco will continue to power the offense through these transitions.