An 8-8 record and out of the playoffs: That's not how the Baltimore Ravens expected their Super Bowl title defense to go in 2013.
It would be easy to pin the blame on quarterback Joe Flacco for Sunday's 34-17 loss to the AFC North-champion Cincinnati Bengals. He completed only 30 of his 50 pass attempts for a meager 192 yards. He threw one touchdown, to receiver Marlon Brown, along with three interceptions.
In fact, it would be easy to point the finger at Flacco for the Ravens' disappointing season. After all, Flacco came off of an 11-touchdown, zero-interception postseason that included winning the Super Bowl MVP award, all of which led to his new $120 million contract with the Ravens.
A contract of that magnitude means a few things on face value. First, this offense and this team is Flacco's, and as such, he needs to be both their leader and their reason for winning. It also meant trimming the salary fat on the roster to accommodate his new deal, both in the short- and long-terms, which by default put more responsibility on Flacco's plate.
However, to lay the blame on Flacco or on the Ravens for giving him such a valuable contract would be shortsighted. In fact, the problem was the lack of help the quarterback had this season, not the lack of help he provided to win them games.
Here are the facts: Flacco was in a contract year when he helped Baltimore win the Super Bowl, so that victory was undoubtedly going to spur a large new deal. The Ravens also knew, very well, what they had in Flacco. He's a strong-armed quarterback who, with enough weaponry around him, can play very well. He also can play poorly, with no warning. For proof, just look at his career week-by-week performance.
Five years in, the Ravens completely understood who Flacco was. Circumstances simply resulted in him getting $120 million instead of $80 or $90 million. The reason for the 8-8 season, however, was a failure to continue do what they had done to lead Flacco to success and their continuous postseason berths—give him a good supporting cast.
The Ravens couldn't have predicted the issues that befell their team this year, particularly on offense. The head-scratching decision to trade receiver Anquan Boldin made some sense because of the emergence of tight end Dennis Pitta. However, Pitta broke and dislocated his hip in training camp and Baltimore was without his services until Week 14.
Flacco thus had to rely on a receiver corps highlighted by Torrey Smith and few others. While Brown, the undrafted rookie, certainly made his case for being a fixture in Baltimore going forward, his rawness and inexperience didn't make him a true replacement for the reliable Pitta or Boldin. Rounding things out were weak pass-catching tight end Ed Dickson, free-agent signing Dallas Clark and receiver Tandon Doss.
The weak group of receivers wouldn't have been such a big problem if the Ravens had a solid run game, which had been one of their hallmarks during Flacco's tenure. Between 2008, when Flacco took over at quarterback, and 2012, the Ravens hadn't rushed for fewer than 1,831 yards in a single season. This year, they had just 1,328 rushing yards and averaged 3.1 yards per carry while doing it.
Can't blame Flacco for this.
Yes, a strong defense has often helped Flacco out during his time in Baltimore, but even with so many offseason changes on that side of the ball, the defense wasn't all that poor. The lack of a run game, the thing that has really bailed Flacco out in times of inconsistency or ineffectiveness, was the team's biggest problem this season.
Baltimore's issues on offense—and less so on defense—highlight just how important it is for the Ravens to build their roster around getting the most out of Flacco. As evidenced by this year, he's not a carry-the-team-on-his-back quarterback. That's not how they've been so successful, prior to the 2013 season, with him under center. And they shouldn't suddenly expect it out of him, either.
The key to a winning season for the Flacco-era Ravens is to have a complete team. Flacco is a good, and sometimes great quarterback, but he's not one of the best in the league. The Ravens must again have a strong running game and above-average defense to improve in 2014.
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That starts with the offensive line, which was the primary source of Baltimore's run-game woes as well as some of its passing issues. Flacco was sacked a career-high 48 times this season, eight more than his previous career high (set back in 2010). Right tackle Michael Oher is as good as gone—he's a free agent when the new league year kicks off in March and also their biggest liability on the line, ranking 68th among 76 offensive tackles evaluated by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) this year.
But the Ravens will have to replace him. They also need overall higher-quality offensive line depth and perhaps even a change at center. Second-year player Gino Gradkowski certainly had massive shoes to fill when he took over for the now-retired Matt Birk, but the downgrade was significant. Gradkowski is Pro Football Focus' last-ranked center for the season.
What do the Ravens need most to improve in 2014?
Offensive line could therefore be Baltimore's biggest priority in the upcoming draft, and rightfully so. Otherwise, the Ravens won't run well yet again, and Flacco will again both be under siege and asked to do more than he is capable.
Flacco is the centerpiece of Baltimore's offense, but not in the traditional sense. It's not about him being given free reign while a pair of speedy wideouts run go routes and catch Flacco's deep passes at will. It's about building a complete offensive package that enhances Flacco's strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.
He needs a run game to play well. He needs a strong offensive line in order to play well and order for the run game to work. He needs a defense that can keep the offense off the field in moments it's not clicking. He needs, in a word, help—and it was help he didn't get, or get enough of, to give the Ravens a winning record and another playoff appearance in 2013.
So don't blame Flacco for the Ravens going 8-8. It was a team effort. And it will take a team effort to keep Flacco looking like the franchise-caliber quarterback he has in the past. Flacco is but a jewel in a crown that needs a good polishing in the coming months.