Ravens head coach John Harbaugh confirmed on Tuesday that the search has come down to four candidates: former Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, former Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Pittsburgh Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson and present Ravens wide receivers coach Jim Hostler.
No matter who the Ravens choose, however, the tasks for that man will remain the same. The Ravens have some very specific challenges with their offense that the new coordinator will have to tackle in order to bring the team back into playoff relevance. Here's what they are.
Get the Run Game Back on Track
The Ravens struggling to run the ball is not a common sight, but it's what happened in the 2013 season. Since 2008, when Harbaugh took over at head coach and the Ravens drafted running back Ray Rice, they hadn't ranked lower than 14th in rushing yards on the season. In 2013, however, they ranked 30th, totaling just 1,328 rushing yards on the season with Rice making up only 660 of them.
Some of this can be attributed to Rice's hip flexor injury and his later problems with his quadriceps. However, even his relatively healthy backup, Bernard Pierce, also had a bad season, with 152 carries netting him just 436 yards—a 2.9 yards-per-carry average that was below Rice's disappointing 3.1.
With Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome saying earlier in January that "The history of this franchise has been our ability to run the football," there's no chance the Ravens don't try to do everything necessary to improve their run game this offseason. While some of that responsibility will also fall to the running backs coach—a job that is also currently vacant in Baltimore—ultimately, it will come down to the coordinator to solve this problem.
A healthy Rice should at least provide some improvement to the Ravens' rushing offense next year, but there are other factors that played into its failure in 2013. In fact, one of them may be the biggest problem the incoming offensive coordinator will have to address during the offseason.
Fix the Offensive Line
The Ravens boasted the league's worst run-blocking offensive line in 2013, according to Football Outsiders. They were dead last in adjusted line yards, at 3.01 per rush, as well as yards earned in the second level and in the open field.
Twenty-six percent of all their rushing attempts were stuffed—stopped either at or behind the line of scrimmage—while quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked a career-high 48 times. Both run-blocking and pass protection was lacking for the Ravens in 2013. A repeat of this in 2014 will yield the same results. The Ravens simply must improve their line play this season.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only left tackle Eugene Monroe and right guard Marshal Yanda graded positively as pass-protectors and run-blockers.
The biggest offenders were left guard A.Q. Shipley, who took over the job when Kelechi Osemele was placed on injured reserve, and center Gino Gradkowski, who was in his first year as a starter. And where once right tackle Michael Oher was simply a blemish on an effective offensive line, his shortcomings were highlighted further by his teammates' failings.
via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
When only two members of a five-man offensive line can do their jobs well, it's not surprising the struggles the Ravens had both running the ball and keeping Flacco protected.
The Ravens have some decisions to make on their line this offseason. Oher is an unrestricted free agent, as is Monroe, whom the Ravens acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars after Bryant McKinnie had a disappointing start to the season (McKinnie was later sent to the Miami Dolphins). Oher is as good as gone, having not lived up to his potential, while re-signing Monroe should be a top priority in the coming months.
They also have to decide if Gradkowski is truly the long-term answer to replace Matt Birk, who retired after the Ravens won the Super Bowl last season. A fourth-round draft pick in 2012, Gradkowski was nevertheless Pro Football Focus' worst-ranked center for 2013. Unsurprisingly, the Ravens also ranked dead last in runs up the middle for the season.
While there are potentially a number of experienced, starter-capable centers hitting free agency this year, the Ravens aren't in the position to spend on one. Not with Monroe (and tight end Dennis Pitta) needing contracts. And not when the Ravens are expected to have just over $15.5 million in salary cap space to work with this year ($1.136 carrying over from 2013 and $14.451 in space for 2014 as of now).
A year's experience and another offseason to work with his teammates could help Gradkowski improve his game, but the Ravens might also draft a center in case Gradkowski's development isn't as rapid as they need it to be. Osemele could return from his back surgery in better shape than ever, relegating Shipley back onto the bench.
But, at the very least, the Ravens need to bring on one more starter to their offensive line to replace Oher. Ideally, they will draft more than one.
The run game is Baltimore's offensive identity, and they just gave Flacco an expensive, long-term contract thanks to his performance in last season's playoffs, which netted them a Super Bowl win. The terrible offensive line play of the 2013 season helped neither component of the offense and directly led to their disappointing 8-8 finish.
Even if Baltimore's new offensive coordinator addresses the other issues the Ravens are experiencing on that side of the ball, without significant improvement to the offensive line, it will be for naught. This is what the new coordinator must fix; it's the biggest problem the team has presently.
Find a Reliable Receiver (or Two)
With a barely functioning run game in 2013, the Ravens had to rely on their Super Bowl MVP quarterback to carry the offense. That would be fine if Joe Flacco played as he had in that postseason run for the entirety of the season that followed, but instead, we got a dose of the same old Flacco—maddeningly inconsistent—albeit behind a terrible offensive line. These two combined to produce the worst season of Flacco's career.
Not helping matters much is that Flacco had a bare-bones support staff. Forget just the bad offensive line that led to ineffective running—Flacco also had a dearth of receiving help. With Anquan Boldin traded last offseason to the San Francisco 49ers and tight end Dennis Pitta sidelined until Week 14 after suffering a broken and dislocated hip in training camp, Flacco had little to work with beyond deep-threat Torrey Smith.
Smith led the team with 1,128 yards on 65 catches, but he had only two touchdowns. The Ravens' second-leading receiver, Marlon Brown, had seven receiving touchdowns but caught only 49 passes totaling 524 yards. He was also an undrafted rookie.
|WR Torrey Smith||139||65||1,128||4|
|WR Marlon Brown||81||49||524||7|
|WR Jacoby Jones||66||37||455||2|
|TE Dallas Clark||52||31||343||3|
|RB Ray Rice||73||58||321||0|
|WR Tandon Doss||36||19||305||0|
Flacco's receiving corps was rounded out by the likes of Jacoby Jones (37 catches, 455 yards, two scores), Dallas Clark (31 catches, 343 yards, three scores), Ray Rice (58 catches, 321 yards, no scores) and Tandon Doss (19 catches, 305 yards, no scores). Flacco simply needs more high-quality receivers to throw to.
The absence of intermediate targets like Boldin and Pitta meant Flacco was even more reliant on throwing deep passes to Smith and Brown. This is risky—deep passes are prone to drops, to defenders getting their hands on them and simply being inaccurate, having to rely on both timing and the receiver's speed. As such, while Flacco threw the ninth-most passes of 20 or more yards (or 14.3 percent of all of his passes), he ranked 39th out of 40 quarterbacks in deep-ball accuracy.
Having Pitta back and healthy should help, considering he caught an impressive 20 of the 33 passes thrown his way once he returned to the field. Brown's development should continue as well—for an undrafted rookie, it was impressive enough what he accomplished in 2013, and he should be far more comfortable in 2014.
However, behind Smith, Pitta and Brown, the Ravens don't have much aside from just-a-guy depth. The receiver position (and maybe the tight end one, too—Ed Dickson caught only 25 passes in the 2013 season, and Clark was only signed to a one-year deal) really needs the Ravens' attention, and that means addressing it in the upcoming draft.
Beyond that, it also means that the receivers the Ravens keep on the roster need to actually develop. That hasn't really been the case for Doss. Deonte Thompson, an undrafted receiver the Ravens brought on in 2012, didn't make a leap in his second season with only 10 catches. Brown played a prominent role on offense in 2013, but that was mostly out of necessity. He needs to turn into a true No. 2 receiver, and if he doesn't, the Ravens must have someone on the roster who can, and quickly.
But all the receiving talent in the world may not matter much if the quarterback isn't on top of his game. Which takes us to the final area that Baltimore's new offensive coordinator needs to lend his attention.
Taking Joe Flacco to the Next Level
Though Joe Flacco threw more passes and for more yards than any of his previous seasons, there were also a few less impressive milestones to his 2013 performance. His completion percentage of 59.0 was the second worst of his career. His 19 touchdowns were the fewest he's thrown since his rookie season, while his 22 interceptions were the most of his career—by 10. His 48 sacks were also the most of his career.
Obviously, the Ravens' inability to run the ball well, their terrible offensive line and their cobbled-together receiving corps did Flacco little favors. He also didn't do enough to help his team win. Considering the $120.6 million, six-year deal that Flacco signed after the Super Bowl, it's surprising how his game just didn't get to the next level.
* indicates career highs (not necessarily best)
Looking at Flacco's career numbers, it's clear he spent 2009 through 2012 on somewhat of a plateau. Under then-coordinator Cam Cameron, Flacco could be relied upon for around 3,600 yards per season, 20 or 22 touchdowns and 10 to 12 interceptions. Though his yardage went up, many of his other important stats went down in 2013. They cannot slip further in 2014.
Obviously, this offense works together. Given the state of the rest of that side of the ball in the 2013 season, it is unsurprising that Flacco had a bad year. But even if the run game and offensive line had both been good and the receiving corps more Flacco-friendly, it's hard to imagine his 2013 being all that different than his 2012 or 2011.
In 2013, Flacco again had his maddening ups and downs, though it was a bit less extreme than in years past. He had four games with under 200 passing yards and three with 300 or more. That's a good start. But there were also the issues with deep-ball accuracy we discussed above. His overall accuracy percentage was just 67.8 on the year, ranking him 36th out of 41 (and below Brandon Weeden). And his short-passing game left a lot to be desired in 2013.
Flacco is a moderately accurate quarterback with a big arm. He needs to round out his game and become a more complete passer. His new offensive coordinator will need to work with him extensively to evolve his game. While the Ravens have made the playoffs every year that he's been their starter, save 2013, even while he's been on his statistical plateau, the amount of cap space his contract represents in the coming years means that he simply must do more for his team.
The Ravens offense might ultimately be one that is run-centric, but that doesn't excuse Flacco's weaknesses as a passer. He's been paid like a franchise quarterback and the Ravens are locked into him for the foreseeable future. The team's next offensive coordinator thus must get Flacco to play like a franchise quarterback every week, and every season.