The Baltimore Ravens have filled their offensive coordinator vacancy, hiring former Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak to take the job, the team announced on Monday. He is also bringing with him his old coordinator from Houston, Rick Dennison, to be Baltimore's quarterbacks coach.
While the Ravens still need to find a running backs coach, the hiring of Kubiak signals a recommitment to the run game. Baltimore ranked 30th in rushing yardage for the 2013 season, with just 1,328, and was tied for 28th in rushing touchdowns, with seven. Their star running back, Ray Rice, had only 660 yards and four scores on his 214 rushing attempts, resulting in a career-worst yards per rush of 3.1.
Running the ball had been the Ravens' offensive calling card for years. In 2012, the Ravens had the league's 11th-most rushing yardage, at 1,901, and had 17 rushing touchdowns. In 2011, they ranked ninth. Though some of their struggles in 2013 can be attributed to Rice's hip flexor and quadriceps injuries, that was only a small part of the problem.
Ultimately, what doomed the Ravens to a season of ineffective running—and to their quarterback, Joe Flacco, taking a career-high 48 sacks—was their offensive line. It doesn't matter how bright a run-game guru Kubiak is, who the Ravens hire to coach their running backs or what Dennison may do to get Flacco to the next level—if the Ravens do not fix their offensive line, all of these hires are meaningless.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Ravens ranked 27th in run blocking and 21st in pass protection for the 2013 season. Football Outsiders ranked their line dead last in run blocking and 16th in pass protection. No team had as many of its runs stopped for no gain or a loss of yardage—26 percent of Baltimore's runs were stuffed.
Nothing dictates a team's chances of offensive success or failure more than its offensive line. Even the most accurate quarterback will struggle without enough time to get those passes out, and even the most aggressive, fastest running back will need more than just his own skills to earn significant yardage.
There is little doubt that Baltimore's offensive failures of 2013 are tied to the failings of its offensive line and that things will only get worse without it being fixed. So things need to change this offseason to prevent that from happening.
It starts at center. The Ravens lost veteran center Matt Birk to retirement after the team's Super Bowl victory last season and replaced him with 2012 fourth-round draft pick Gino Gradkowski. Gradkowski may have been prepared to be a starter, but he didn't quite play like one.
Gradkowski was Pro Football Focus' last-ranked center for the season. Unsurprisingly, the Ravens went from fifth in the league in rushing yards up the middle in 2012 to 32nd in 2013. Not helping matters is that Gradkowski was flanked on the left by guards Kelechi Osemele and A.Q. Shipley, the latter taking over after Osemele was placed on injured reserve.
Shipley ranked 67th out of 81 guards graded by Pro Football Focus, with run blocking his biggest weakness. In fact, only two members of Baltimore's offensive line had good 2013 seasons—right guard Marshal Yanda and left tackle Eugene Monroe.
Even fullback Vonta Leach, brought back by the team after he tested the free-agency market, had a terrible year. With a bad line doing most of the blocking, he went from being the best in the league at his position just a season prior to 24th out of 25 fullbacks graded by Pro Football Focus.
One of the Ravens' problems on the offensive line appears ready to solve itself, with right tackle Michael Oher set to hit free agency in the spring. Oher ranked 68th out of 76 tackles graded by Pro Football Focus and, like Shipley, struggled in the run game far more than in pass protection.
But who replaces him? One option is 2013 fifth-round draft pick Rick Wagner. Wagner played only 131 snaps in his rookie season but did grade out positively as a run-blocker. Jah Reid could also be promoted to starter. And the Ravens could certainly put many of their draft eggs in the offensive line basket this year, in order to at least boost depth.
The other problem is that among the Ravens' coaching changes on the offensive side of the ball, that project does not include parting ways with offensive line coach Juan Castillo (who was the team's run-game coordinator last season).
This isn't going to make fans happy: Only offensive coach guaranteed to return is offensive line coach Juan Castillo.— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) January 27, 2014
It's hard to imagine that coaching wasn't part of the problem with Baltimore's offensive line last year, however that's the only area in which the Ravens will have continuity heading into the 2014 season. Castillo appears limited as an offensive line coach, a problem that was compounded by subpar performances from the majority of the linemen.
Kubiak could have the right offensive game plan for the Ravens. Dennison may be devoted to Flacco. The Ravens at least have appeared to redouble their efforts to get back to their identity, which general manager Ozzie Newsome emphatically stated is that of a run-first football team.
But there's no chance any of this will work as the team envisions it without the offensive line getting extensive attention and improvement in the coming months. It wasn't the play-calling that ruined the Ravens' chances to defend their Super Bowl championship. It wasn't their oft-inconsistent quarterback not playing to his ability. It wasn't something Rice or Bernard Pierce did or didn't do—it all was because the offensive line was abysmal.
So while Kubiak is an intriguing and perhaps even perfect hire for the Ravens, his vision will never be realized behind an offensive line that performs as it did in 2013. No coach or coordinator could succeed with that line trying to open holes for the running backs or keep the quarterback upright.