Does an Offseason of Arrests Point to a Leadership Void in Baltimore?

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVJuly 15, 2014

Getty Images

Over the weekend, Baltimore Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith was arrested. According to Jamison Hensley of ESPN, Smith was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct at a bar outside of Baltimore.

The NFL offseason invariably produces player arrests. It's been a problem in the league for some time, as the U-T San Diego's NFL arrest database attests. Ravens players, in particular, have ran afoul of the law more than members of any other team this year.

Smith's arrest is the fifth for the team in 2014—running back Ray Rice was charged with felony aggravated assault and wide receiver Deonte Thompson was charged with felony possession of marijuana in February, offensive lineman Jah Reid was charged with misdemeanor battery in March and rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro was charged with destruction of property and drunk and disorderly in late May.

Ravens Arrests in 2014
2/15/2014RB Ray RiceCharged with felony aggravated assault; accepted pretrial intervention
2/21/2014WR Deonte ThompsonCharged with felony possession of marijuana; case dismissed
3/9/2014OL Jah ReidCharged with misdemeanor battery; accepted pretrial intervention
5/24/2014RB Lorezo TaliaferroCharged with misdemeanor destruction of property, drunk and disorderly; court date on 7/31
7/12/2014CB Jimmy SmithCharged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct; court date pending
via ESPN and U-T San Diego's NFL Arrest Database

In contrast, the other 31 teams in the NFL have produced a combined 14 arrests in 2014.

Aside from the arrest of Rolando McClain last April, who had little more than a cup of coffee in Baltimore, no Ravens player had been in trouble with the law since former linebacker Sergio Kindle in 2010. Suddenly, the Ravens have gone from one of the most disciplined teams off the field to one of the league's most troubled.

Could a lack of leadership be a reason why?

After the Ravens won the Super Bowl to cap off the 2012 season, they spent the 2013 offseason reworking the roster. That meant moving on from a number of iconic Ravens veterans, like safety Ed Reed, linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk, the latter two retiring from the game. 

The Ravens were a markedly younger team in 2013. However, worries about leadership didn't seem to extend beyond the football field. Because the Ravens weren't known for getting into trouble with the law, there was no reason to be concerned about a leadership vacuum outside of the team facilities. 

Ray Lewis' departure left a leadership void in the Ravens' locker room that has yet to be filled.
Ray Lewis' departure left a leadership void in the Ravens' locker room that has yet to be filled.Larry French/Getty Images

But now it looks like the leadership void was less noticeable on the field than it has been off it. Yes, the Ravens went 8-8 last year, but it wasn't because of the infusion of youth. But this infusion of youth and no one to fill the mentorship gaps of the many veterans who moved on seems to have a detrimental effect on the Ravens when it comes to police blotters.

It's been 14 years since Lewis was charged with murder in Atlanta. He ultimately pled guilty to obstruction of justice and was given a $250,000 fine from the NFL. Lewis used that arrest as an opportunity to change and grow—and to help keep his fellow Ravens teammates on a straighter, narrower path.

Lewis' experience and his very vocal presence in the Ravens' locker room was surely a both a cautionary tale and source of inspiration to younger players who joined the team. Now, there's only the memory of what Lewis brought to the team off the field and no one to take up his mantle of personal accountability and responsibility.

Ray Rice was charged with knocking his then-fiancee unconscious; he has yet to be disciplined by the Ravens or the NFL.
Ray Rice was charged with knocking his then-fiancee unconscious; he has yet to be disciplined by the Ravens or the NFL.Rob Carr/Getty Images

If the Ravens don't have players who can step up and provide a positive example to all members of the roster, there is no real moral anchor. And if players cannot provide this, then someone else must—head coach John Harbaugh.

After Rice's, Reid's and Thompson's arrests, Harbaugh spoke about his team's many legal issues in the offseason. He described the arrests as "unacceptable" and "disappointing," but then added, "If there is ever a point in time when we feel that person has lost value for our team, starting with football or because of their character, then you move on from those guys. But those guys aren't to that point."

Harbaugh clearly believes there is a line a Ravens player can cross and find himself no longer employed by the team, but has not characterized any of his players' arrests as having crossed that line. Harbaugh made a threat, but by not acting upon it, it's an idle one. Making an example—or two—out of these players could go a long way in the locker room.

Head coach John Harbaugh needs to strengthen his message and back it up with action.
Head coach John Harbaugh needs to strengthen his message and back it up with action.USA TODAY Sports

These players have something to lose—their very livelihoods—but until there is tangible proof that this is the case, there isn't as much an incentive to give their offseason decisions a second, more critical thought.

Harbaugh was asked after minicamp wrapped whether he would be changing his approach with his players after the spate of offseason arrests. His answer:

It's always the same high standard. We will always have the same high standard for our guys, and it's the same message... And we've emphasized what we need to with our guys. We have good, really good guys. Football matters to them. The more it matters to you, the less inclined you are to do anything to jeopardize that.

However, it doesn't seem like the message is getting through as it used to. If Harbaugh truly believes it's a matter of prioritizing football over taking risks or making poor choices in a player's personal life, then he has a few on his hands who aren't as committed to their jobs as he'd like. They're not upholding the standard.

It would behoove Harbaugh to reiterate his message, to drive it into his players once training camp begins at the end of the month and to toughen it, if need be. His level of tolerance needs to match his words, because right now there is a disconnect. 

It doesn't matter that both Rice and Reid have accepted pretrial intervention and won't face jail time or that Thompson's charges were dismissed. It doesn't matter that potentially all five of the Ravens who were arrested this offseason could face suspensions handed down by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. What matters is that these events happened in the first place. 

It's no coincidence that the Ravens have seen the most offseason arrests. It points to a bigger problem. There is a clear leadership void in their locker room and no player who makes his teammates feel accountable for their actions.

This means Harbaugh must strengthen his message, prove there are real consequences for illegal off-the-field behavior and get his players re-focused on their careers. Otherwise, it's only a matter of time until these players' off-field chaos manifests itself into chaos in the locker room. It would be a shame if that's the only way Harbaugh will truly take notice.