As exciting as last season was, for both the team and fans, that overachievement comes at a price—that of raised expectations.
Rookie head coach John Harbaugh, along with his rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, set the bar extremely high in their inaugural seasons in Charm City. Based on their successes of 2008, anything less than a trip to Miami for Super Bowl XLIV could potentially be considered a regression.
Personally, I wouldn’t consider the season a disappointment if the Ravens were to fail to reach their second Super Bowl in 14 years of existence. Keeping in mind that 2008 was truly a season of surpassed expectations, it does, though, seem reasonable to expect that the team at least reach the playoffs again.
However, as any Ravens fan can attest, Baltimore has a history of winning when they are supposed to lose, and losing when they are supposed to win (for example, following a 13-3 2006 campaign, the Ravens entered 2007 with their roster mostly intact, only to lay a 5-11 stinker).
With that in mind, there are several potential pitfalls that could trip the Ravens up as they attempt to reach consecutive postseasons for only the second time in franchise history.
The most obvious obstacle to continued success in Baltimore is the dreaded “sophomore slump” that quarterback Joe Flacco will have to try to avoid. Due to a combination of injuries and illnesses befalling those ahead of him on the depth chart, Flacco was thrust into the starting role from Week One in his rookie year.
In a situation that is usually a recipe for disaster, Flacco, instead, flourished, showing the poise and pocket presence of a savvy veteran. While his numbers were not gaudy, especially compared to fellow rookie phenom Matt Ryan, they were very respectable, and were even more so given the dearth of steady quarterback play that has plagued the Ravens since their inception in 1996.
Flacco started every game, and became the first rookie in NFL history to win two road playoff games. As opposing defenses accumulate ever more film on Flacco to study, his game will have to continue to evolve and improve if he wishes to build upon his early career successes.
One of Flacco’s main strengths in his rookie campaign was that he never tried to do too much, always realizing that he had one of the NFL’s top defenses (No. 2 overall statistically in 2008) backing him up.
The Ravens lost long-time defensive coordinator Rex Ryan this offseason though, who left to become the head coach of the New York Jets. Ryan was replaced by linebackers coach Greg Mattison. Despite having coached for 38 years, Mattison is entering just his second season in the NFL. He was a defensive coordinator for 11 years in the college ranks, most recently at the University of Florida, where he guided the 2006 team to a National Championship.
Baltimore has a tradition of great defenses, regardless of coordinator. Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, and Rex Ryan all had dominating units, but all also had significantly more NFL experience prior to taking the reins than does Mattison. In order for the Ravens to continue their winning ways in 2009, Mattison will have to show that he will have no trouble adapting the philosophies he perfected for so many years in the NCAA to the professional level. If the defense were to slip outside of even the top 10 or so in the league, a team that bases its entire game on field position, turnovers, and low scoring could be in for a big step backward.
A main factor in the Ravens’ reliance on defensive dominance is their lack of explosive weapons on offense, which prevents them from staging many big comebacks or opening a lot of large leads. Along with a lack of consistent play from the quarterback position, the Baltimore franchise has historically not possessed a dominant big-play type receiver.
The efforts of the front office to acquire the Cardinals’ Anquan Boldin this offseason have thus far been unsuccessful, and they did nothing to address the position in the draft. As a result, they are voicing their confidence in a corps that includes Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams, and Marcus Smith, none of whom, in turn, inspire great confidence in the fan base.
Mason had a very productive 2008 season, catching 80 passes for 1,037 yards and 5 TDs, and was Flacco’s favorite target. However, he played through varying degrees of pain all season, and at 35 years of age, does not pose a game-breaking threat, and is entering the December of his career.
Clayton, a 2005 first-round draft choice, displays flashes of brilliance, but has yet to become a consistent weapon on a game-to-game basis. Despite averaging 17.0 yards per reception on 41 catches in 2008, Clayton caught two or fewer passes in seven of 16 regular season games, and caught exactly two in all three playoff games. As long as Clayton continues to display his propensity to disappear in games, he will not be a top-level wideout.
Williams is the most intriguing of the group. Entering his fourth season, Williams has shown the potential to be a deep threat, catching touchdown passes of 70 and 77 yards in his career. He has had problems staying healthy though, as his games played have decreased every year, from 16 in his rookie season, to nine in 2007, and down to just seven in 2008. With two full seasons (32 games) of NFL experience under his belt now, Williams needs to prove that he can avoid the injury bug, stretch the field, and reward the faith that GM Ozzie Newsome has shown in him.
Smith, a second year player, was active in only seven games in his rookie year, but did not record any catches. It is unknown at this point, at least to us fans, what exactly Smith can bring to the table.
The Ravens brought in several free agent wide receivers to their first mini-camp in May, including Jerry Porter, Kelley Washington, and Tab Perry. As of this writing, none of them had been signed. The Anquan Boldin rumors also continue to swirl around a number of teams, including Baltimore.
Expecting a Super Bowl Championship in 2009 may be a bit lofty. Thinking that another exciting, winning season is in the works though, does not seem beyond reason, as long as the Ravens can avoid or work through the pitfalls.
Of course, that all assumes that key players (Flacco, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Matt Birk, among others) remain healthy, but that’s another whole can of worms in itself.