What a difference a year makes for the Super Bowl champs. Last year they were the team that scared opposing teams. Before that, under defensive coordinators Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan and Chuck Pagano the team played angry, tough, and beat up opponents.
Remember the headline in Sports Illustrated after the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV?
“BALTIMORE BULLIES…The Ravens defense beats up the Giants in the Super Bowl”
Well, this year the Ravens are the ones getting bullied. They don’t scare anyone, least of all the Cleveland Browns, who, against a defense coordinated by Pagano or Ryan would not have contemplated going for it on 4th and 1 with the game on the line. Instead, they go for it against Dean Pees’ bunch and laugh their way to a win by running out the clock.
Great way to end an 11-game losing streak while destroying the Ravens’ season along the way, right?
The fact is this team has lost its swagger. Ray Lewis was right in saying the team “needs leaders” – which some at the time thought was just self-aggrandizement by the greatest Raven of them all. Well, it wasn’t, at least not entirely, because Ray Ray was right on the money.
Flacco may be a “leader” by default in his position as QB, but he’s no leader by anything other than that or by example. He doesn’t fire up the team when it is down – like Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger do, by the way – but rather just by making plays when it matters.
That’s a form of leadership too, don’t get me wrong; but it’s not the type of leaders Ray Lewis was referring to, leaders like himself and Ed Reed were to the team.
There’s also a decided lack of toughness on this year’s Ravens that surely has had a lot to do with the pitiful performance on the field. If Lewis was on the field, or Reed, do you really think Aaron Rodgers would have easily completed a third-down throw to put the Packers game away? Do you think the Steelers and Browns would each have been able to run the clock out on the Ravens because they could not purchase even one critical third-down (or fourth down in the Browns case) stop?
Think back to the 2012 AFC Championship Game – the Billy Cundiff/Lee Evans debacle against the Patriots where Brady (as usual against the Ravens) had a bad game. The Pats still won, but Reed tipped away a pass intended for Aaron Hernandez when the Pats had the ball near the end and could have run out the clock with one first down. Reed guessed right, made a huge bat-away, and it kept the game alive. Had Reed not made this key third-down stop (which this year’s team can’t even find in a dictionary), we wouldn’t even have had to talk about Evans/Cundiff because the game would have been over.
This year’s team simply doesn’t have the leaders who rip a guy’s head off for horrible play, or pick him up off the turf, depending on what motivates that certain player. Suggs is the closest thing to it, but he’s not the main guy – rather a supporting actor in the leadership department.
Flacco isn’t ever going to be that guy. “Joe Cool” is a very appropriate nickname – not because he stays cool under pressure (Flacco often doesn’t) but because his demeanor is laid-back and casual. There’s not a thing wrong with that, but the teams needs some guys who get angry and get fired up, and motivate others. They need leaders, and they also need some unpredictable players – like Bill Romanowski, or Bernard Pollard, or yes, even Richie Incognito, who are just so unpredictable and hated by opponents that the opponents fear them.
Romo was a guy who spat in the face of opposing players. He didn’t cross the line of bullying his own teammates. Pollard sparred with Coach John Harbaugh, who cut him because he despised Pollard’s attitude as a locker room lawyer who questioned his authority.
Incognito was chosen by the Dolphins to be part of their ‘Leadership Council,’ and was clearly a despised tough guy, a bully, when it came to opposing teams on gameday. But Incognito crossed lines. He didn’t just haze, he bullied his own teammates, not just his opponents.
That you cannot do as a player. That is why Incognito may have a tough time finding work with any future NFL team except for maybe the Oakland Raiders, whose modus operandi includes signing problem players and trying to resuscitate them.
But who on the Ravens – with Pollard gone – is their tough guy?
Vonta Leach isn’t on the field for enough plays to qualify, so don’t say it’s him.
The Ravens have lost that edge, that toughness. Harbaugh is partly to blame by exorcising anyone from the team who has questioned his authority, and then blatantly denying that he cut certain players for that exact reason. The story is simple: Harbaugh wants to run a tight ship. Maybe it is for team unity, and that is a mantra his father Jack Harbaugh has preached in his long, successful college coaching career.
But without at least some X-Factor of a player, or true team leaders, the team becomes rudderless. There’s no anchor to moor to, and there’s no wild card for other teams to fear.
While it is possible to win in a tight-ship regime as the Patriots have done under Bill Belichick/Vince Wilfork/Tom Brady, that team still clearly has leaders. Brady and Wilfork are those men, and they are the ones who hold court with the players.
The Ravens don’t have that.
And until they do, this ship will have trouble staying afloat.