There was a time when the Ravens took the field with swagger. They were physical and even if the Ravens weren’t victorious opponents felt the Baltimore Bullies long after the final whistle. They might not always beat you but you WERE beaten (up).
The Ravens hit hard on both sides of the football. Their offense was characterized by a smash mouth approach featuring grinders like Jamal Lewis, Le’Ron McClain, Lorenzo Neal, Sam Gash, Anquan Boldin, Willis McGahee and Vonta Leach on offense and of course the likes of Ray Lewis, Jamie Sharper, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Dawan Landry, Chris McAlister, Bernard Pollard, Bart Scott – the list of tough defenders goes on.
The physicality went hand-in-hand with the swagger and the swagger was a byproduct of success. The team’s leaders fueled the swagger, enabled by Brian Billick and Rex Ryan.
The swagger did have its downside.
When things went awry, seasons spiraled out of control like they did in 2005 and 2007. There was finger pointing. The ample rope that Brian Billick provided by allowing his boys to be boys and treat them as men ultimately rested around his neck like a noose that eventually cost him his coaching career. Rex Ryan helped split the locker room with his us-against-them (defense v. offense) approach which for all intents and purposes was the team’s first mutiny.
Ryan coveted the Ravens head-coaching job and when Billick was fired, Ryan’s confidence soared, so much so that during the interview process for Billick’s successor, Ryan parked his truck in the reserved spot for the HC at 1 Winning Drive.
Today, under the leadership of John Harbaugh, the Ravens have very little swagger. They don’t have the big personalities that they once had. Sure, Steve Smith, Sr. can bring it as strong as anyone but he’s in the December of his career and is viewed more as a former Panther than a current Raven. Terrell Suggs has the swag but he is in his 14th season coming off his second Achilles tear plus he’s hinted strongly at retirement.
It’s as if the Ravens have in a few years morphed from a team loaded with swagger to one that seems very homogenous and without style. They’ve gone from organized chaos to bend but don’t break; from attack to protect; from pit bulls to golden retrievers; from Mike Nolan, Rex Ryan and Chuck Pagano to Dean Pees.
It hasn’t happened overnight, but it has happened and that has to be by design. The guys that run this team are just too smart not to have intentionally engineered the change.
In today’s NFL it is key to have balance. For years the New England Patriots success hasn’t been based on being the best in any particular category, just the best at being balanced and possessing the ability to win in a number of ways. But they always seemed to have a little swagger with guys like Rob Gronkowski, LaGarrette Blount, Brandon Merriweather, Vince Wilfork, Randy Moss, Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis, Ty Law, and believe it or not even their future Hall of Fame quarterback, Tom Brady.
The swagger-less Ravens comparatively speaking are choirboys compared to previous Ravens squads, particularly the defenses that took the field from 1999-2007. The swagger that matched the city’s DNA is gone – long gone.
Winning helps to restore it but what comes first, the swagger or the winning?
Swagger on offense is the result of making big plays, controlling the line of scrimmage, downhill running and of course scoring points.
But a team’s real swagger comes from its defense. One only needs to look at last season’s champions, the Denver Broncos. Their success is the byproduct of speed, aggressiveness, forcing turnovers and being multiple in personnel groupings and disguised looks in various down and distance situations.
Might the Ravens adapt a similar “multiple” approach?
Well if you listened to Dean Pees recently when discussing the idea of switching to a 4-3, the Ravens always have been multiple.
“When haven’t we been 3-4 and 4-3 and multiple other things? We have always been that. We were that when Rex [Ryan] was the coordinator here, and Chuck [Pagano] and Greg [Mattison]. We’re a little bit of everything. Basically what we are is we look like a 3-4 personnel that plays a lot of 4-3 defense. But it’s not necessarily a standard 4-3 that everybody thinks of, there’s under and over. There are all different ways to play 4-3 defense, and we’re multiple. We’re not changing to a 4-3 defense. We aren’t changing to anything.”
Sounds like bend-but-don’t-break will be back again at M&T.
Maybe the offense can help bring back the swagger?