Things can and do change quickly in the National Football League. In one season a team can rise from divisional cellar dwellers to Super Bowl Champions. You only need to look at the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles for proof.
But to make such drastic improvements, it takes vision. It takes a plan – certainly a better plan than the one the Ravens have employed since winning Super Bowl 47.
The Ravens have been criticized for their strict adherence to continuity – continuity that from the outside looking in, today, looks more like complacency.
Doing the same things, the same way and expecting different results…well, you know.
The criticisms have been earned.
For any organization, whether in sports or business, to improve, it starts with honest self-scouting to define areas of weakness. Team owner Steve Bisciotti and his staff did some of that down in Jupiter, Florida in January. He shared some of their Florida discoveries during his State of the Ravens presser, when he admitted that the Ravens need to make two significant repairs.
“One of them was reported recently about the loss of senior scouts in the last year, which is again, always indicative of success”, Bisciotti explained.
“I’m proud of those guys and I’m happy for them, but we don’t play the carrousel game with the Ravens. Since Ozzie came in here, he has brought in young people and developed them over many, many, many years to become really good scouts. When we lost those scouts, we didn’t necessarily go out and hire equal scouts to replace them, and I think that was a mistake.”
To drive home his point Bisciotti finished the thought by saying, “We can’t wait for 25-year-old [scouts] to get as good as good as Joe Douglas was at 36.”
Douglas, for those not familiar, is now the Vice President of Player Personnel for the World Champion Philadelphia Eagles. He was in the Ravens scouting department from 2000 through 2015.
With good reason, the Ravens are proud of their ability to develop scouts from within. The successes of Douglas, Eric DeCosta, Phil Savage, George Kokinis and Joe Hortiz are prime examples. Other teams have taken notice and they’ve plucked scouting talent off the Ravens payroll. But as Bisciotti accurately concludes, the developmental system sometimes can’t keep pace when the scouting cupboard is raided of some of its finest talent.
NO SAFETY IN NUMBERS
Scouts and coaches are invited to express their opinions, and in some situations, plead their cases for collegiate talent in the Ravens war room during the NFL Draft and draft-prep meetings. The team wants their picks to be collaborative efforts – the culmination of months of analyses by scouting and coaching staff members. But over the years, the free-flowing opinions have grown in size, they’ve grown in volume. The collaboration produces a consensus – one that as of late morphs into a compromise, a safe pick.
Perhaps the increased volume in that war room has created distorted noise that uncompromised the compromises. Over the last decade, those apparent safe picks speak for themselves.
“I [think] we do such a good job of getting these scouts involved. If you saw our grading system and you were in the draft-prep meetings, you would see that there’s a case to be made that we may get too many opinions about the top players in the draft. So, if you’re talking the first three rounds, that’s 96 players. We almost always get our three players in our Top 60 picks, not 96. That’s the same with every team because everybody has their favorites. If you look at those Top 60 players, I think they’ve been over-analyzed.”
Missing on draft picks has a trickle-down effect. Players on their rookie contracts provide an opportunity for teams to mine productivity inexpensively. Cheap labor is more available to teams that draft well, and those that do, have more cap money at their disposal to retain key players about to graduate from rookie contracts. They also have more money to augment their rosters through free agency.
Regularly missing on draft day does just the opposite.
Players like Kelechi Osemele are lost because they’re deemed unaffordable. Expensive veterans like Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson are signed because the Ravens missed badly on draft day with the likes of Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks. Make these mistakes too often and it creates salary cap pressure, the relief of which is found in player contract restructuring. And going that route in order to create cap space with an intent to improve the roster, is akin to building a credit card balance while only paying the monthly minimum.
The problem doesn’t go away.
You just kick it down the road a bit.
But eventually, it must be dealt with.
Admitting their draft day blunders is one thing. It’s the first step towards a solution for the Ravens. But the solutions don’t happen overnight because they are rooted in scouting, and improvements in that department take time. As the clock ticks, pressure mounts on the coaching staff. Their collective livelihood is staked to winning. They are forced to win with less in order to keep their jobs.
THE HARBAUGH ERA
During the aforementioned State of the Ravens presser, Steve Bisciotti was asked if he considered replacing John Harbaugh. After all the Ravens are a team that for the moment defines mediocrity, going (41-41) since Super Bowl 47 and they’ve punched their postseason ticket just once (2014) in the last five seasons.
“Certainly, it was a thought”, admitted Bisciotti.
“I was very proud of the way John kept fighting and held the team together when we were losing in the middle of the year. Joe [Flacco] was obviously producing at sub-standard [levels] with his back injury, and after the first couple of weeks, obviously, we were very encouraged by our defense and thought that could hold us together. We didn’t perform very well in the middle of the year. I was proud of the way we fought back as a team. And so, it was certainly a consideration, but not one that I was inclined to make this year.”
But what about next year?
What will Bisciotti do if the Ravens miss out on the playoffs for the fourth year in a row?
Does the thought of a new coaching administration place more organizational pressure on winning NOW and will such pressure influence their draft, their aggressiveness in free agency and their desire to restructure more contracts?
WEAPONS FOR JOE
Joe Flacco has his critics. He has his support group as well and among those supporters is Bisciotti. But the results just haven’t been there. Joe hasn’t played to the level of his contract and it’s not even close. That too places a burden upon the team’s cap and it forces John Harbaugh & Co. to find production from younger players – production that exceeds the level of their respective contracts.
Flacco proponents will point to the Ravens lack of playmakers on offense. They’ll point to the revolving door and the alleged incompetence at offensive coordinator; they’ll point to his injuries; they’ll point to all of the above.
No one can say with certainty that Flacco’s supporters are wrong. If you are going to make such a heavy investment in a quarterback, it stands to reason that you might want to give him the weapons necessary to reap the required return on investment.
In 2019, the Ravens will have their first opportunity from a salary cap perspective, to part ways with Flacco. Then they can take him completely off their books and save $10.5M in cap space. Of course, they would need to replace him but that’s a 2019 challenge. For now, it’s time to remove the excuses and provide Flacco with the tools he needs to succeed – to play to the level of his pay grade and then determine if he’s worthy of playing out the balance of his contract which runs through 2021, at which time he will be 36 years old.
But what if the Ravens give Flacco the weaponry his supporters demand and he still fails to perform in the way his contract suggests?
Should the Ravens begin to prepare for life after Flacco?
“I think that you can think about life after Joe”, said Bisciotti. “But most of the franchise quarterbacks … I don’t know of any franchise quarterbacks that are retiring at 33, 34, 35 anymore – none of them. Eli [Manning] and Ben [Roethlisberger] and our friend up in New England [Tom Brady], they’re all staying [at] 35, 36, 37 – Drew Brees. So no, that’s not really something that we’re worried about right now. We’ve got bigger fish to fry, I guess. I don’t consider that a big worry.”
Not once in his 10-year career has Flacco been forced to look over his shoulder. There has never been a promising quarterback waiting in the wings – no one to turn to if Flacco flounders. But given the light at the end of the contractual tunnel in 2019 as it relates to Joe, this offseason is the perfect time to at least begin a succession plan. But don’t count on it.
The boss says there are bigger fish to fry!
With the careers of an entire coaching staff in the balance, hinged to the success of the 2018 season, it is highly unlikely that they will consent to spending much of their draft capital in April on a player who will carry a clipboard in 2018. And if you think that Harbaugh’s weight isn’t heavy in the Ravens war room, you haven’t been paying attention. He’s nothing like Brian Billick who conceded to the scouting acumen of Ozzie Newsome.
Those days are gone.
And soon, so too will be Ozzie.
POST NEWSOME ERA
There’s no denying Ozzie’s excellent body of work as an NFL GM. There’s also no denying that his best work as a league executive is growing more and more distant in the rearview mirror. Many factors go into that. The scouting, the process, and of course Harbaugh’s voice in the war room. Yet Ozzie remains Teflon. He isn’t really held accountable and rarely engages the media. To some, he just seems tired and to others unwilling to engage in productive debates the way he once did. Let’s not forget that Ozzie once ran roughshod over Art Modell who preferred Lawrence Phillips more than Jonathan Ogden during the 1996 NFL Draft.
Soon the GM reins will be handed over to Eric DeCosta.
What you will get is a young executive with steely-eyed conviction who is anxious to make his mark on the NFL. He’s not anyone’s slappy. He’s not Ozzie-lite as some have suggested and he’s hardly an Ozzie clone. DeCosta will take the best of what he’s learned from Ozzie and blend it with his own talents and his own philosophies born out of years on the job. The result will be an organizational upgrade, marked by cutting edge thought processes and progressiveness.
And the bet here is that the kowtowing to Harbaugh will end.
He certainly has the support and trust of Bisciotti.
“I think [Eric] has learned from Ozzie. I think he is a great leader of the scouts. It is Ozzie’s department, but most of the interaction with all the scouts is with Eric. I have seen the way he goes about the business. I have seen the way he has embraced technology and analytics, and I like working with him.”
When DeCosta officially takes over for Ozzie, it would not be a shocker if a quarterback is among his first picks. He might even be interviewing candidates for a head coaching vacancy. Of course, he could also be working on a contract extension for Harbaugh.
Whatever the case is with Harbaugh, the foundation to the post-Flacco era must soon begin.
Looking back at Flacco’s first five seasons, his most successful, it’s no coincidence that the success happened during the former Blue Hen’s rookie contract. Then, with more cap money available to distribute, the Ravens had a deeper team that could beat opponents in more ways than one.
The Ravens tried to get Flacco signed before his epic ride through the 2012 playoffs. But it didn’t work out. The right player, right price model didn’t work. Apparently, that changed dramatically after Flacco hoisted The Lombardi as Super Bowl 47’s MVP.
The Ravens had no choice but to pay Flacco. He had accomplished the unthinkable and the Ravens had no quarterback waiting in the wings. Through his play under that rookie contract, Flacco became the franchise quarterback. In 2013 he was paid like one.
Looking ahead, the Ravens have to be more prepared the next time they’re faced with such a critical decision at the position of quarterback. They need to have options and they can’t paint themselves into a corner like they did in 2012-13.
If the Flacco supporters are honest, they’ll admit that their favorite quarterback was simply an above average quarterback on a good team who got hot at the right time. Never before, never since has he consistently shown the excellence of that 2012 playoff run. And it begs the question, “Is it best to pay a quarterback to be elite or is it best to have an efficient system QB and support him with surrounding talent?”
It could be argued that Flacco was a very good system quarterback who graduated to elite pay, if not play. The signs were all there. He wasn’t consistent and at times made mind-numbing choices on the field. But he won consistently within the system until the system was weakened by an uneven distribution of the cap in order to reward Flacco.
That’s not Flacco’s fault.
The blame falls at the feet of the front office.
When talking to fans at Ravens Roost and Nest gatherings, or just those I bump into in and around town, many are season ticket holders who are reconsidering their PSLs. The thought has crossed the minds of many PSL owners to just dump them.
Their reasoning varies.
Some have labeled the Ravens boring. Some can’t identify with the team and miss the days that featured fan favorites like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Some have begun to enjoy the at-home experience of watching NFL games more than live games. Some can no longer justify the expense. Some point to all of the above.
Many talk about the sting of the player protests.
To win back these fans, it will take time – certainly more time than one offseason will allow.
Winning via an exciting brand of football will cure much of the fan discontent. And don’t think for a second that this doesn’t weigh on the collective mind of the organization.
During the State of the Ravens presser, WBAL’s Gerry Sandusky asked Bisciotti, “Does the number of empty seats in the stadium this season impact at all how much influence you exercise in terms of getting playmakers you want to get in the offseason and in the draft, specifically wide receivers and other weapons on offense?
Bisciotti’s response was telling.
“Were you in Jupiter [Florida]? I think that there is a really good chance that we won’t be drafting a defensive tackle in the first round. I hear the criticism.”
The Ravens personnel group is in full force at the NFL Combines which started on February 27. The 2018 NFL Draft is critical for them. They need playmakers. They can leave no stone unturned. There can be no excuses! They will also need to be extremely creative with their roster augmentation as it relates to restructures, cap casualties and free agency given a cap situation that isn’t exactly augmentation-friendly.
The Ravens, as expressed often by many media outlets, need to invest their free agent spending and draft capital heavily on offense, while making slight alterations on defense. Here’s my 10-point check list:
1. Secure dependable playmakers at both wide receiver and tight end.
2. Add a tailback who can hit the homerun and threaten as a receiver and return specialist.
3. Find Ryan Jensen‘s replacement. That player is currently NOT on the roster.
4. Retain Austin Howard and ditch the thought of drafting a RT in Round 1.
5. Re-sign Mike Wallace.
6. Fit the offensive game plan around the talent. Joe Flacco is not a WCO quarterback.
7. Find an ILB besides CJ Mosley who can cover.
8. Draft a rangy centerfielder at safety who can support the defensive back end.
9. Also draft another corner.
9. Improve the interior pass rush.
10. Be bold. Attack. Start fast. Keep the pedal to the metal.
As if it’s an annual rite of passage, we regularly discuss and debate the Ravens need for playmakers. Yet as each offseason comes and goes, the box next to “find playmakers” remains unchecked.
Doing the same things the same way, has contributed to that.
It’s time for a new approach. It’s time for a new plan.
It’s time to look at things differently without blinders, with clear vision, with a new attitude.
Just ask the Philadelphia Eagles.