Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Flying the Coop on the Ravens

After watching the first half of the game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins last night, I'm almost tempted to switch allegiances from my home town team the Ravens to Rex Ryan's Jets. I know, they lost the game last night, and they have about the same record as the Ravens, but at least Rex Ryan looks like he's trying to go to the Super Bowl. After the Ravens' embarrassing showing against the Bengals on Sunday, I'm beginning to question their commitment.

When Rex Ryan left the Ravens to become the head coach for the Jets, not only did he steal two of our best defensive players in Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard, I think he stole our drive and swagger as well. The Ravens keep saying our defense is playing aggressively, but I don't really see it, unless you consider unnecessary roughness penalties as sign of aggressive defense. John Harbaugh did such a great job last year of instilling discipline in a once ragged team and limiting penalties. Now, we're looking more like the sloppy Ravens of old, except the defense can't get to the quarterback, can't stop the rush, and definitely cannot stop the passing game. During the preseason when the press brought up how small and ineffective our cornerbacks are, the Ravens kept saying, "Don't worry. We're fine." Well, it's pretty clear they are not fine, and it's a big concern as the schedule gets more difficult.

Of course, we also heard the argument that it was inevitable the defense would give up more yards as the offense improved. The theory went that, as the Ravens offense ate up more time time on the clock and put more points on the board, the other team would have to throw more deep balls to make up for lost time and try to score quickly. As a result, the defense would statistically give up more yards, but they would not let the other team win. That theory held up against soft teams like the Chiefs, the Chargers, and the Browns, but when we had to face tough teams, the Ravens' defense simply let the other team score points and the offense had no response against a tough opposing defense. It seemed inevitable against the Patriots, but our offense looked like the old Kyle Boller/Brian Billick Ravens when we played the Bengals last Sunday. They're simply not as good as they thought they were.

The biggest failure on the Ravens' part, in my opinion, was not snapping up one of the many good wide receivers who were available during the off-season. Now that Joe Flacco has proven himself as a strong quarterback, they needed to get someone reliable that he could throw to besides Derrick Mason. We kept hearing, "Oh, we like the guys we have." Really? Mark Clayton has been a wash out since we picked him up in the draft several years ago and, while Demetrius Williams can make a great play now and then, he's not consistent and injury prone. Even when he's healthy, like last Sunday, Cam Cameron doesn't put him in the game. Cameron's ability to invent and adapt on the fly, so obvious last year, has not been in evidence this year. Even when we win, I'm still baffled by some of the play calling.

But it's really the wide receiver issue that baffles me the most. When I saw Braylon Edwards making such a great show for the Jets last night, I couldn't help but think, "Why didn't we make that trade?" Is John Harbaugh so intent on keeping problem children out of his locker room that he will turn down great talent and a shot at the Super Bowl? Not everyone is perfect, and sometimes you have to take a risk when the need is great. At wide receiver, the need is great. If Derrick Mason gets injured and is out for all or a major part of the season, we might as well turn out the lights. Even Cam Cameron admits that you have to throw in today's NFL to win. Flacco can throw, but who's going to catch the ball?

Beyond players and strategy, a team needs to have a powerful desire to win. That's another reason why I'm so excited about what Rex Ryan is doing with the Jets and not so thrilled about Harbaugh's Ravens this year. When Ryan went to the Jets, he put everyone on notice that they had every intention of being the team to beat this season. A franchise so beaten down by Eric Mangini and the Favre Experiment would now be a team that stood tall. Those two faked punts to get first downs last night proved how Ryan will try anything to win, and it's exhilarating to watch.

While more conservative in approach, John Harbaugh showed similar enthusiasm last year as he reinvented the Ravens into a dedicated, discipline team. This year, Harbaugh seems worn out and sullen. I don't see the same drive, and he's falling into the Billick trap of complaining about officiating to explain away losses. During the preseason, the Sunpaper's Mike Preston talked about how united the team was and that they had a spirit of camaraderie he had not seen with the Ravens since they had been in Baltimore. Unfortunately, I don't see that camaraderie translating into a real winning spirit. I definitely felt more of a drive to succeed last year when there was less at stake.

Of course, it could be that everyone's expectations are too high. It's possible that the Ravens were not as good as we thought they were last year either. The Patriots lost Tom Brady and still managed to have an 11-5 record, the same as the Ravens. Because of divisional wins, we managed to get into the playoffs when they didn't. Those divisional wins were helped greatly by the fact that both the Browns and the Bengals were a mess. Even still, we couldn't beat the Colts last year and the Steelers beat us three times. If we had played the Patriots, we may not have beaten them either.

So far this year, we couldn't beat the Patriots and we couldn't beat the much improved Bengals. Now we have to face the undefeated Vikings and the undefeated Broncos, and we still have two Steelers games down the stretch. If the Ravens can't beat any of these teams, they are truly mediocre. The Ravens need to have a gut check and really decide which team they want to be: the one they were hyped to be or just an average team like so many other teams in the NFL. Harbaugh and his coaching staff have to make key changes now or the season is lost. I think they should look at their former colleague Rex Ryan to see how motivating a team and taking risks to win is done.