Monday, July 21, 2008

Premature Evaluations 2008: Baltimore Ravens

It is upon us. In less than two months the 2008 NFL season will begin, unfolding its own unique stories. As we did last year, TiT will be going through the 32 NFL teams and giving you a preview of who these teams will be, and why you should be watching them this NFL season. Unlike last year, however, this time we're bringing in some outside help from time to time and asking fellow bloggers who are fans of various NFL teams to discuss their teams' roles in this year's epic story. Anyone interested in contributing and getting their site plugged should shoot an email over to ThrowingIntoTraffic@gmail.com. Today, Zac continues the series with a look at the Baltimore Ravens.

When I was deciding which which team I should start my share of the Premature Evaluations (and if you missed it, Cian from Fuhbaw picked up the slack of my vacation week with a great discussion of the Green Bay Packers last week), I had a problem picking a squad that satisfied me on enough textual levels. I wanted my first entry to be a study in how a team can have a satisfying character that influences a solid game plan and leads to a season that fulfills fans of both the team and the game. The trouble is that the league is one so rooted in history and “this is the way things are done” wrong-headedness that there are very few teams that fit that bill, and none that I’ve formed any sort of conclusions on at this point. On the one hand, it’s nice to have ideas forming so fluidly, but dammit it’d be nice to have one absolute team character to work with here. So, seeing as there’s no good way to start with a team that I can rely on to inspire my love, let’s start with the team that has the greatest potential to inspire my frustration: The Baltimore Ravens.

Straight Outta Southside - G-Unit

The bulk of my frustration with the Ravens comes from their having left behind what made them special. The Baltimore Ravens used to stand for something, and it had very little to do with established leadership at the quarterback position and letting top tier defensive talents get away (Adalius Thomas in Baltimore was a phenomenon; in New England he’s a pretty gear in a machine). They were about a defense that broke teams spirits (17 interceptions from your defensive backs will start to rattle the opposition). They were about Trent Dilfer getting a Super Bowl ring and turning the notion of a “leader” under center on its head. The face of the franchise was involved in a murder investigation during the Super Bowl! This was a team that didn’t just tweak the established order; they shook it down for whatever it had in its pockets and left it bloody and bruised in a dark alley. The Boller-McNair era wasn’t just depressingly boring; it was offensive in the way it tried to turn the focus of the team away from being aggressively counter-culture.

So much of my hopes for this team involve them getting their edge back on track, and this is the year to do it. First of all, don’t let the record fool you; this is a defense that nobody wants to see. 6th overall in yardage and 2nd in rushing yards with 32 sacks, the numbers show the front seven still brutalize opponents with frequency. More importantly, they can still put together those brilliant games like their loss to the Patriots last year (the most poorly officiated game of the year) and stifling affairs like the 9-7 mess against San Francisco. Certainly, the pass defense could have been better, but this team didn’t lose because of its defense. If anything, that was the last vestige of anything resembling the Chocolate City toughness that used to be the team’s calling card.

Meanwhile the offense was a disaster. Worse, it was willfully boring. How anyone could think that parading an injured Steve McNair around and watching him pop off overthrow after overthrow was a good idea is beyond me, and is reason enough for former coach Brian Billick to have been fired. Sticking with Kyle Boller in the midst of that nine game losing streak, on the other hand, should keep him in an announcer’s booth forever. Any team with as many dynamic pieces as the Ravens has no excuse for putting up such poor numbers (23rd in passing offense, . Make no mistake, there are some dynamic tools here. RB Willis McGahee is one of the last true feature backs in football, and put up very good numbers considering that the team found itself behind and throwing early and often. As for the pass game, my hopes for WR Demetrius Williams have already been explained, but TE Todd Heap, who is a better Chris Cooley with a worse PR team, was being misused even before the injury problems last year. The most predictable positive effects will come from the addition of RB Ray Rice to the backfield, where he will combine with McGahee, to whom he bears some remarkable similarities, and maintain the Baltimore tradition of nasty running backs. Throw in Demetrius Williams entering his third year (and hopefully staying healthy), and things were going to get at least somewhat better no matter what.

The real test for this team, and one that I think will be the difference between competing for a division crown and being out of contention by week nine, will be under center. A disclaimer: I don’t hate Joe Flacco, and I think that he will be the best quarterback of his class, and probably an amazing quarterback in the right system. That said, putting a prospect, even a hyper talented prospect, under center and waiting for him to slowly develop while the team flounders is not the right move. So unless Flacco is better right now, at this moment, it’s time to turn this offense over to Troy Smith. Yeah, I get it, he’s not very tall and he had a really bad national championship game. I’ve also gone on and on about the reasons why that is a stupid way to measure his pro potential given the signs that he could be great. But living in the real world, this is not a “great” offense, at least not in the traditional sense. Relying on an untested signal caller with traditionally great strengths (downfield vision and an arm for any point on the field) is a waste; plugging in a battle hardened player who has been a proven leader in a pro system and has the mobility to make something out of the inevitable broken plays that we’ll see next year is inspired. Better, it’s what the team used to be about. Dilfer knew how to lead a bunch of ok talents to the production they needed to survive. Right now, if survival is the order of the day (and it should be for this team and in this division), Smith is better equipped for tight situations. Hell, isn’t playing like there’s nothing to lose what used to make this team great? The slow, steady path of grooming predestined greatness has already failed once, and wouldn’t be hurt by Flacco spending at least year on the bench anyway. The unconventionally mobile, ball control offense (with flashes of downfield brilliance courtesy of a big arm that can reach Heap and Williams) that Smith would provide is the sort of unpredictable, offbeat game plan that wins the games that a team is supposed to lose. Considering the schedule the AFC North was dealt, it’s winning those games that will determine success, and could be the reason why, with a little gambling, the Ravens make the biggest turnaround of any team this year.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I'm a Steeler fan and an Ohio State hater but I agree: Troy Smith can be a good NFL QB, as a stopgap certainly and most likely more. Baltimore would be well-served to start Smith and let Flacco get some reps in blowouts, etc.