Monday, January 5, 2009

Endgame: Baltimore Ravens

If the Ravens were a song…

Last Of A Dying Breed - Ludacris Feat Lil Wayne

It’s not safe to go into Baltimore, and it’s becoming equally unsafe for NFL squads with something to lose to face this team. Out of all the remaining teams, only one plays smashmouth ball as well as the Ravens (the Titans), and unlike them the Ravens have a nasty edge to their pass game courtesy of the Flacco-Mason connection. It’s everything we thought it would be (brutality on defense and ground wars on offense) and more (a potentially scary aerial assault?), turning what we thought would be a symphony into a rapid, angry cacophony that is still somehow music.

Who are the Ravens?

There’s a lost art in music: The art of the remix. Hip hop’s second golden age in the 90’s provides us with a good example of what remixes were always meant to be. Either they took the general nature of the original and improved upon it, or they morphed the original into something so different that it merited treatment as something new. No matter what, they never left the song the same, simply adding on bells and whistles to an essentially identical framework as the original. Doing so would have been the height of unoriginality, the calling card that the listener was being duped into throwing down additional cash (this was B.N….before Napster…) for something that they’d already gotten. If it wasn’t significantly different, or it wasn’t enhanced, we didn’t want it.

The 2008 Ravens are the remix of the Baltimore Ravens. What kind of remix they are, and whether or not their unique arrival at their current identity will work in the postseason, remains to be seen, but in the meantime, we can all groove to it.

We all know what we expect from the Baltimore Ravens at this point. Crushing defense, a ball that leaves the ground maybe ten times a game, and an offense designed to lull opponents into a blissful slumber. Pause, push the reset button, and recognize the game your playing: The 2008 Ravens are something different. Yes the defense is still pulverizing ground games and swallowing quarterbacks alive, but this version is something else entirely. It’s an enhanced version of everything we expect from this unit. Not only is the front line preventing anybody from moving the ball on the ground (81.4 yards per game), but the backfield is killing quarterbacks who decide to take the game on their shoulders. Case in point, Handsome Chad, who doesn’t throw picks often, threw four in the wild card game. Ed Reed isn’t just playing great football; he’s setting a new benchmark for what greatness at his position is (9 INT, including a three game streak of two per game). In short, the defense is taking what we knew we were going to get, then overloading us with our own expectations, to the point where it’s new for the sheer quantity we receive.

The offense, on the other hand, is the other type of remix, so changed from the original (while still tied to its roots) that we have to acknowledge it as a new creation. The ground game, which has sprouted three heads where there used to be only one, is every bit as relentless as any in the NFL, turning McGahee, Rice, and McClain into Baltimore’s “Lock, Stock, and Barrel” to the Giants’ “Earth, Wind, and Fire”. But the revolution on offense has to be credited in no small part to the revamping of the pass attack. Of course, in many ways, the team is just bringing more of the same, with Derrick Mason (yawn.) turning in a another (YAWN.) top tier year (snooze.) in which he put up over 1000 yards on a run first team (nod off like sleepy child.). Still, you can’t look at this offense and say that Joe Flacco isn’t a major factor in things getting better through the air. Yes, Matt Ryan’s rookie year got more (deserved) hype, but Joe Flacco is the more exciting career to watch develop (largely because we can be pretty certain that Ryan will be just fine). He’s Matt Ryan built out of war wreckage and raised on Jersey cheeseballs. In short, he’s boom or bust. Call it what you will, but boring it is not.

A large part of his personal story will be written as we watch this team’s story play out in the playoffs. Unlike just about every other team left, one is hard pressed to find a glaring weakness in the Ravens, but that is in large part due to how little we know about what Flacco is going to be able to do through the air. The tools are in place around him to succeed, including an offensive coordinator in Cam Cameron who is gameplanning like a mad scientist thrown to the fringes of football research (1-15 will do that to you…). If Jersey Joe can rifle passes in to his sure handed pass catchers against defenses that will be very, very focused on shutting down a run game, is there any reason to bet against the Ravens? After all, the two teams that beat them convincingly are either in the NFC or out of the playoffs. In a league built for speed, the Ravens came to the playoffs built for war, and just ousted the only other team playing grindhouse football. Welcome to Bodymore Football, NFL.


john said...

nice song choice for the ravens, sucks that they lost last weekend

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