1. Unchartered territory- When the Ravens made John Harbaugh the third head coach in franchise history they couldn’t have expected the type of success he ended up delivering early on. In each of his first five seasons, Harbaugh not only led the Ravens to the playoffs, but also won at least one game in the postseason each year, including the franchise’s second Super Bowl title last year. Now, Harbaugh and his quarterback Joe Flacco, who was drafted by Harbaugh six years ago, have to sit at home in January instead of fighting to get back to the Super Bowl. It is a new feeling for the pair and many Ravens fans who have been spoiled by the team’s resurgence in the past six years. Credit needs to be given to Harbaugh for making this team competitive in each of his first six years, but there is no denying that there is a bitter taste in all Baltimoreans today. After seeing the Jets beat the Dolphins, it is hard to sit here and not imagine what could have been. All the Ravens had to do was win the game and they would have been back in the playoffs and all these new feelings would have to wait at least another year. The Ravens, however, continued to struggle to play 60 minutes of good football and now can only hope the Chargers win, so the Steelers don’t sneak into the playoffs, which would make a painful day even worse.
2. Flacco on his backo- I can’t take the credit for this one, as ESPN’s Mark Schlereth tweeted this phrase, but I found it to be quite fitting for not only this game, but also the season. It was tough to watch the Ravens franchise quarterback take a serious beating in the first half. I didn’t think he was going to make it through the game, but fortunately the offensive line decided to take some pride in their play and did a better job of protecting their quarterback in the second half. Luckily, Flacco didn’t sustain any serious injuries this season, despite getting sacked almost 50 times. Flacco didn’t have a very good season, considering he had just won Super Bowl MVP and was rewarded with a $120 million contract, but he didn’t have a lot of help all season. You can say whatever you want about Flacco, but he is a warrior and kept on playing even when he was putting his body at serious risk. There is no need to panic at this position at all. The guy is only one year removed from one of the best postseason performances by a quarterback in NFL history. Things will certainly change next season, and hopefully that means Flacco will be given the opportunity to make more plays and show people why he deserved that big contract. That all starts with shoring up the offensive line.
3. Lack of pass rush hurt team- What was once the strength of a good defense, became their weakness and ultimate demise on Sunday. Led by Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, the Ravens boasted one of the best pass rushes in the first half of the season. Then, for some reason,things changed and the Ravens couldn’t even get a hand on quarterbacks. That was the case on Sunday as Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton wasn’t sacked or hit by any Ravens player. Even though Dalton threw four interceptions, only one of them was caused by the pass rush, while the rest were either a poor pass by Dalton or a great play by a Ravens defender. This pass rush hurt the team’s chance of getting back into this game. They played a large part in allowing a six minute, 90 yard drive that would go on to be the go-ahead score for the game. It is hard to imagine how this group will change given all the money tied up to Suggs and Dumervil, but something will have to change to spark this unit’s pass rush. It has to, or else they will be sitting in this same position again next year.
4. Absence of leadership was clear- If you looked at the Ravens sideline for most of the game you wouldn’t have been able to tell that their season was on the line. Despite two early turnovers, there was little energy from this team. Then, when things started to get rough and they fell behind by 11, it looked like there was clear frustration on the sideline. It appeared as though they didn’t want it as badly as the Bengals, a team that had already secured a spot in the playoffs. When the team was able to get back in the game, the defense was unable to get off the field despite favorable field position. Instead of holding the Bengals, the Ravens defense allowed Cincinnati to drive 90 yards and go up for good. With so much on the line, coaches and players need to be keeping each other in line and spirits high. There are plenty of ups and downs in football games, but it felt like this team had little fight in them towards the end of the game. It isn’t fair to say that if Ray Lewis or Ed Reed were on the team that things would have been drastically different, but it is fair to wonder how those two would have responded to the lack of urgency coming from the sideline and on the field.
5. Looking ahead- Now that the season is officially over, there are a lot of questions that will have to be answered in the offseason. The biggest one, of course, is running back Ray Rice. Was Rice hurt all season? Has he slowed down? Or was it due to the bad offensive line? That is what General Manager Ozzie Newsome will have to figure out when evaluating the team’s poor running game this offseason. Also, Newsome will have to decide how to fix that offensive line not only for the run game, but also to protect his quarterback who was sacked close to 50 times this year. With both tackles scheduled to be free agents, the team will have to decide who to pick and who to let walk. I would except the team to make a serious run at Eugene Monroe, who they traded for during the year, and let right tackle Michael Oher walk. Center Gino Gradkowski was a major disappointment filling in for Matt Birk and the team will certainly bring in competition at the position. Finally on offense, two of Flacco’s favorite weapons, Jacoby Jones and Dennis Pitta, are hitting free agency and decisions will have to be made on both of them. It would appear as though Pitta will be a priority, while Jones is expendable with the emergence with rookie Marlon Brown, although his returning skills would be missed.
On the other side of the ball, three of their best players- Arthur Jones, Daryl Smith, and James Ihedigbo- are all going to hit free agency and the team will have to choose between them, as they will once again be cap strung. I’d expect for the team to re-sign at least one of the two older guys in Ihedigbo and Smith, while letting Jones walk because some other team will overpay for his services. After that, coaching decisions could be made as well, although there has been nothing reported that would signal any significant changes. The most likely thing to happen would be terminating the contact of Juan Castillo, who installed the new running scheme that was ineffective. There are clearly a lot of big decisions to be made this offseason, just like last one’s, and Newsome will have to get them right if he hopes to see his team return to the playoffs.