People around town are voicing their outrage, calling for immediate and sweeping change. On face value, that seems logical as the Ravens have missed the playoffs in four out of the last five years. The team is lodged in mediocrity, and some are saying the team is being run by a mediocracy. However, change for sake of change is a knee-jerk reaction. The Ravens do need change, but change will only have a positive impact if it is calculated and with purpose.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. The Ravens organization needs an infusion of innovation and a shift, or at least a redirection, of philosophies, both offensively and defensively. A case can be made that the team’s approach to the draft and the free agency needs some innovation as well. Getting offensive skill players who are on the downside of their career is not working.Trying to win with a "dominate" defense, stellar special teams, and a below average offense is not how you win in the current NFL. Having such a narrow view on compensatory draft picks is not the soundest strategy when you are not consistently hitting on said draft picks. The team needs to draft, develop, and resign true offensive playmakers. They need to be willing to be more fluid in free agency and in the draft. They need to develop a balanced team.
The Ravens need to embrace a mindset of innovation. Innovation is a “way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either ‘invention’ (something totally new) or ‘iteration’ (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of ‘new and better,‘ it is not innovative.” (George Couros, The Innovator’s Mindset)
As we heard today at Harbaugh’s end of the year press conference, continuity will again be the theme as the team transitions from 2017 to 2018. There will be a familiar face running the defense, either from days of yesteryear or from someone already within the organization. On offense, Marty Mornhinweg will continue to run the offense.
This offseason, the Ravens hope to achieve innovation through change and continuity.
Philosophical Shift Number One: Defensive Mindset
With defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ retirement, the options for a new coordinator are vast and varied. Hiring the heir apparent within the organization in Don “Wink” Martindale would have been an obvious choice not that long ago. However, since Black Monday, there are some other interesting names that are floating around on the unemployment streets. Chuck Pagano, Teryl Austin, Ted Monachino, Jack Del Rio, Vic Fangio, Dom Capers, and John Fox are all intriguing names with impressive defensive backgrounds, some of which are connected to Raven's teams of the past.
Regardless of who comes to fill the defensive coordinator role, the Ravens will benefit from a new set of eyes and a new voice. Pees did an excellent job the first few years as defensive coordinator. Not enough credit is given to him during the Super Bowl year with an aging Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, a banged up Terrell Suggs, and two previously castoff defensive backs in Corey Graham and Cary Williams. With those defensive players, he schemed his way through the playoffs, changing strategies to fit the opponent. However, there appears to be a disconnect the last two years.
Christmas Day 2016. New Year’s Eve 2017. These two games cannot go unaddressed as they were crushing ways to effectively end the season each year. As for the game against the Bengals, I find it curious, at best, if Pees indeed decided to switch to zone on 4th and 12 after being predominately in man-to-man for the majority of the second half. The main reason being, courtesy of Ken McKusick of Russell Street Report, the Ravens allowed seven yards on their six blitzes when sending six or more defenders throughout the game. If there was a time to quickly force the ball out of Andy Dalton’s hands, 4th and 12 was the time to do so. Furthermore, zone defense had been an Achilles heel for the Ravens all season. We have seen these curious decisions from Pees all too often the last few years. The critical moment of Sunday’s game was a microcosm decision that was in reality a macro-level problem over the last few years. There have been too many communication breakdowns between each three levels—line, linebackers, and defensive backs.
The Ravens have invested immense resources into the defense—in the draft and in free agency. The cupboard is not bare. There is veteran leadership in Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, and Brandon Carr and a solid foundation of youth in Brandon Williams, Willie Henry, Michael Pierce, CJ Mosley, Matthew Judon, Tyus Bowser, Tavon Young, Marlon Humphrey, and Maurice Canady. There is a strong existing core.
A case could be made that someone with a fresh perspective could tweak roles, recognize strengths that Pees didn’t, and carve out defined roles to help the development of some players. Have certain players been put in a box and “labeled” too easily? (e.g. Has Kamalei Correa been miscast as an inside linebacker as opposed to outside linebacker where he predominately played in college?) Can some tweaks in the scheme but players in better situations? With Pees’ retirement, the Ravens will have this opportunity to get some fresh new eyes to continue a successful defensive system that has been in place since the move to Baltimore. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
On a whole, the defense was not the issue this season so there is no need for a complete overhaul. By today’s NFL standards, this defense was good. Yes, they had their hiccups—Minnesota, the second Pittsburgh game, and New Year’s Eve come to mind—but a competent offense would have relieved an enormous amount of pressure, energy, and responsibility from the defense.
Speaking of which…
Philosophical Shift Number Two: Offensive Structure
Obviously tied to the offensive struggles was the play of quarterback Joe Flacco. He played an absolute abysmal brand of football for the first half of the season. He was serviceable in the second half of the season, but we still saw his streaks of inconsistency that have defined his career. We will address Flacco more in the QB Quandary section which will be in Part II, but the Ravens need to re-think its offensive structure. But to see where the Ravens need to go now, a little history lesson is in order.
When the Ravens switched to the West Coast Offense in 2014, it was the first major philosophical change for the offense since the arrival of Harbaugh and Flacco. Gary Kubiak’s version of the WCO stems from the coaching tree of Bill Walsh—George Seifert—Mike Shanahan.
Kubiak’s version of the WCO is unique for two main reasons. First, it ties the run game philosophy to the passing concepts utilizing the zone blocking scheme. A key to Kubiak’s offense is that run plays and pass plays looked nearly identical. Another staple of Kubiak’s WCO is that a deep intermediate and vertical passing game exists. Wide receivers and tight ends are used to stretch the field. All three levels of the defense are attacked. Through misdirections, bootlegs, motion, and varied personnel groupings, Kubiak is able to scheme wide open receivers. This is something that has been missing since 2014, and it becomes more glaring when you watch other teams get wide open looks from their personnel.
Kubiak meshed his WCO concepts and fit them together with Flacco’s strengths. We witnessed a balanced, effective, efficient, and sometimes explosive offense.
When Kubiak left for the Denver Broncos following the 2014 season, the Ravens miscalculated by hiring Marc Trestman. This is not hindsight on my part, as I stated this back when Trestman was hired. This was the Ravens organization misjudging how the differences between the philosophies of each man’s version of the WCO would play out with their personnel for 2015. Furthermore, Marty Mornhinweg, who joined the staff the same year, comes from a similar coaching tree and philosophy as Trestman. They come from the strand of Bill Walsh—Mike Holmgren—Andy Reid. (Incidentally, John Harbaugh hails from this strand as well.) Holmgren and Reid were/are known for eschewing the run game and using short passes to the running backs as “long” handoffs. Trestman is no different.
Trestman and Mornhinweg stretch the field more horizontally than vertically. This puts more emphasis on accuracy and timing of the quarterback. To make the crossing, drag, and underneath routes successful, the quarterback needs to place the ball on the receiver so that the receiver catches the ball in stride, picking up yards after the catch. Passes into the flats to the running backs, a staple of Holmgren/Reid/Trestman/Mornhinweg offenses, need to be precise. This style of offense is predicated on yards after the catch, and ball placement aides the receiver enormously.
This is not Flacco’s strength as a quarterback. He routinely puts the ball five to six inches (or more) behind, above, in front of, etc. a receiver. The receiver slows down, reaches back to catch the ball, and allows the defender to recover and make the tackle. (See: Chris Moore bobbled reception turning into a pick-six against the Bengals—proper ball placement would have resulted in a touchdown.)
After the success that Kubiak had installing his philosophy, the Ravens needed to find a replacement that was similar in philosophy and scheme as Kubiak so that they could build an identity. They missed out on an obvious candidate in Kyle Shanahan as he left Cleveland to join Atlanta following the 2014 season. They settled for Trestman, and then Mornhinweg. The current version of the Ravens pass offense does not fit the current personnel.
Sean McVey, Kyle Shanahan, Josh McDaniels, or even Gary Kubiak. None of them is walking through the doors at the Under Armour Performance Center. So I understand that choices are limited. Again, change for change’s sake is not the best philosophy. However, the offense needs continued innovation, refinement, and a clear vision. Most importantly, the current horizontal attack needs to be put to rest.
Last year, I had hoped that the Ravens would bring in Mike McCoy and re-install the Air Coryell offense. That didn’t happen. Instead, the Ravens again favored continuity. The hope was that Mornhinweg, the addition of senior offensive assistant Greg Roman, and the rest of the offensive staff would collaborate to build, craft, and develop a cohesive offensive philosophy. Obviously, after the struggles of this year, there is a plethora of room for growth. That being said, there are some positives. Roman has the run game back on track. The intermediate passing game was more consistent during the second half of the year. There may be truth to the continuity talk—if Roman stays. He is a strong candidate to be an offensive coordinator in the many openings around the NFL.
The Ravens must continue to undo the Trestman Effect, break Mornhinweg’s tendencies, and while Flacco is still the quarterback of the team, it needs to distance itself from the WCO. The question remains, how will this offense evolve? Will they find players to fit the scheme or will they fit their scheme to match the talents of their personnel? Or, better yet, can this staff be flexible enough to do both?
By doubling down on Mornhinweg and Roman (if he remains with organization), the Ravens are banking on their continued collaboration, and continuity will bring forth a stronger, more stable philosophy that will start paying dividends on the field.
The Ravens are hoping that a mix of continuity and change will bring innovation to a team that is mired in mediocrity.