Our 2018 Regular Season Preview heads to Baltimore where the Ravens look to be at the end of a cycle, searching for one last shot at Postseason Glory, which is something that they haven’t tasted since 2014. After missing the Playoffs in each of the last three consecutive years, this feels like a team that is entering a transitional phase; former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco has finally entered the final year of his massive contract, while the team surprised everyone in selecting Lamar Jackson to eventually replace him in the First Round of the NFL Draft, and not to mention a number of longtime playmakers on Defense have reached the twilight of their venerable careers. 2017 was wrecked by injuries, but even with that said, John Harbaugh’s charges managed to mount enough of an offensive to come within striking distance of that illusive Playoff Birth, only to crumble in the waning moments of their finale at home against the Cincinnati Bengals, denying them of the Postseason once again. So with that said, let’s take a look at three key storylines that will ultimately dictate whether or not the Ravens will indeed return to the Playoffs in 2018, or get a head-start on an abridged rebuilding process instead.
The Last Days of Flacco
From the moment that Joe Flacco led Baltimre to a triumphant showing in Super Bowl XLII, thus signing a massive Six-Year, $120.6 million contract as a result, the writing was on the wall that the veteran Qaurterback’s newly-inked deal would inevitably become an albatross for this Franchsie. While he was absolutely phenomenal in his team’s run to a Lombardi Trophy (their second in Franchise History), even tying Joe Montana’s single Postseason Record of Eleven Touchdowns with nary an Interception, one look at his resume’ would leave even the most staunch Ravens’ Fan unlikely to agree with the sheer amount of money spent on their Quarterback. Granted, up to that point, he had been quite successful, sporting a 54-26 record in the Regular Season, while guiding his side to five consecutive Playoff Appearances from 2008 to 2012, culmintaing in that aforementioned Super Bowl Championship six years ago. Furthermore, he had amassed a 10-5 record in the Playoffs, while earning seven of those wins on the road, which still stands as an NFL Record. However, the problem has become twofold; those who argued against his payday will point out that he’s never been selected to a Pro Bowl, and has thus far posted relatively pedestrian statistics during the Regular Season, completing 61.7% of his Attempts for an average of 232.3 Passing Yards, with 130 Touchdowns to Ninety-Five Interceptions, all the while owning a middling 84.1 Passer Rating throughout his ten-year career. The other issue is perhaps the most damning; since receiving that contract, Flacco has done little to convince anyone that he actually deserved it, with Baltimore making the Playoffs just once in the last five years, with his Regular Season Record standing at just 38-36, while completing 62.8% of his Passes for an average of 245.2 Yards on just 5.80 Net Yards per Attempt, with Ninety-Eight Touchdowns opposed to Seventy-Five Interceptions. And last season was arguably rock bottom for a Quarterback who missed virtually the entire Preseason after undergoing Back Surgery in the Offseason, and never looked quite right until November at the earliest. In 2017, Flacco connected on 64.1% of his Attempts for an average of just 196.3 Yards (his lowest since his rookie campaign in 2008) on a miserable 5.10 Net Yards of 46.0, again his lowest since 2008. So is it any wonder that in his last NFL Draft as General Manager, Ozzie Newsome rolled the dice on former Heisman Quarterback Lamar Jackson?
The Future is Now (Maybe)
Given the timing of Flacco’s contract entering it’s final year, the Ravens’ drafting of one Lamar Jackson has left the football world with the perception that the former’s services will no longer be retained after 2018, with the latter serving as the team’s future under Center. The Salary Cap Relief alone from saying goodbye to Flacco’s contract should be enough to bring excitement to Charm City, allowing them to allocate that vast amount of Cap Space into other other areas of need, particularly an agining Defense. Then again, Harbaugh and Co. could simply choose to surround Jackson with the best talent that they can afford, which by the way, was a formula that worked rather nicely for the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 and most recently the Philadlephia Eagles last year. It’s not a question of whether or not Jackson will be the Starter, but more like when, for nothing short of hoisting another Lombardi Trophy should keep Flacco in Baltimore moving forward. Either way, the 2016 Heisman is an electrifying talent, sporting a cannon for an arm and outrageous mobility, with the potential of bringing an end to what has mostly been two decades of boring, uninspired Offense for this Franchise. Think about what a young Michael Vick brought to the Atlanta Falcons for a second… That’s precisely what this kid can bring to the Ravens, and he’s far more advanced than Vick was as a passer coming out of college. However, the current gameplan is for Flacco to start in Week One, and in a perfect world, the entirety of the season, as his eventual successor becomes more comfortable with his surrounds. And that makes sense for Harbaugh and Co. who need to try to win, while ensuring that their future is in place. With that said, if the former Lousiville Cardinal continues to light up the Preseason, or if it at some point Flacco falterrs once more and the Ravens are out of the Playoff Hunt again, don’t be surprised if the Coaching Staff relents and puts him on the field. For after all, these young guys need reps, and in this day and age, if they can get them sooner rather than later, then why not?
Returning to Health
One of the biggest reasons that Baltimore ultimately failed to make the Playoffs for a third consecutive term was the fact that they were absolutely ravaged by injuries through the first half of the season. We mean, WRECKED, and that’s not an understatement. It’s impressive that they even managed to finish the campaign at 9-7, though they certainly took advantage of the good fortune of beating up on poor competition, all the while getting healthy. From Week Eight to heading into the Season Finale, the won six out of eight contests, pummling the opposition 238-124. The Ravens began the season without a number of key contributors, particularly on Offense, where the Offensive Line alone lost the likes of Right Guard Marshal Yanda (Ankle) and Alex Lewis (Shoulder), while Left Tackle Ronnie Stanley (Multiple Injuries) also missed a great deal of time, which all adds up to hardly an ideal situation when your Starting Quarterback is coming off Back Surgery. Essentially, Harbaugh had to go to war every weekend without his three best Offensive Linemen. Tailbacks Terrance West and Danny Woodhead also missed major time, the former to suspension and the latter to injury, leaving an attack utterly toothless on the ground and unbalanced as a result. And if that wasn’t back enough, the Defense was hit as well, with former First Round Cornerback Jimmy Smith (28 TKL, 3 INT, 1 TD, 1 FR, 1 TD in 2017) missing the first four games due to suspension to testing positive for Performance-Enhancing Drugs, while missing the final four outings after tearing his Achilles. It stands to reason that if this team can indeed avoid such a rash of injuries, then they should definitely find themselves in teh mix of the Playoffs in the AFC.
2018 Outlook: 10-6 (Playoffs)
We know that favoring teams to make the Playoffs after they suffered through so many injoe juries in the previous campaign is a risky proposition, but the Ravens were quite literally a Missed Tackle away from returning to the Playoffs after a Two-Year Hiatus. Inches, that’s all. As we mentioned earlier, it definitely stands to reason that had they been healthy from the beginning of the term, they very well could have won ten to eleven games, particularly when consider how weak their schedule ended up being. And that ladies and gentlemen, is just one of the many reasons that we’re so bullish on Baltimore finally ending thier Postseason Drought. With a motivated Joe Flacco (in search of reestablishing his value) leading an Offense that has added some really intriguing weapons in the form of Michael Crabtree (58 REC, 610 YDS, 8 TD in 2017), Willie Snead (72 REC, 895 YDS, 4 TD in 2016), and John Brown (21 REC, 299 YDS, 3 TD in 2017) to the Receiving Corps, and not to mention a Defense that always manages to exploit weaker Offenses, this certainly looks like a Playoff Team. However, get a good look at them, for win or lose, they’re bound to look very different in 2019.