When you culminate a five-year run of playoff appearances by winning the Super Bowl, you buy yourself some slack for use at a later date. Only unrealistic fans expect that kind of success to continue indefinitely, without interruption.
The Ravens came into 2013 with quite a roll of slack at their disposal, courtesy of February’s Super Bowl victory. As you know, they wound up using some of the slack, struggling to an 8-8 finish and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Do they have any slack left? Here’s what I think: While the Ravens’ underwhelming 2013 raises numerous questions to be addressed in the coming months, you’re allowed a year like this when you’ve been so successful. Big picture, the Ravens followed up five winning campaigns with their version of a dud. That’s a pretty good ratio. The vast majority of fans will take it, and I’m guessing the organization will, too. But here’s the caveat: you’re not allowed much more than one of these years in a row. It becomes crucial that the dud season is viewed as an aberration, not the “new normal.”
It’s when you follow up one dud of a season with another that times get tougher, the public begins to seriously question your methodology and your slack begins to run out.
Is that fair to the Ravens? Probably not. In relative terms, their version of a dud wasn’t very lame. Shoot, it wasn’t even a losing season! Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills haven’t made the playoffs in this century, the Cleveland Browns have produced one winning season since 2002 and the Detroit Lions have one playoff win since 1957. Fans of those teams certainly don’t want to hear anyone in Baltimore crying about missing the playoffs once in the wake of their city’s second Super Bowl triumph in a dozen years.
But the Ravens set their bar higher. Just ask them. Their stated goal is to be one of the elites, contend every season, hopefully make the playoffs and take their shot. And with those greater expectations comes a greater demand for winning.
I don’t think falling short of the playoffs once is going to cause major problems for them, cause wholesale damage to their reputation. But falling short twice? That’s another story.
Consider the New York Giants’ example. After winning the Super Bowl in 2011 (the year before the Ravens), they were in playoff contention in 2012 until a late collapse knocked them out. It was disappointing, but hey, they were coming off a Super Bowl and you win some and lose some, right? Many experts expected them to bounce back in 2013, but they lost their first six games, finished 7-9, and now their head coach, Tom Coughlin, a winner of two Super Bowls, is under intense scrutiny. The Giants find themselves at a crossroads, semi-forgotten in the big picture, possibly needing an overhaul.
Their second straight disappointment was and is a bear.
The Ravens don’t want to experience that, underscoring the importance of this upcoming offseason. Few rational observers will condemn them for falling short once. A year after going all the way, they made some moves that worked and some that didn’t … it’s unfortunate and they have to accept the blame, but it happens. But rest assured, they won’t get the same generally forgiving response if the same questions are circulating a year from now.
The Ravens’ biggest loss of 2013 was, of course, their last one. Had they knocked off the Bengals Sunday in Cincinnati, they would be in the playoffs for a sixth straight season and I would be writing a very different column today.
But while Sunday’s loss was pivotal, two of the Ravens’ early defeats are better fingered as the real reasons why their season ended unhappily.
In week 5, they lost in Buffalo, 23-20, when quarterback
In week 9, coming off their bye-week break, they lost in Cleveland, 24-18. It was the Browns’ only win in the season’s final three months. They had lost three in a row coming in and proceeded to lose seven in a row after beating Baltimore. Talk about one you wish you had back.
The Ravens lost their last shot at the playoffs Sunday in Cincinnati, but they squandered their best shot in Buffalo and Cleveland.