Close Wasn't Enough For Ravens in Challenging 2021 Season

Baltimore Ravens running back Latavius Murray (28) runs the ball during the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Baltimore.

The 2021 season is a wrap for the Ravens.

Now that it's over, it won't take long for offseason transactions to begin, with some players departing and others like Calais Campbell and Jimmy Smith possibly retiring.

"The only thing guaranteed in football is change," Campbell said following Sunday's crushing 16-13 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers that officially ended Baltimore's playoff hopes. "This team will never be the same. You'll have draft picks come in. You're going to have guys going to other teams, guys retiring. That's just the nature of the business."

There's little time to reflect in the NFL, but this season will be remember as one of the most bizarre and challenging in franchise history. It had more drama than a Netflix miniseries.

"It has to be the craziest season I've ever been a part of," Campbell said.

The margin between winning and losing was razor thin, but a six-game losing streak to end the season doomed the Ravens to missing the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Twelve of Baltimore's 17 games came down to the final play or final minute. Five of the Ravens' six losses to close out the season were by a total of eight points.

It left the Ravens wondering what could've been, if only a few plays more plays had gone their way.

Amidst the crushing losses on the field, there were a slew of devastating injuries. Only four Ravens started every game – Patrick Queen, Tyus Bowser, Alejandro Villanueva and Kevin Zeitler, and Bowser reportedly suffered a torn Achilles on Sunday.

An incredible string of misfortune hit the Ravens in training camp and never let up. The team's three top running backs –

J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards – were lost for the year prior to Week 1. Edwards and Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters suffered season-ending injuries during the same practice. The same practice?

"It's a different type of vibe that you get when those guys are running the ball," Lamar Jackson said. "We see the defenses getting tired when those guys keep coming with all the energy that they have. It definitely hurt us."

All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley played just one game, and All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey, starting safety DeShon Elliott and Jackson all went down with season-ending injuries. That's hardly the entire list of injuries, and it does not include the double-digit number of players who missed time on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

The Ravens never said die, but there were moments when they had to say, "What next?"

"This year has just been unprecedented with the challenges and unfortunate injuries that have taken place," Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman said. "We hope all those guys get better and get back to form. The guys in and out, availability, etc., it's unprecedented. I have not experienced anything quite like this before."

The Ravens never leaned on excuses and played on, a testament to their character and the culture of the organization. Through the first 11 games, Baltimore looked like a team of destiny and rolled to an 8-3 start that included thrilling come-from-behind victories against the Chiefs, Lions, Colts and Vikings.

There were breathtaking moments, like Justin Tucker's NFL record-setting 66-yard field goal to beat the Lions, or Jackson’s career-best 442-yard passing night that led Baltimore to a 34-31 victory against the Colts after the Ravens trailed, 22-3.

But eventually, the magic and the momentum shifted into a downward spiral. Losing Jackson in Week 14 was a major turning point. Starting in Week 10 against the Dolphins, Jackson struggled for three games prior to his ankle injury, but he was excellent for most of the first half of the season. The Ravens would have never been 8-3 without him and they did not win a game after his injury despite strong moments from backup Tyler Huntley.

The Ravens were shorthanded and snakebit down the stretch, unable to secure the one additional victory they needed to extend their wacky season into the playoffs.

"The whole identity of our team changed throughout the course of the season," wide receiver Marquise "Hollywood" Brown said. "Tyler getting in and just playing his heart out. Lamar, we started off 8-3, and he was playing some of his best football. But, things happen, and I know those guys are encouraged. We'll all go to work in the offseason and come back even better."

The Ravens can look themselves in the mirror and know they fought tooth-and-nail with whoever suited up. It won't make missing the playoffs for the first time in four years less painful. But it sets a foundation for next season and what the Ravens can accomplish, hopefully with better health.

"It's just one of those years where we had a lot less 'football fortune' than other teams," Campbell said. "But I was proud of the guys that got opportunities to step up, and what they were able to accomplish. And just the experience that some of these young guys got that, I think, is going to make this team really good going forward. A lot of young guys got some quality reps, and you saw that they can play football at a high level. And when the team gets fully healthy again, the depth and the experience is going to play a big role in the future success here."

Giving their all, against all odds, became the story of the Ravens' 2021 season. There will be no playoffs, but there was no quit.

"The fight we give every week is really just a true testament to the whole organization, how they keep us motivated, and how they keep us going," right guard Kevin Zeitler said. "Obviously, there are going to be a lot of 'what ifs' and 'if only,' but we'll have all offseason to deal with that.

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