Eisenberg: Bizarro World In Baltimore


Baltimore's sports fans probably think they're living in a bizarre dream state these days. The world as they know it is turning upside down.

The Ravens have a high-octane offense. The Orioles are making a playoff push.

It's a wonder people aren't fainting left and right in sheer disbelief.

The Orioles have had nothing but their great history going for them in recent years. Their last winning season was in 1997, early in Bill Clinton's second term in the White House. Their won-less record since then is so far under .500 that I won't mention it out of concern for your mental health. Let's just say the number is profoundly depressing.

Coincidentally, 1997 was also the last time the Ravens finished in the top 10 in the NFL in offense.

Yes, the Ravens offense has fared a bit better than the Orioles over the same era, finishing as high as 13th in the league rankings (based on yardage) in 2009. But overall, since Vinny Testaverde slung the ball around in the franchise's early years, Baltimore's offense has finished in the lower half of the offensive rankings in 10 of 14 seasons.

Of course, the Ravens have overcome those shortcomings with a strong defense and a physical style, and for years, a dependable kicker, Matt Stover, whose accurate leg truly made chicken salad out of, well, never mind. The Ravens have used that formula to win a Super Bowl and made eight playoff appearances since 2000.

Even without a big offense, the Ravens have become sporting royalty compared to the Orioles, who occupied the basement in the American League East so faithfully for so long that they should have considered buying it instead of just renting.

Still, the absence of a scoreboard-popping offense has gnawed at the Ravens, especially as the NFL has evolved into more of a passing league. You can't say the game passed them by when they've made four straight playoff appearances, but they needed to become more productive to keep up.

The expenditure of high draft picks on a quarterback (Joe Flacco) and a running back (Ray Rice) in 2008, a blind-side tackle (Michael Oher) in 2009 and a wide receiver (Torrey Smith) in 2011 telegraphed their desire to start ginning up more points, but even with that investment, the offense coughed and sputtered, finishing 22nd in 2010 and 15th in 2011.

At the 2012 season begins, however, it seems the process finally is bearing fruit. The Ravens are flying on offense. The season's first play was a 52-yard completion to Smith. Operating out of the shotgun with multiple weapons and an up-tempo scheme, Flacco dismantled the Bengals in the opener, throwing for 299 yards in a 44-13 win.

Heading into Sunday's game at Philadelphia, the Ravens are ranked fourth in the league in offense. Fourth! Did you ever think you would see that back in the years when the Ravens moved the scoreboard strictly in increments of three?

Meanwhile, their defense – their signature unit for about as long as balls have been pumped up around here – is dealing with personnel losses and trying to hang on to past glories.

While that role reversal plays out, the Orioles, against all odds and expectations, are giving the city its best baseball season since, yes, 1997, winning a series of close games with late-inning heroics. Their success doesn't make sense statistically, but the Orioles – they whose recent won-loss record is best not uttered – are improbably, unfathomably battling the Yankees for first place in September.

Perched at the unfamiliar intersection of winning baseball and high-scoring football, Baltimore's fans have every right to feel they have been loosed from their moorings and cast into unchartered waters. What's next in these strangest of times, the return of pro basketball?

But my advice is not to question, just revel in the surprising developments. Think of them as a kind of bonus holiday season that is nothing if not deserved after years of bad pitching and settling for field goals. Happy days are here, the air full of game-winning hits and long passes for touchdowns. Something strange and wonderful is unfolding. Up is down. Left is right. Take notes. Take pictures. You're going to tell these tales one day.

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