To me, Haloti Ngata's suspension feels like the last straw for the Ravens in 2014.
I think, as originally constructed, they were good enough to win, to go far. The offense is vastly improved. The defensive blueprint contained enough playmakers.
But major obstacles keep presenting themselves, enough to make you wonder whether they're meant to prosper this year.
A couple of years ago, the stars were aligned, everything seemingly went the Ravens' way in the playoffs and they rolled to a Super Bowl victory. This feels like the opposite, a year when the stars are in different orbits, unaligned.
Let's go through the issues that have distracted, compromised and/or set the Ravens back this year. The Ray Rice scandal has hovered over them since February, a swirl of controversy that persists. A handful of other player arrests produced headlines the team never wanted to see during the offseason. A rash of injuries has sliced deeply into the secondary's depth, leaving a watered-down unit that is struggling, to say the least.
The Ravens powered through all that reasonably well enough, winning enough games to this point to earn a spot in the playoff hunt. But at the same time, several jump-ball games have gotten away from them. An offensive pass interference flag negated a game-winning play in Cincinnati – not a bad call, just one that could have gone either way and went against them. Last Sunday, the offense put up 33 points on San Diego and the defense gave up one more.
It's been that kind of year.
Now, having to play without Ngata, the team's best defensive lineman, for all of December, well, that just feels like one obstacle too many. The defense is already reeling, and Ngata was one of its most consistent performers, probably on his way to a Pro Bowl invitation. The entire interior has been stout against the run all season, but now a rookie, Timmy Jernigan, will replace Ngata in the rotation, cutting into that unit's depth as it takes on a solid Dolphins running game. Will the rush defense hold up? Can the pass rush survive without an interior push?
Quite simply, it's the last thing the defense needed.
Ngata's suspension is for using Adderall, judged a performance-enhancing drug by the league. The timing is horrible, at the outset of the stretch run, when every game is critical. The lack of judgment is positively stunning. Ngata, 30, isn't some callow rookie who didn't know better. He's a veteran, a leader, counted on, looked up to. He had to know what he was doing. What in the world was he thinking?
Maybe the Ravens will prove me wrong. They've lost other players and still have a winning record, a shot at the playoffs. Maybe they can get by without Ngata. We'll see starting Sunday against the Dolphins.
But factoring in the caliber of the player and the timing of his issue, it's a devastating blow … the latest in a line of them for the Ravens this year.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not ascribing their uncertain playoff prospects to bad breaks, simple as that. Most of these wounds are self-inflicted. The Rice scandal is the byproduct of a star running back's profound lack of judgment. Ngata's suspension is no one fault's other than his own. Injuries, well, every team has to deal with those. The team has spent first-round and third-round draft picks on safeties the past two years but is still looking for answers at the position, contributing to the secondary's struggles.
A lot has also gone right for the Ravens this year – the hiring of Gary Kubiak as the team's new offensive coordinator; the plucking of Justin Forsett, now a thousand-yard rusher, from the scrap heap; the drafting of C.J. Mosley. But the positive turns have been repeatedly offset by negative ones, the latter coming frequently enough that you can be sure, almost regardless of what happens to the team in December, Ravens fans will be glad to see 2014 in the rearview mirror.