There's always a lot of chatter about the Ravens out there. Some is interesting, some is just noise, and every now and then, the smoke clears and there's a real revelation.
I came across what I believe is one a month ago while listening to my colleagues Garrett Downing and Ryan Mink interview Ravens Assistant GM Eric DeCosta on "The Lounge," their podcast.
In the midst of explaining why the Ravens decided to ramp up their defense in 2017, DeCosta made the comment that he believes there are two fundamental reasons why NFL teams lose games: 1) their quarterback doesn't play well, or 2) they can't stop the other team.
I like that. I'll be honest: I like that a lot.
Sure, teams lose games for other reasons, like turning the ball over too much. But big picture, I don't think you'll find a simpler, more on-point explanation for how pro football ticks. Regardless of what else you do in a game, if your quarterback is solid and you're pretty adept at stopping the other team, you're probably in good shape.
I think DeCosta's comment also provides insight into the Ravens' blueprint for 2017. How do they hope to improve on their 8-8 record in 2016 and get back to the playoffs?
For starters, they hope their defense does a better job of making stops in key situations. That's why the front office has gone to such lengths to bulk up the secondary, a persistent problem spot recently.
The Ravens also hope their quarterback, Joe Flacco, can raise his game from a year ago. Although he established a career high for passing yards in a season in 2016, he ranked No. 27 in the league in yards per attempt, a key metric, and tossed the second-most interceptions he's ever thrown in a season. Flacco admitted after the season that he hopes to do better, and there's reason to believe he can.
In 2016, he was coming back from a torn ACL suffered in November 2015. The injury prompted major surgery and a long rehab, which kept him out of the team's offseason program.
He never used the injury as an excuse, but I wonder if he might feel differently with the benefit of hindsight. Although his season included several terrific performances, overall he seemed more unsettled than usual in the pocket, and his mechanics were off at times. It's plausible that his reconstructed knee was a factor.
In any case, he's in a much different place this year, and that difference becomes tangible this week with the opening of Organized Team Activities, a monthlong slate of workouts culminating with a mandatory minicamp in June.
Flacco missed it all a year ago. When he returned to the field in training camp, he had been out for nine months. I don't know how much that impacted his season, but his normal preparation was abridged, his routine disrupted. He had to develop chemistry with new targets on the fly.
I have to believe he'll benefit from being on the field this year, especially since Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has only been on the job since last October. Mornhinweg is putting his own mark on the offense this year and surely is happy to have his quarterback around to help implement the changes. It gives everyone a chance to be on the same page, which wasn't always the case a year ago.
Before last season, USA Today's "For the Win" blog studied the impact of ACL injuries on quarterbacks. "The most common path," the blog reported, was "some initial growing pains during the first year back before an uptick in Year 2."
It makes sense. The injury has receded farther into the past. The quarterback's mind is clearer.
The Ravens are counting on seeing that "uptick" in 2017.
Yes, the offense around Flacco still needs work, with several starting jobs open and doubts persisting about whether enough playmakers are on hand. The unit certainly needs to run the ball better in 2017.
But this is about Flacco, period, and I think it's true that if he finds a higher level and Ravens' defense is better at making stops, that alone could produce better results.