If I had to pick one adjective to describe the Ravens' 2021 season, I would go with … frustrating.
Injuries to key players decimated the dangerous-looking team the organization had assembled. A COVID-19 outbreak made things worse.
Every team deals with subtractions, but according to ManGamesLost.com, the Ravens easily led the NFL in approximate player value sidelined by injuries.
Yes, other factors contributed to them finishing with six straight losses and an 8-9 record. The guys ON the field didn't make enough plays. Some decisions made by the front office and coaches didn't pan out as envisioned.
To their credit, the Ravens still had a chance to win most of their games. But the final outcome was a run of bitter defeats best described as, yup, frustrating.
I'm sure it was almost a relief for anyone invested in the team to sit back and watch other teams contest the first round of the AFC playoffs last weekend. After that season, who couldn't use a little worry-free football?
But the playoffs are frustrating in their own right this year because they emphasize what the Ravens lost by experiencing so many subtractions that their season fell apart.
It isn't a great year in the AFC. The seven teams that made the playoffs combined to lose 44 games, a whopping 15 more than the seven qualifiers lost in 2020. The No. 1 seed has five losses for the first time since the NFL began seeding the entire field in 2003.
Maybe a bit of that can be chalked up to the expanded schedule, teams playing 17 games instead of 16, but it doesn't alter what, to me, is the big-picture lesson: the AFC isn't as strong as usual.
I'm not trying to take shots. The top-seeded Titans are resilient and resourceful, certain to be a tough out. The second-seeded Chiefs have barely lost since late October. The third-seeded Bills looked capable of running the table as they routed the Patriots last weekend. The fourth-seeded Bengals have more topflight young talent than anyone, as the Ravens know.
But those four surviving teams lost 23 games between them during the season. As good as they are, they're more vulnerable than top teams usually are.
I realize it's strictly a hypothetical exercise to consider how the Ravens might have fit into that playoff puzzle if they'd experienced fewer injuries. But I think they could have fared quite well.
Let's say they experienced just an average amount of high-impact injuries instead of the most in the league. Let's say they lost one of their top running backs instead of having the entire position room wiped out. Let's say they had their Pro Bowl cornerbacks for most of the season instead of losing both to season-ending injuries.
I doubt they would have experienced such a sharp decline in non-quarterback rushing and overall playmaking. I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have allowed the most passing yardage in the league.
And let's say their star quarterback's season didn't end with an ankle injury in early December. A season-ending six-game losing streak certainly would have been less likely.
I could go on. It's the reverse storyline of the classic holiday film, "It's a Wonderful Life," in which Jimmy Stewart's character sees how the world would have turned out without him. We're considering what might have happened to the Ravens WITH some combination of running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards and/or cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey and/or tackle Ronnie Stanley and/or quarterback Lamar Jackson on the field more.
Unlike "It's a Wonderful Life," the real tale of this season had a lousy ending.
But as originally constituted, the Ravens were widely thought to compare with the Titans, Chiefs, Bills, etc., as top-tier contenders.
I know, I know … means nothing now. As a missed opportunity, it can't rate with the playoff loss to the Titans two years ago, when the Ravens held the AFC's No. 1 seed and entered the playoffs on a 12-game winning streak.
But watching this year's playoffs, I can't help thinking injuries helped turn this season into another missed opportunity.