Sorry to get all philosophical here, but the Ravens' run of four losses in their past five games begs a somewhat profound question: What are they?
Ten months removed from an AFC championship game appearance, are they, in fact, just a .500 team in 2009, as their record now reflects? Or are they better than 4-4 suggests? Are they an under-performing above-average team?
I'm going with the latter. I think they're better than .500 but not playing up to that level, leaving them trudging along at 4-4 going into Monday night's game against the Browns in Cleveland.
I'm not alone in this thinking. In fact, I believe a majority of NFL observers believe the Ravens are better than their record. They're ranked No. 11, ahead of four teams with winning records, in this week's Fox Sports power rankings. (The Jaguars, also at 4-4, are ranked No. 25.) And at No. 14 in the ESPN rankings, they're the highest-ranked non-winning team.
In other words, most neutral observers still believe in them and think they should, and probably will, perform better. The team itself certainly believes that. "We've lost games, but most of them have been close and competitive even though we've played terrible," Ravens defensive back Chris Carr said.
That's true. Other than last Sunday's beating in Cincinnati, the Ravens' defeats have come in close games decided in the final moments. The losses all had similar, disturbing markings – slow start, shaky pass defense, inconsistent offense, big play or two gone wrong – but could easily have gone the other way.
In fact, if you reverse the outcome of just one play out of the 996 that have comprised the Ravens' season so far, just one little (or not so little) play – Steve Hauschka's last-second kick in Minnesota – the Ravens would be 5-3, not far from the top of the AFC wild card race, and just one game behind the co-leaders in the AFC North.
But of course, Hauschka missed that kick. And even though it's reassuring that others still believe in them, let's face it, the reality is that the Ravens have under-performed and "played terrible" – their words, not mine. And that's not good.
What needs to be corrected for them to fare better down the stretch? How do they get themselves going in the right direction? I'm going to get all philosophical again. I think they need to play hungrier.
That, fundamentally, is what the Ravens have been for years, through winning and losing seasons alike – a team that hit and competed hard, was never an easy out. A team that tried to make up for any shortcomings by playing with a mean, hungry streak.
This year, conversely, the Ravens have repeatedly come out flat, especially on the road, falling behind 17-7 in New England, 14-0 in Minnesota and 17-0 in Cincinnati. That, to me, is the sign of a team that thinks it's going to compete hard because it always has, as if there's a switch that can be flicked – as opposed to getting pumped into "hair on fire" mode.
Players and coaches tend to shy away from such emotional intangibles as explanations, preferring quantifiable metrics. The Ravens are ranked 19th in pass defense, lead the league in penalty yards and are struggling to force turnovers (23 teams have recovered more fumbles and 16 have intercepted more passes). Those issues obviously also need to be addressed. And Hauschka, after missing another late one last week, better start making kicks in the fourth quarter.
But even at its highest level – the NFL – football is still a physical, emotional game, and the hungrier a team's players are, the better the team fares. You can't quantify it, but you know it when you see it. Lardarius Webb, the rookie cornerback, was hungry when he came in last week. He bounced around, hit people, and covered receivers tenaciously. Ravens coach John Harbaugh complimented him.
Don't get me wrong, the Ravens are playing hard – they couldn't stage the comebacks they've staged if not. But still, if I'm Harbaugh, I'm taking a lot of temperatures this week, asking players just how badly they want it, letting them know that more early snoozes won't be tolerated.
You want to start games faster and have your won-loss record better reflect your team's ability? Play the guys who are playing the hungriest. It helps.
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.