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The Ravens have answered a lot of questions about their receiving corps since the end of last season. But a central question about their 2010 offense remains unanswered: What kind of personality will it have?
Will the Ravens become a passing-oriented team now that quarterback Joe Flacco is in his third year and has more dangerous targets to throw to? Or will they stick with the running game that has been their offensive bedrock for the past decade?
It's far too early to know any answers with training camp still months away. You can be sure Ravens coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will be kicking around a lot of ideas about their run-pass balance in the coming months.
Here's what I think should unfold on the field next fall: still a run-oriented offense, now supported by a better passing game than before.
Obviously, the Ravens didn't trade for Anquan Boldin, sign Donte' Stallworth and re-sign Derrick Mason (and also possibly pick a tight end in the first round of the April draft) just to tweak a passing game that was ranked in the lower half of the league (18th) last season. They're looking to make major improvements in that area as a way of catching up with the elite teams in what has become a pass-happy league. They'll be putting the ball up more. When Ravens owner Steve Biscotti was asked at the "State of the Ravens" press conference on Feb. 3 what it would take for the Ravens to become a Super Bowl team, he replied, "I think a lot of it is focused on Joe." That certainly tells you what's coming.
But the Ravens shouldn't ramp up their passing game so much that their running game becomes an afterthought. They're deeper at running back than any team in the league with Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Leron McClain, who have combined for four Pro Bowl selections since 2007. Rice was one of the game's most productive backs last season, operating behind a young, brawny offensive line that is only going to improve. (Michael Oher with a year under his belt? Now there's a thought that should get fans excited.) The Ravens averaged a whopping 160 yards per game on the ground last season, second best in the league, and there's every reason to expect more of the same next season.
I understand that passing games rule pro football these days, but to me, the Ravens are at their best when they're pounding away on the ground, controlling the clock, dominating their opponents. I don't care who they line up at wide receiver. They're still going to be a physical, hard-hitting team in nature, and a strong running game is just a natural cornerstone of that philosophy.
Is it easier to throw the ball 10 yards than rush it 10 yards? Absolutely. No less a football authority than Vince Lombardi, Mr. Super Bowl trophy himself, understood that a half-century ago. I wrote a book about him recently, studied his coaching mind. He saw the advantage of having an effective passing game, but he still wanted to move the ball primarily on the ground. Why? He never forgot that football, at its essence, was a physical contest, a test of who was tougher, and he loved what a bone-crunching running game achieved in that context. You established your superiority, beat down your opponent, kept the other team's offense on the sideline.
Yes, that was a long time ago, and the game has taken numerous evolutionary spins since Lombardi's Packers ruled back in the 1960s. The Saints used their high-percentage passing game to control the ball and keep Peyton Manning off the field in the Super Bowl a few months ago.
But the Ravens aren't going to become that team just because they added a couple of receivers. And they shouldn't become that team. Their wish list for their new and improved 2010 passing game should be topped by some basics that were absent all too often last season – the ability to move the chains, the ability to produce the big strike. But that's enough. The evolution of their passing game should occur in support of their strong running game, not in place of it.
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.