Does winning football produce good team chemistry? Or does good team chemistry produce winning football?
It's a fair question, an eternal question, the sport's version of a "chicken or the egg" conundrum.
What's the answer? Obviously, even if players are best friends forever, that won't help them win unless they also have talent. So I guess you have to lean toward winning being the more fundamentally important factor.
But a positive locker-room vibe, also known as good chemistry, can help matters a lot. And this year's Ravens are Exhibit A.
I can pinpoint several examples of where good chemistry is helping their greater good. For instance, there are no issues between the offense and the defense. (A bugaboo around here more than a decade ago.) The wide receivers are fine with an unusual job description that prioritizes blocking over catching passes. The tight ends are tighter than the stars in a bromance comedy.
Cornerback Marlon Humphrey opened up on the subject earlier this week, describing a locker room in which players get along so well they hang around together off the field and even stay late after practice to talk football – a hugely positive sign, with the alternative being hitting the exit and fleeing the scene as quickly as possible.
"I've always felt like the biggest thing you can do with the team is have that family approach, because it shows on the field. We keep growing as a team and just keep getting to know each other," Humphrey said.
Asked to identify where the good vibes come from, Humphrey said it starts with Head Coach John Harbaugh, who is having, no doubt, a stellar year, not only with X's and O's but with calibrating the team's mindset. He commands the locker room, but he also has eye-level relationships with his players, meaning he talks with them.
"He listens to us with different things," Humphrey said.
The cornerback also identified Lamar Jackson's leadership as a key ingredient. He is humble and personable, a natural gatherer of troops. And, like Humphrey, he feels the good vibes.
"It's a family thing going on here," Jackson said this week.
Jackson is so focused on the communal goal, winning, that he views all other factors as meaningless distractions – and I'm talking all other factors, from the MVP race to making his debut on Monday Night Football. His ability to smile and yet focus on that communal goal sets a tone any coach would want.
"He's always been like that, since he's been here," Humphrey said.
Yes, it's easy for the players to be happy and laugh at each other's jokes when they've won six games in a row, taken command of the AFC North and rightfully been identified as serious contenders for playoff glory.
But if you think their good chemistry is just a byproduct of that, Humphrey wants to convince you otherwise:
"I just think you start to know each other really well on the field. As soon as you know somebody's game, you know this guy struggles with that, on the field, it all just meshes together. There's never a time when you're like, 'I feel like I can't go talk to this guy about something.' There were a lot of egos in the past, and in the past, I've seen a lot of different confrontations and different things with coaches and players and players and players. And I haven't really seen much of that this year … There hasn't been a lot of conflict. It's always, 'Hey, man, let's do this.' It's never bad blood, no feelings or egos in between us. It's all just, 'I want to do whatever I can to win.'"
Winning helps, no doubt. But I get the sense the bond could be an asset in tough times, too.
You never know when a group is going to develop good chemistry. The conditions have to be right. But you know it when you see it. And the Ravens have it.