For every NFL team, a crucial question hangs in the air once training camp kicks into gear: How are we going to win games this year?
The roster-building process is just about complete. Games loom. And as they watch their pieces come together during training camp, the preseason and the start of the regular season, front offices and coaching staffs eternally wonder, "OK, what is our recipe for success?"
Granted, some teams are more desperate and quietly wonder IF they're going to win games, not HOW. But most teams try to envision a sensible path to victory. Are we going to do it with our offense or our defense? With our running game or our passing game? How are we going to succeed on Sundays?
Certain teams have distinct personalities that make those questions easy to answer. But in today's NFL, with rosters constantly changing, coaching staffs getting overhauled and a salary cap rearing its head, every year brings different circumstances and new realities. The Denver Broncos did it with their offense for most of the time Peyton Manning was their quarterback, but when they won a Super Bowl with Manning last season, their defense carried them.
The Ravens know all about a recipe for success changing. They did it with defense for years, but when they won a Super Bowl in 2012, their offense carried them.
What about 2016? Coming off their first losing season since 2007, how are the Ravens going to play winning football again?
Staying healthier obviously is part of the equation after injuries shredded their depth chart in 2015, but that's a given. Football-wise, how are they going to win?
This much is certain: With the signing of kicker Justin Tucker last week, they're doubling down on special teams as a vital component. All teams pay lip service to the third phase's importance, but the Ravens back it up. They've signed Tucker and punter Sam Koch to top-of-the-market deals. Their coaching staff features a kicking consultant. Special Teams Coordinator Jerry Rosburg is also the team's associate head coach.
Despite their losing season, the Ravens had the NFL's most effective special teams in 2015, according to the Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin, who tracks 22 statistical categories and compiles overall rankings. Tucker's signing underscores the Ravens' plans to use those special teams as difference-makers again this year.
They're also seemingly focused on establishing a normal turnover ratio after their disastrous 2015 performance in that important metric. The Ravens ended the year with 14 fewer takeaways than giveaways and in the process set a franchise-record for fewest interceptions in a season. In response, they've brought in a new position coach, signed a top free-agent safety and a slot corner, and ramped up the importance of ball-skill drills in practice.
The focus is warranted. Even with all the injuries and setbacks that occurred last season, the Ravens probably would have won at least several more games if only they had finished with a level turnover ratio as opposed to minus-14. It's that important.
As for the mix of offense and defense, the days of defense ruling in Baltimore obviously are over. The Ravens just want their defense to play more consistently than it did in 2015, when it took half the season to solidify. I don't think anyone should expect a return to Ray Lewis-era dominance, just more third down stops and fewer deep balls for touchdowns.
With all that in place, the stage would be set for Joe Flacco to take the Ravens as far as they can go. Their recipe for success obviously depends on the quarterback playing well, and it appears the Ravens agree, as they have surrounded him with his deepest group of targets in several years, including a bona fide deep-ball threat in Mike Wallace and a whole batch of tight ends.
Although Offensive Coordinator Marc Trestman has said he wants a unit that thinks run first, he likes the pass too much and has too many passing-game pieces to let the run dominate. With several new offensive linemen set to start and the running back depth chart unclear, I think a fairer expectation is a 50-50 run-pass balance. That's worked before.
Better turnover ratio. Offensive balance. Strong special teams. More defensive consistency.
That's your recipe for success in Baltimore in 2016.