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Eisenberg: The Two Most Important Questions This Offseason


So now the offseason beckons, with all sorts of time to drill deep into the, oh, thousand or so issues burbling in the wake of the Ravens' 5-11 finish.

But really, all considerations are just bullet points underneath two overarching questions that will loom over the Ravens until they start playing games again:

CAN they make the playoffs again in 2016? WILL they make the playoffs again in 2016?

It all boils down to that, doesn't it?

At first glance, the first question seems like a tall order, maybe pie-in-the-sky stuff. Can they make the playoffs again? They were five wins shy this year. That's a lot of ground. They would have to double their win total in 12 months.

That sounds like a lot to ask. It IS a lot to ask. But it can happen. The NFL's parity-based system all but begs losing teams to turn things around. It happens all the time. Look at this year's playoff qualifiers. The Washington Redskins went from four wins in 2014 to nine and a division title in 2015. The Minnesota Vikings went from seven wins in 2014 to 11 and a division title in 2015. The Carolina Panthers more than doubled their win total, from seven in 2014 to 15 this season.

The last time the Ravens experienced a losing season, going 5-11 in 2007, they made the AFC title game the next year.

Shoot, even in this disappointing season, while so much went wrong, the Ravens weren't that far from being in the playoff conversation. They needed five more wins, but think about it. One of their losses (Jacksonville) was actually a victory not credited because of an officiating mistake. Another (Cleveland) came in overtime. And the Ravens led in the fourth quarter of two others (Oakland, Cincinnati at home). That's four losses by the narrowest of combined margins.

I'm not saying the Ravens were better than their record. Not at all. Their 5-11 record was justified. But that doesn't mean the playoffs are now some far-off fantasyland. Over their last nine games, the Ravens had the same record (4-5) as the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs (Green Bay) and were one game behind the No. 3 seed in the AFC (Cincinnati). And again, that's with an injury-depleted team facing multiple issues.

So I don't think there's any doubt the Ravens CAN make the playoffs in 2016, especially with a less wearying schedule, a few more breaks (they hope), a better health record (they hope) and a more solid squad after a productive offseason (they really hope).

But as for whether the Ravens WILL make the playoffs, I'm certainly not going to predict it, and frankly, it's way too soon even to entertain such talk. This isn't a snap-your-fingers turnaround situation. A 5-11 record speaks volumes. The Ravens need a ton of work.

"I think we're starting with a good foundation, but certainly, we need to improve. No doubt about it," Joe Flacco told reporters Monday.

It's going to take a village, the entire organization. The Ravens dealt with more than $20 million in salary cap "dead money" in 2015, putting them behind a sizable eight ball. They're still in a tight cap situation and need to renegotiate Flacco's big deal. Tricky times.

On the field, they finished 2015 with a minus-14 turnover ratio, tied for second worst in the league. That was the No. 1 reason for their losing season, even more of a factor than injuries. Not only did the Ravens give the ball away frequently, they intercepted just six passes, easily the franchise's all-time low. (The old mark was 11.)

They also set a franchise record for penalty yards in a season, so between flags, fumbles and picks, the Ravens surely led the league in beating themselves.

The anticipated returns of Flacco, Steve Smith Sr. and Terrell Suggs should help, but as Head Coach John Harbaugh said Sunday, "We need pieces, there's no question (and) I think anybody can see what the pieces are that we need."

Indeed, they need playmakers of all kinds – pass rushers who can disrupt, defensive backs who can pick, receivers who can burn. Such players don't just appear on the scene. You have to identify the right guys, juggle the cap, hope the pieces fit.

Sure, it can happen. You can turn things around. But after so much went wrong for the Ravens this year, so much now needs to go right.

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