The morning after the Ravens' AFC Championship loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, General Manager Eric DeCosta boarded a flight to Mobile, Ala., and Head Coach John Harbaugh was probably preparing for the strong possibility that he would need a new defensive coordinator.
The Ravens expected to be preparing for a trip to Vegas this weekend, but as Forrest Gump taught us, “S--- happens.” In the NFL, there's no time to wallow in it.
Here are my (final) thoughts on what happened in the AFC Championship, what it means for Lamar Jackson, and some of the top storylines entering the offseason – all in 50 words or less:
The Ravens' AFC Championship loss reignited the "Lamar doesn't win in the playoffs" narrative. I think it's hogwash. Jackson had a historically good performance just one week earlier versus Houston. He didn't play his best game against the Chiefs, but that's not because of some deep embedded flaw.
The Ravens gave Jackson the keys to the offense all season long and it paid off handsomely. Baltimore's coaches did so again for a trip to the Super Bowl. Harbaugh said Friday, a "big part" of the game plan versus the Chiefs were run-pass options. Jackson often chose pass.
Jackson put it on his right shoulder to carry the Ravens offense that trailed from the first quarter on. That decision often made the most sense given what the Chiefs defense was doing. The bigger issue Sunday was a few big play opportunities that weren't capitalized on.
One season-long issue that reared its head versus the Chiefs was the failure to hit deep shots, particularly to the sidelines, consistently enough. That's something that needs to be improved this offseason for Jackson and the Ravens offense to take the next step forward. I bet it will.
The fact of the matter is, despite how rough the offensive performance was against the Chiefs, the Ravens were within a whisker of scoring a lot more points. Obviously, there was the goal-line fumble. Jackson knew the sack-strip had touchdown written all over it. There were several more.
Year 2 in Todd Monken's offense will reap big rewards for Jackson and the entire unit. The Ravens offense went south after 2019 heights, but that success was more centered on uniqueness that eventually wore off. I expect Monken's offense will only keep building – same as it did at Georgia.
Jackson made major strides in 2023. He and the Ravens fell short of their ultimate goal, but Jackson's continued development is the most important thing that happened this year when it comes to long-term competitive viability. He got more expensive (and climbing) but was still the most valuable player.
DeCosta and Harbaugh made the vision for Rashod Bateman clear. He'll be relied upon heavily in a make-or-break fourth year. Bateman's talent has always been evident, and he played all but one game this season. With his health on stable footing (pun intended), Bateman could break out.
Last offseason, the Ravens offensive line had just one question mark (at left guard). This offseason, there are question marks at every spot except one (center). Baltimore has aging tackles that have been hampered by injuries and both guards are pending free agents. An O-line renovation may be in order.
Turnover is inevitable when you have success. But the Ravens weren't a team carried by a few stars at the top. They had a strong coaching staff from top to bottom. Strong roster from top to bottom. Strong personnel department from top to bottom. Losses hurt, but next man up.
The Ravens' next man up mantra will be particularly apt on defense this offseason with the loss of Mike Macdonald and potential for widespread free-agency departures on that side of the ball. Baltimore was loaded in all aspects, which is why it was a historically good unit.
DeCosta predicted that Zach Orr will be a head coach someday, just a day after the 31-year-old was announced as the Ravens' new defensive coordinator. That's how strongly Baltimore feels about Orr, who is one of the finest people I've worked with during my 14+ years with the team.
Last offseason, many people thought the Ravens should bring back Marcus Peters. They didn't, and Brandon Stephens emerged as a top-flight cornerback. The Ravens won't re-sign all the defensive veterans who had strong 2023 campaigns, but trust that younger reinforcements will emerge. Draft and develop remains Baltimore's core.
DeCosta did not tip his hand on the futures of Justin Madubuike and Patrick Queen. The way Queen has talked about the situation sounds like somebody who expects to hit the market. Madubuike's ability to generate interior pressure is rare, and something the Ravens would have a hard time replacing.
"This is (now was) our year" is a phrase heard endlessly around Baltimore this winter. Indeed, it felt that way. But the Ravens don't subscribe to that theory. The team will be stronger some years than others, and this year's was particularly mighty, but Baltimore will remain in the hunt.