What Changes Are in Store After Ravens' Historic Devastating Loss?
It was more than just a loss that leaves you heartbroken and sick.
When Terrell Suggs describes it as the most devastating regular-season defeat of his 15-year career, fans and media start calling for action.
When the Ravens surrendered a game-winning 49-yard touchdown on fourth-and-12 with 44 seconds left – with the season on the line and after pumping resources into the defense to safeguard against that exact scenario – fans and media start calling for change.
You have to credit the team for showing heart and character by clawing its way back after an abysmal start, but looking at the big picture … the Ravens have now missed the playoffs in three-consecutive seasons.
The most commonly-asked questions immediately after the game were focused on potential coaching changes. There's inevitably hires and fires every year on NFL coaching staffs, and if you ask The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker, there could be some big moves in Baltimore, but not at the very top.
John Harbaugh Seems Primed for a Return
"Do we put [this loss] on head coach John Harbaugh?" Walker asked. "For a decade, Harbaugh has shown a rare ability not to lose his grip on difficult seasons. He deserves credit for keeping the train on the tracks this year after the Ravens started 4-5 and appeared utterly lost on offense.
"His resume outweighs the Ravens' performance in this game, and if owner Steve Bisciotti's past behavior is any guide, Harbaugh will be back in 2018."
Dean Pees Is Reportedly Retiring; Who Are Potential Replacements?
Walker isn't so sure about the coordinator positions standing pat, particularly at defensive coordinator because Dean Pees is reportedly expected to retire. ESPN's Adam Schefter broke that news before Sunday's game was even played, but the Ravens have yet to confirm it.
Ravens players spoke glowingly about Pees after the game. They said they'd love for him to return and praised his defensive mind, but would wish him well if that's what he and his family decided.
If Pees does decide to move on, the Ravens have historically promoted from within and ESPN named Linebackers Coach Don "Wink" Martindale as the top internal candidate. Martindale was the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator in 2010, and has helped in the development of C.J. Mosley and Zachary Orr.
That said, there are several outside proven candidates, many with which the Ravens are already familiar. The Indianapolis Colts fired Chuck Pagano yesterday, and the Oakland Raiders let go of Jack Del Rio. Marvin Lewis is rumored to be leaving the Cincinnati Bengals. All three were so successful as Ravens defensive coaches that it helped spring them to head coaching jobs.
"Many are linking Chuck Pagano to the Ravens as defensive coordinator if Dean Pees does in fact retire, but some close to Pagano could see him taking some time to recharge, and [Vic] Fangio has strong ties to Ravens coach John Harbaugh," wrote CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora.
Unclear What Happens on Offense, But People Are Watching Gary Kubiak
There have been no reports about Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who was put in a tough spot with a litany of injuries to key players, including quarterback Joe Flacco and All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda.
The start of the season was rough for this unit, but Mornhinweg eventually found his stride after the bye week when many had written the offense off. Few resources were put into the unit during the offseason, while the defense got plenty of assets (more on that below).
That said, because the offense finished ranked No. 27 overall, questions are inevitable about who will lead the unit.
"Harbaugh surprised many people by keeping Marty Mornhinweg as his offensive coordinator after last season," wrote Walker. "He'll be ripped to shreds by fans and analysts if he makes the same decision this time around, especially after the Ravens delivered a pitiful offensive effort in the first half Sunday."
Added La Canfora, "Speaking of former Ravens coordinators, teams are coveting Gary Kubiak as their offensive coordinator and he's remained in contact with many of his former assistants in the league and outside of it. Ultimately, however, I wouldn't be stunned if Kubiak ended up as a personnel assistant, perhaps identifying talent in that regard rather than coaching."
Joe Flacco Is Entrenched for Multiple Years; Ravens Could Draft Backup
It took until after the bye week to see the normal Joe Flacco. The franchise quarterback struggled through the first nine games, and Mornhinweg attributed that to the franchise quarterback finally getting healthier after sustaining a back injury in training camp.
Flacco had an excellent December – with many excited to see the potential return of "January Joe" –until the first half of the Bengals game. Flacco was off-target with his receivers on multiple throws, and when he did hit them, they dropped five balls.
They got on the same page in the second half, however, and came storming back to take the lead in the fourth quarter despite a pick-6 after Chris Moore bobbled an off-target pass and it landed into the hands of a Bengals defender.
"Ravens are contractually married to Joe Flacco through the 2018 season and probably the 2019 season (when they can gain $20 million by releasing him)," writes ESPN. "This could be the right time to draft a quarterback in the middle rounds and look to groom him for a couple of years."
Should Ravens Rethink Defensive Strategy?
Baltimore went "all-in" on defense last offseason.
The Ravens were in playoff position last year with the best defense through the first 13 weeks of the season. But then, after losing cornerback Jimmy Smith, Baltimore gave up an average of 400 yards per game in the final four games, losing three. It knocked the Ravens out of postseason contention.
Many attributed that stretch as the reason behind the team spending a reported $56.75 million in guaranteed money on its defense in free agency and using its first four draft picks on defensive players.
"Finish" became the rallying cry.
That's why the way Sunday's loss went down was especially frustrating.
"This team was built specifically to win a game like this, but failed at the most critical time," wrote Press Box's Bo Smolka. "The message was clear: We will win with defense. We will be a deeper, faster, stronger, better defense, capable of withstanding injuries and finishing off opponents late in games."
In recent years, the NFL has become a pass-happy league with rules that favor the offense. The prevailing thought has been that teams need prolific offenses to seriously contend for a championship, and the Ravens seemingly tested that theory, but failed to prove it wrong.
The Jacksonville Jaguars secured the No. 3 AFC seed with their top-rated defense, so we'll see whether they can advance to the Super Bowl over top-rated offenses from the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots.
WNST's Luke Jones would like to see a philosophical shift in Baltimore. He doesn't want to ignore defense altogether, but he's promoting a more balanced approach from the one we saw the Ravens take last year.
"We'll have all winter to discuss this, but the Ravens have tried to chase the ghost of the 2000 defense ever since their Super Bowl XLVII win while shopping at the dollar store for an offense around Joe Flacco," Jones tweeted. "Perhaps a different approach is needed.
"The truth is it's really, really tough to build a historic defense in today's NFL, no matter how many resources you continue to pump into it. Maybe a conscious shift toward building a more balanced roster is what's needed. … Make no mistake, the defense did not get the job done in the end. But the sum of below-average offense and good -- but not great -- defense isn't getting the job done."
The Search for Offensive Playmakers, Particularly at Wide Receiver, Will Continue
Speaking of investing more into the offense, it's safe to say Ravens fans will use this offseason to implore the team to find playmaking pass catchers for Flacco.
With injuries taking their toll on an already struggling receiving corps, Flacco was left with Mike Wallace and undrafted rookie Quincy Adeboyejo, who was making his regular-season debut, on the last attempt for a game-winning drive with 44 seconds remaining.
With three timeouts in his pocket, it wouldn't have been out of the question for the Ravens to go the distance, but Flacco just didn't have the weapons (or time in the pocket).
"The search for playmakers, especially at wide receiver, continues," wrote Smolka. "The Ravens lack of playmakers was apparent all season, and again in this game.
"The Ravens offense was missing receiver Jeremy Maclin (knee), and former first-round draft pick Breshad Perriman was a healthy scratch, a final blotch on a lost season. … From the beginning of the offseason, the Ravens underestimated the need to upgrade their offensive playmaker options. They trusted that players like Perriman, Moore and Campanaro could make a notable leap forward this season, and they were fortunate that Maclin landed in their lap. But with career lows of 40 catches and 440 yards, and just one touchdown after Week 2, they didn't get nearly as much from Maclin as they probably anticipated."
Smolka rightfully pointed out that finding playmaking running back Alex Collins was a "bright spot." Collins put the offense on his back in the third quarter when it looked like a fourth-and-3 play would be blown up in the backfield, but he cut back and outraced the entire Bengals defense to the end zone (with some nice blocks from Flacco and running back Buck Allen).
Collins is scheduled to become an exclusive rights free agent in March, so he's expected to return as the Ravens' top back next year.
And while Moore had his part in the unfortunate pick-six and later left the game with a concussion, he was one of the big reasons the Ravens clawed their way back into the game with his 87-yard kickoff return and subsequent 6-yard touchdown catch with eight seconds remaining in the first half.
- "The fans delivered their best performance of the season," wrote Walker. "There were plenty of empty seats on Sunday for the coldest game in M&T Bank Stadium history. But this time, the no-shows weren't the story. Instead, give all the credit in the world to those who showed up and froze. You could sense their disgust as the Ravens stumbled through the first half and appeared in real peril of falling from playoff contention. But the same fans threw their hearts into the second half, creating the most raucous atmosphere of the season despite their modest numbers. The problems of this season were probably deep enough that one afternoon won't wipe them away. But this last chapter of the Ravens' season reminded us how exhilarating the team-city bond can feel." [The Baltimore Sun]
- "The Bengals entered the game 6-9 and playing for nothing," wrote Smolka. "The Ravens entered the game 9-6, playing for their playoff lives. And from the outset, the Bengals played with more energy and enthusiasm. They were crisper, quicker and won all the battles up front. The Ravens' offense in the first half was shockingly inept for a team with designs on a playoff berth. … From the outset, the Bengals played with more passion and energy, and that's inexcusable." [Press Box]