The Baltimore Ravens sailed to a 9-2 start to the 2012 season, nearly locking up the AFC North with a month left in the campaign. Four losses in five games dampened Baltimore’s momentum and in the middle of that stretch, coach John Harbaugh made the decision to change offensive coordinators.
That gutty move along with the emotion of Ray Lewis’ retirement announcement energized the Ravens heading into the postseason. The rest is history. Joe Flacco had a monstrous run up through the Super Bowl and Lewis and Matt Birk got to go out as champions.
So can Baltimore repeat? There’s been a ton of turnover, primarily on the defensive side of the ball. But some of the new faces represent younger, more athletic and more affordable options to the pieces they replaced. And with 12 draft picks in his arsenal, don’t discount Ozzie Newsome’s chances of putting together another competitive team, says Tony Lombardi, founder of Russell Street Report.
Zoneblitz: The Ravens had some ups and downs during the season but got it done with a championship in the end. How would you describe the 2012 ride?
Lombardi: The Ravens 2012 season was a clinic on handling adversity. The team was hit hard by the injury bug, with top end players like Ray Lewis, Lardarius Webb and Terrell Suggs all missing significant time. They also made a rather unusual change for a playoff bound team when they fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron late in the season and replaced him with former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell. There were also deaths within the Ravens family, losing beloved former owner Art Modell and WR Torrey Smith’s brother.
And then of course came the announcement of Ray Lewis’ retirement.
But the adversity fostered solidarity and the team bonded and believed in each other. As an organization they learned (and we’ve seen this with other teams during seasons past) that you first need to make it to the postseason and if you are headed in the right direction once there and gain some momentum, anything is possible.
Zoneblitz: One of the turnaround points seemed to be when the Ravens fired Cam Cameron and installed Jim Caldwell as offensive coordinator. How big was that and what was your reaction when the move was made?
Lombardi: The move was long overdue and should have happened 2 seasons ago. Cameron quite simply is a control freak and consequently Joe Flacco’s potential was on lock down. Caldwell’s approach is to prepare his quarterback to have the freedom to make in game adjustments as things unfold in front of him. And as you witnessed during Flacco’s remarkable playoff run, it works.
Zoneblitz: The Ravens lost Ray Lewis and Matt Birk to retirement, Anquan Boldin to a trade and several others – including Ed Reed – to free agency. How are the Ravens set to fill the holes caused by those losses?
Lombardi: You can never replace Ray Lewis’ leadership. He was one-of-a-kind player – one who comes along every generation or so. Someone will need to step up in that department. As for Ray’s play, he slipped markedly. His time had come.
Matt Birk had one of his best seasons as a Raven particularly late in the year and it’s no coincidence that the stellar play of rookie Keleche Osemele at left guard had a positive effect on Birk.
Birk’s understudy is the undersized Gino Gradkowski who fared well against the dominant Geno Atkins when he got the start in a late season, meaningless game for the Ravens.
Boldin’s departure is the only move that I’ve questioned but that said, I’m willing to sit back and watch GM Ozzie Newsome’s plan unfold. As for Ed Reed, saying goodbye is difficult but the Ravens have vowed to get younger and faster on defense and at this point in his career, Ed Reed fails in both categories.
Zoneblitz: What did you think of the Joe Flacco deal?
Lombardi: Time will tell. Successful teams have stability at the quarterback position and the Ravens believe that Flacco provides exactly that. If the Ravens get consistency from Flacco like he provided during his four game romp through the 2012 postseason, then the contract is deserved. BUT if he is the inconsistent player who has at times struggled on the road, the deal could put a stranglehold on the team’s cap for years to come. Interesting side note, the structure of Flacco’s deal essentially makes it a three-year deal. Depending upon Joe’s progress at the time the club will either re-structure the deal or part ways. The Ravens are hoping for the former.
Zoneblitz: The Ravens still have Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, a couple of nice tight ends and Torrey Smith, but how does the rest of the receiving corps stack up?
Lombardi: The Ravens need depth at wide receiver. Tandon Doss is first on the list for the moment to replace Anquan Boldin. Doss has shown next to nothing so far making Boldin’s departure even more daunting for Ravens’ fans. Jacoby Jones is a nice No. 3 but is too inconsistent to be the No. 2. The guess here is that the guy who ends up replacing Boldin isn’t on the team’s roster at the moment.
Zoneblitz: Elvis Dumervil, Rolando McClain, Chris Canty and Michael Huff are just a few of the defense’s new faces. How will that unit look in 2013?
Lombardi: Younger and faster come immediately to mind. Add Marcus Spears to that list of players and the Ravens have essentially added five contributors to their defense for the price that it cost Cleveland to add former Raven Paul Kruger to the Browns’ roster.
With so many new faces on defense it will be important for the Ravens to get on the right track offensively early in 2013. That said these additions to defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ group will help a couple of Ravens’ Pro Bowlers who struggled with injuries in 2012 – Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs. Fewer repetitions combined with improved health should allow these stalwarts to get back to their premier level of play that they’ve exhibited steadily when they aren’t saddled with nagging injuries.
Zoneblitz: With all the turnover, how do you currently see the Ravens stacking up in the AFC North and in the AFC overall in an attempt to repeat?
Lombardi: The turnover is nearly all on the defensive side of the ball and that uncharacteristically is where the Ravens were weak in 2012. Even though they did win the Super Bowl, let’s not forget that the Ravens yielded a record number of yards for a Super Bowl winner. Some may view the turnover as an eye-opening negative for a champion but to sit on their laurels would have been far more costly.
The Ravens learned last year that they just need to make it to the dance called the NFL Playoffs. Once there anything can happen. So the first order of business then is to win their division. The Browns are likely to be improved but they aren’t there yet. The Bengals are competitive but organizationally they don’t do the things needed to get over the hump. The Steelers have aged more rapidly than the Ravens. They’ve lost Mike Wallace, some offensive linemen and key cornerstones to their defense including James Harrison. This very well could be an adjustment year for them. Look for the Ravens to retain their AFC North title in 2013.
Zoneblitz: Who on the roster do you see having a breakout season in 2013?
Lombardi: Two players come to mind – Dennis Pitta and Jimmy Smith. Pitta is Joe Flacco’s go-to-guy and that will become even more apparent in 2013 with Boldin heading out to San Francisco. He’ll see a lot of the same routes from a flanked tight end position that once were designed for Boldin.
Jimmy Smith made some key plays in the Super Bowl and with the departure of cornerback Cary Williams, it’s time for Smith to step up. He’s been saddled with nagging injuries during the past two seasons but if healthy, look for Smith to reap dividends from his vast physical talents in 2013.
Zoneblitz: What do you think of the Ravens’ approach to free agency so far and what would you like to see the team do in the draft and through the rest of free agency?
Lombardi: It’s only natural for fans to want their Super Bowl Champion team to remain intact but in the salary cap era, that’s usually impossible as other teams go vulture on a champ’s roster.
Ozzie Newsome is generally regarded as one of the NFL’s best general managers. Those closest to him will tell you that one of his best attributes is his patience. He won’t set the market for free agents. He’ll simply wait and look for value.
Departed free agent Paul Kruger’s cap value is $8.1M. The patient Ravens have since been able to add Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty, Rolando McClain, Michael Huff and Marcus Spears for $7.3M.
And now with 12 draft picks, this offseason is shaping up as perhaps Ozzie’s best ever.