With just five games remaining in the NFL season, there may not be a team with more on the line than the Baltimore Ravens.
There is a standard of excellence in Owing Mills, Md., bred through two Super Bowl titles, 11 winning seasons and 10 postseason berths in the past 16 years. You can feel it walking on the campus of the Under Armour Performance Center, and the people within the organization, many of whom have been there since the move from Cleveland, live with that knowledge every day.
In 2008, after Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick was dismissed following a 5–11 record in ’07, the front office personnel and their wives had their normal preseason dinner before scattering to scout players across colleges and the NFL. General manager Ozzie Newsome wasn’t in the mood for laughs or reminiscing, so he got up to speak while everyone was biting into their steaks.
“Guys,” Newsome said. “My friend Brian Billick has taken the blame for last season. One of the great coaches, someone I really respect. He’s taken a lot of blame for this team. But I have to tell you guys, the blame is on me. The blame is on me, and some of the blame is on you. We’ve gotten slow and we’ve gotten small. I can’t believe this has happened to us. We’re a small and slow football team. We went 5–11. 5–11. You’re 5–11.”
If the 2016 Ravens don’t finish the season strong, John Harbaugh could suffer the same fate as Billick—the former coach went 80–64 in the regular season and 5–3 in the playoffs with the Ravens, but finished 33–31 in his final four seasons. It’s also not out of the realm of possibility that a new start could extend to the front office and Newsome, with Eric DeCosta the GM-in-waiting around as a viable alternative.
Harbaugh had his own 5–11 season last year. After winning the Super Bowl in the 2012 season, he’s now 29–30 over the past three-plus years, although he does have a playoff victory against the Le’Veon Bell-less Steelers after the ’14 season.
The 6–5 Ravens are currently tied with the Steelers for first place in the AFC North but Baltimore, who’s 4–0 in the division, holds the lead because it has won the only head-to-head meeting so far this season. It appears that only one team from the AFC North is going to make the playoffs, so that puts the onus on the final five games.
Down the stretch, the Ravens play four straight games against teams that are at least in the postseason race: the Dolphins (7–4), at the Patriots (9–2), Eagles (5–6) and at the Steelers before finishing the season at Cincinnati. According to FootballOutsiders.com, Baltimore has the toughest remaining schedule in the league, while Steelers have the 23rd-most difficult.
To succeed down the stretch, the Ravens are going to need their offense to come through. But like with Billick, that side of the ball has been vexing to Harbaugh. Billick went through four offensive coordinators in his final four seasons. After losing to Washington earlier this season, Harbaugh made Marty Mornhinweg his fifth coordinator in five years when Marc Trestman was fired.
Baltimore was 3–2 and averaged 18.6 points per game when Trestman was dismissed. Since the change was made, the Ravens are 3–3 and have averaged 20.7 points per game (a season-high 28 points were scored against the winless Browns). But according to FootballOutsider.com’s efficiency rating, the offense is still mired at 30th—Baltimore has been buoyed by their league-leading defense while winning three of their past four games.
If the offense, with Harbaugh’s close friend in command, doesn’t play well down the stretch and the Ravens fail to grab a postseason berth for the third time in the past four seasons, Harbaugh’s future with the team would likely be a hot topic.
Some close to the organization think that Harbaugh is safe no matter what happens, because 5–11 was a season-from-hell aberration due to injuries, and the Ravens figure to be on the upswing next season. The defense, though aging in some spots, should be intact, and QB Joe Flacco and a young surrounding cast on offense should improve because Flacco will be better with more time since his ACL surgery. Harbaugh is also viewed as one of the league’s better coaches, and he certainly has enjoyed a lot of success compared to his peers. But if the Ravens stumble down the stretch, and especially if they finish at 8–8 or worse, Harbaugh’s future could be in doubt. The Ravens have a standard of excellence, and the past four seasons would not match it.
Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines this week in the NFL.
Go crazy, folks
Rams insanity: Los Angeles seems to be moving toward extensions for coach Jeff Fisher and/or GM Les Snead based on the comments made by team president Kevin Demoff to NFL Network. Demoff said people shouldn’t judge Fisher just on his 4–7 record this season because of what the team has been through with the move from St. Louis. That would be fine, if this year was an aberration. But everyone knows it is not, considering Fisher hasn’t had a record better than 8–8 since 2008. The Rams would still be 4–7 if they were back in St. Louis. Not sure if it’s Demoff’s call or if he’s just doing the bidding of owner Stan Kroenke, but this is no way to take the L.A. market by storm. If the Rams don’t get relevant real fast, and that can only happen with real change, that new stadium (whenever it opens) is going to have trouble filling up.
Adam Gase seems to be the real deal: You can look at the Dolphins’ six-game winning streak however you want (fluky, impressive, not sustainable), but you have to be impressed with the job that first-year head coach Gase and his staff have done, settling down an organization that has at times straddled the line of being a full-blown circus in recent years. You can see it on the sidelines during each game, and hear it when he speaks about the team. There’s an air of old-school accountability with the Dolphins now. Gase isn’t afraid to call a player out, bench him or give him an earful when he comes to the sidelines. You’d be surprised how often that doesn’t happen in the NFL these days. Gase explained this week that the turnaround started when the Dolphins “eliminated all of the type of nonsense that most of the teams around the NFL doesn’t have during the week—guys being late, guys getting fined, having practices that really are not energetic and you’re not getting things done the way you need to.” It sounds simple, but it doesn’t happen with every team, where some coaches are afraid of ticking off the wrong player, or are too consumed with the wrong things that don’t translate into winning. Gase has learned to toe the line between being a players’ coach and a disciplinarian, and the proof has been in his team’s improved play.
Slow your roll
Clay Matthews can’t be serious: The Packers linebacker said this week that he thought the blindside hit laid on him by Eagles OL Allen Barbre on Monday night, which injured Matthews’s arm, was a “cheap shot.” First of all, it was totally legal, and Barbre did him a favor by hitting him in the shoulder area and not in the head. Secondly, Matthews has been known to deliver cheap shots that have been much worse over the years. This is football, that was a football play, and Matthews needs to learn to play with his head on a swivel.
Marcus Cannon is deserving of extension: Many Patriots fans were flummoxed that of all of New England’s impending free agents (13 of varying degrees after the Jamie Collins trade), it was RT Marcus Cannon that received the first and likely only extension for a starter prior to the 2017 league year. The reported five-year, $32.5-million deal is right in line with the top of the RT market. Considering the state of NFL right tackles (not good), Cannon was likely going to get more on the open market. The Patriots got Cannon, who has also shown he can fill in at LT, at a good value, and he deserves it. After floundering for two seasons, Cannon has proved he can be a good starter under the tutelage of line coach Dante Scarnecchia. He’s also durable, which is value in itself. It also makes sense because the Patriots can pay their tackles (Nate Solder is at LT) the going rate because they’ve gone young at the three interior line positions.
10 thoughts on Week 13
1. The Falcons head into a big game against the Chiefs needing 36-year-old DE Dwight Freeney to play more snaps now that DE Adrian Clayborn will miss at least three weeks after knee surgery.
2. Eagles RG Brandon Brooks missed Sunday night’s game against the Packers due to an illness but should be back in Week 13 to take on the Bengals. Brooks, the team’s best lineman, will be facing talented DT Geno Atkins.
3. Getting CB Jimmy Smith (back) from injury is huge for the Ravens heading into a big clash with the Dolphins. With Miami’s young trio of receivers (Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker and Jarvis Landry) hitting their stride, the Ravens need all the help they can get on the back end.
4. This matchup with the Ravens will be the first true test that QB Ryan Tannehill has had during the Dolphins’ six-game winning streak, when he’s put up a 104.7 passer rating. This will be a different challenge because the Ravens have the league’s top overall and rush defense, according to FootballOutsiders.com. This is a game that Tannehill will likely need to win on his own. It will be a real indicator of his growth. We’ve seen this kind of a play from Tannehill before. In 2014 he had an eight-game stretch where he posted a 102.4 passer rating before sinking in the final five games.
5. A matchup against the Packers’ defense would seem to be exactly what the doctor ordered for Brock Osweiler, but this is the type of defense (switching up pressure and coverage on just about every snap) that gives him fits because it feeds into his indecision. This has the chance to go badly for the Texans if they can’t run the ball well against Green Bay.
6. Expect another big game from Lions RB Theo Riddick in the pass game against the Saints. They’re the worst defense in the league against running backs, according to FootballOutsiders.com.
7. Expect a high-scoring game between the Bills and Raiders, with each team getting big plays through the air. If Sammy Watkins can stay in the lineup for the Bills (his foot kept him out of practice Wednesday), he could break out against the Raiders.
8. With the Giants likely to concentrate on stopping Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown, look for Ben Roethlisberger to target TE Ladarius Green, who has been getting more involved in the defense since his return three weeks ago. The Giants aren’t very good against tight ends.
9. Manish Mehta of the New York Daily Newsreported that a confidant of Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis said the player is “Done. If he had his way, he’d be done right now. He doesn’t want to play anymore.” The film backs that up. Revis looked completely disinterested against the Patriots last Sunday.
10. Hardest remaining schedules for teams in the playoff hunt, according to FootballOutsiders.com: Ravens, Giants, Chiefs, Eagles, Buccaneers, Lions. Easiest remaining schedules: Colts, Texans, Titans, Seahawks, Bills, Packers.