The Ravens followed a five-year run of playoff berths and a Super Bowl win by missing the postseason completely. With a new offense and a defense that remains stout even amid plenty of changes, the Ravens could be closer to what they were in 2012 than what they were in 2013. Whether they get back to the playoffs and succeed there hinges on several questions.
Five, to be exact.
1. Will new offense work?
A year after winning the Super Bowl, Baltimore’s offense struggled under coordinator Jim Caldwell. Though he wasn’t in danger of being fired (as far as anyone knows), his elevation to head coach in Detroit opened the door for a new approach.
Enter former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, and his zone-blocking, one-cut, rollout pass, West Coast-influenced attack.
It requires an adjustment for everyone on the offense, and it could result in players unable to make the adjustment landing on the bench, or worse.
2. Did they pay Joe Flacco too much money?
The starting quarterback won’t be landing on the bench or worse, not with his $120.6 million contract. More than a year after Flacco had the team over a barrel and took full advantage of the situation, the team awaits full return on the investment.
Sure, they won a Super Bowl. But that trophy was already in the case before they committed to depositing so many millions into Flacco’s vault. Last year, he didn’t perform like a short-list franchise quarterback. This year, he needs to; otherwise, the Ravens will have to start considering their options as the cap numbers begin to grow in the latter years of the deal.
Specifically, the cap number shoots from $14 million and change in 2014 and 2015 to $28 million and change in 2016, setting the stage for another potential showdown in 18 months.
3. Is Ray Rice declining?
Big dollars in the out years of Ray Rice’s contract won’t be an issue. His new deal, signed in July 2012, gave him $25 million in the first two seasons.
That makes is easier to keep him around now, even if Rice has begun the inevitable running-back backslide as the 30th anniversary of his birth approaches. Also, Bernard Pierce may be a better fit for the new offense. And he’ll get two weeks to prove that he is, thanks to Rice’s suspension.
Yes, the suspension. No matter how much the Ravens dig in publicly regarding their support for Rice, surely some in the organization are sufficiently troubled by the events leading to the suspension to result in Rice getting no benefit of the doubt when the time comes to make an objective, detached football decision about his future with the franchise.
Beyond 2014, he possibly won’t have one.
4. How much does Steve Smith have left?
Steve Smith had no future in Carolina beyond 2013, and it made plenty of sense for him to come to Baltimore. Good as he is, Torrey Smith may never develop into a guy who effectively runs every route. Steve Smith can, even if it means stepping on a few sporks.
It’s presumed that Smith, at age 35 and with a possibly nagging knee problem, can still play like he did in Carolina. The folks in Carolina decided that he didn’t merit another $4 million beyond the guaranteed $3 million he’ll earn from the Panthers for 2014. Even though the team reportedly hoped that removing Smith’s big personality would allow younger ones to blossom, the Panthers would have gladly paid the money if they thought Smith’s performance would merit it.
A need for more talent and a lot of toughness at the receiver position, the Ravens didn’t hesitate. Even if Smith can’t play like he used to, the fire remains — and the Ravens are banking on it being contagious.
5. How good is the defense?
Smith’s influence won’t be needed on the defensive side of the ball. Even with the likes of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed long gone, the defense continues to be the soul and the strength of the team.
Defensive lineman Haloti Ngata still anchors the line, with Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Courtney Upshaw providing the pressure from the outside. And while no one expects C.J. Mosley to become the next Ray Lewis, Mosley and 2013 rookie Arthur Brown could push each other to become, in combination, almost as effective.
With a great front seven, the secondary doesn’t need to be. But veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb and second-year safety Matt Elam move the needle in that direction.
Coach John Harbaugh has said that defense aims for a top-five finish every year. This year, the Ravens have a better chance of getting there than most realize.