John Harbaugh may be nearing last stand for stuck-in-middle Ravens, more notes
Ravens fans feeling uninspired by team that's .500 in five years since Super Bowl win
It's hard to look at what's going on in Baltimore – or what's not going on, to be more to the point – and not see it as, potentially, John Harbaugh's last stand.
The former Super Bowl-winning coach has two years on his deal, and his status, like the very franchise he is a part of, appears to be stuck perilously in the middle. The Ravens are too old in some key roster spots, with not enough young talent on the rise. They're not good enough to truly compete with the better teams in the NFL (1-5 against winning teams in 2017 while facing primarily back-up quarterbacks all season) and they are just .500 since winning it all five years ago. They have just enough talent to finish ahead of the dregs of the AFC (a deep list in this weak season) and not bad enough to secure a top-10 pick.
It's not where you want to be.
The decision to keep embattled offensive coordinator Marty Monrhinweg read like a line in the sand to those in the coaching and front-office ranks after Harbaugh has been pushed to let go of so many other coaches in the past. No matter how much many fans and some in the front office believe superior game planners and play callers are out there, Harbaugh's public message immediately after the season up to today never wavered. He's not firing yet another OC.
Harbaugh, the son of a coach and the brother of a coach and the brother-in-law of a coach, understands better than most how that fraternity works, and constantly firing your own guys while the personnel department of the Ravens remains virtually unchanged year after year (despite a run of dubious drafts and decisions) isn't going to help your ability to lure and recruit new coaches to your staff. It starts to erode your status among your peers and obscures some of the major underlying issues, specifically a lack of blue-chip players across the board, especially at skill positions.
Couple the outcome on offense with the with the decision to promote from within at defensive coordinator after the retirement of Dean Pees (Don Martindale moved up from linebackers coach) despite so many qualified former Ravens coaches being available (Chuck Pagano, Steve Spagnuolo, Mike Nolan, to name a few) and it smells like a lame-duck situation. If Harbaugh is going to be gone in a year, then top coaches can catch that sniff and they'll look for longer-term deals elsewhere. And if ownership knows somewhere down deep that sweeping changes are coming in a year, then why take on a bunch of top salaries now only to blow up the staff in 2019?
If nothing else, the process has left some in these parts feeling less than inspired.
Thus far, the message has been status quo from the Ravens, at least what little has come out of their camp, and until owner Steve Bisciotti does his annual offseason address that's likely to continue to be how others in the NFL are reading this situation. There are several factors pointing against a quick jump up. Baltimore lacks a haul of top picks in 2018 and any real tradeable commodities. They're also running out of big cap space and are stuck with the huge contracts for Joe Flacco and injured corner Jimmy Smith for another year. Recent draft classes have flashed next to nothing. Their huge needs are at pass catcher and the free-agent class stinks at that spot, while Baltimore's history of drafting receivers is spotty at best.
So, yeah, they are stuck in the middle with the 16th pick -- again -- and with a coach who isn't quite a lame duck (as he has a contract beyond 2018) but seems to be quacking like one. Hordes of empty seats at vital December games did not go unnoticed by Bisciotti and, as a resident of this city, I can assure you that the football fans here are sick of borderline unwatchable football on the offensive side of the ball. Selling more of the same in 2018 will produce a similar game-day result in the stands.
Of course, when Breshad Perriman (first round) and Maxx Williams (second round) look like complete busts (combined for 25 catches, 163 yards and 1 touchdown all season) and the veterans signed to bolster the passing game, Danny Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin, combine for 640 receiving yards and three touchdowns all season, a coaching staff of Bill Walsh with Don Coryell as his offensive coordinator isn't going to produce much, either. And with virtually no proven receivers or tight ends under contract for next season, and Flacco appearing in steady decline with injuries mounting in recent years, even the return of some quality offensive linemen from injury isn't going to do much to raise hopes of 2018 being a breakout year on offense.
Something has to change with how the team is evaluating talent, because similar decisions to those made since last hoisting the Lombardi will only yield similar results. And Bisciotti putting off the macro-level stuff until 2019, and punting in 2018, could have major turnstile ramifications this season. He's got a Hall of Fame general manager in Ozzie Newsome, but one whose recent results haven't been up to his own standards, and an excellent, Super Bowl-winning head coach in his prime who could get a top pro or college job within hours if he was let go, but one who has not been able to secure or develop the type of young, innovative offensive assistants who are all the rage (Adam Gase, Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Matt Nagy, etc.).
And for all of their considerable expertise and brain power – excellence and stability have been hallmarks of this franchise – the Ravens have missed the playoffs four of the last five years and seem to be sputtering around 8-8 all the time.
Stuck. In. The. Middle. Again.
Tough spot to be in, and one with nothing but tricky choices. Personally, I'd extend Harbaugh again – not the one-year, cosmetic extension he got before the 2017 season, but a new pact that truly re-commits the parties long-term. Anything short of that – or a big front office shake-up – will foster the perception the franchise is treading water. And more of the same results in 2018 would leave Bisciotti no choice but to overhaul the team a year from now.
- Still a strong group of potential defensive coordinators available for teams. Vic Fangio has no deal to return to the Bears and while that might occur, it's far from certain. As more head coaches are hired, he could have opportunities to join those staffs. No doubt Chicago wants him back. Chuck Pagano is open to returning if the right opportunity presents itself, Mike Nolan is more than worthy of another coordinator shot, and while the Giants would like to retain defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo as part of their new staff, time will tell if that is the case. Should they hire Pat Shurmur as their next head coach, Spags as the DC would be anything but a shock …
- If Josh McDaniels does take a head-coaching position, keep an eye on these two names as his coordinators: Raiders quarterbacks coach Jake Peetz and Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus … Norv Turner is shaping up to be the Panthers' next offensive coordinator, and with his brother, Ron, already in line for a more formal position on that coaching staff, and with both men likely to have their sons involved as well, it could be the ultimate Turner family affair in Carolina. I'd be very surprised if it doesn't come together … Norv Turner was high on Steve Wilks's list of possible offensive coordinators should he land a head-coaching job. But Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo was and is the top name on Wilks' list. Wilks had a strong showing with the Giants in that interview and meets the Cardinals today and then the Colts … Count me among those who expect Atlanta offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to join Pete Carroll's staff in Seattle when the Falcons' season ends. Would be stunned if that doesn't happen. And Jedd Fisch, most recently at UCLA and a product of the Shanahan offense the Falcons run and who formerly was the coordinator in Jacksonville, will be a top candidate in Atlanta, sources said.
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