Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ravens Postmortem Posting

It's time to put a final stamp on the team before we move on to baseball and the Orioles (that doesn't mean that big news, like CBA updates and the draft are going to be ignored. But pitchers and catchers report tomorrow, and Punxatawny Phil didn't see his shadow, so we need to get into springtime mode). So let's get into it.

  • Haloti Ngata is the top priority this offseason
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of football knows that Ngata is one of the top 3-5 defensive tackles in the league. He is going to get paid, either by the Ravens or by another team. I cannot see a scenario where the Ravens let him go, but the possibility remains (unless the Ravens use the franchise tag on him, if the franchise tag is even valid, which depends on which side is talking, which means he might not even be an unrestricted free agent, but then again he might be...aww hell. Just read the "What the CBA means to my team" tab in a minute). Either way, he is going to make a hell of a lot more than the $1.7 million he made in 2010.
  • Fixing the OL is a close second
The offensive line was a mess this year. Losing Jared Gaither was a huge blow that they never recovered from. I do think that Michael Oher can be an upper level left tackle but I also think that his style might just be more suited to the right side of the line, which is more about brute force and raw power than the technique required for the left side. Oher has strength in droves to go along with an insanely quick first step. But he is a little squat for the left side and the pass rushers coming at a right handed QB's blind side (man, that would make a good book/movie title). Unless the CBA makes Gaither a part of the Ravens next year I do not think he will be on the team in 2011, so something needs to be done. I still have a hope that Oniel Cousins will make a good RT, allowing Oher to continue to mature at LT (even if I seem to be the only person besides his parents who holds that belief), but Marshall Yanda is not the answer at tackle. At tackle he is serviceable. At right guard he is above average,and his playing RG allows Chris Chester to back him and left tackle Ben Grubbs as well as center Matt Birk, who has said he plans to come back next year, but who I firmly believe will be done after 2011. Chester is best suited to play C, so a year of backing up and studying under Birk would only be a benefit to Chester. But no matter what, the arrangement they used this year will not suffice against the likes of the Steelers, Patriots, Colts, and Jets.
  • Hard decisions at RB
Ray Rice is a very good halfback, and if the OL issues get resolved he could have an excellent 2011. But who will be in the backfield with him? Le'Ron McClain is in the same boat as Ngata in regards to free agency and Willis McGahee has a contract that is now cost prohibitive for any player not a full time starter. So unless McGahee agrees to a pay cut / restructuring of his deal, he will most likely be cut. McClain wants more carries, wants to play more halfback and less fullback. He might have to go elsewhere in order to fulfill his desires. The Ravens signed FB Jason McKie (they seem to have a thing for Irish running backs) and are still high on the potential Jalen Parmalee as a RB (the problem is he is too similar in style to Rice, so if he is the primary backup he robs the Ravens of the "change of pace" back). Expect some major changes here next season.
  • What to do at WR
Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason are the only starters under contract for 2011. Donte Stallworth and TJ Houshmandzadeh are both free agents. It is difficult to see a way that Stallworth comes back next year (unless he has a heretofore unknown love for running end arounds and standing on the sideline). TJ (I'm too lazy to keep typing his last name, and it is making my spellcheck go into convulsions) is another story. If Cameron is going to fix this offense (more on that coming), he needs a burner, a slot receiver (2 max), and a pass catching TE. Last year we had a burner that barely saw the field (Stallworth), 3 slot receivers (Mason, Boldin, TJ), and a pass catching TE (Todd Heap). David Reed could replace Stallworth (another reason I don't see the team re-signing him). But having 3 slot receivers just does not mesh with the scheme (another "look down/keep reading" reminder), so the Ravens need to choose between Joe Flacco's security blanket in Mason (in the last year of his contract and a threat to retire at any time) and a slightly younger but with a lot less wear and tear TJ to pair up w/Boldin. And it is not going to be an easy decision (unless TJ makes it for them by signing with another team). From this little corner of the internet, I think the hard choice is the right choice. While I am thankful for everything Mason has done for the team and the development of Flacco, TJ is better for this team right now.
  • Can Joe Flacco take the next step?
2011 will be Year 4 of the Joe Flacco era (if he wins a Super Bowl, he may qualify for epoch status). Every year he has improved, but he has yet to take the next step and truly lead the team. He is still slow to go through his progressions and does not trust his receivers (part of the Cameron bulletpoint). Also, he needs to get better at getting rid of the ball when the best play is to start over. How many times did Flacco hold onto the ball and take a sack? And when he ran out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage instead of throwing the ball away (I believe it was in the playoff game against Pittsburgh), I shook my head in disbelief. It showed a complete lack of awareness of down and distance, game management, and most importantly leadership. How is the team supposed to follow him into battle if they can't trust him to make the smart play? And I do not want to hear that he is not a "rah rah" kind of guy, because that is not what he needs to do. Not everybody can be Ray Lewis. But he needs to be able to do what Joe Montana did and what Peyton Manning does, and that is get in the face of the guy who is not doing their job when they are on the sideline. It doesn't need to be public, it doesn't need to be big, bold, brash, or loud. But it needs to happen. He needs to be able to go up to the guy who missed his blocking assignment and hold them accountable for it.
  • Time for Cam Cameron to put up or shut up
I was among the throng calling for the forced resignation of Cameron after the lack of offensive performance last year, however I understand the reason for keeping him. Basically with the strong possibility of a work stoppage this year, one that will in all likelihood will stretch into training camp before it is resolved, and it is simply not feasible to install a brand new offensive system with a whole new terminology. That being said, there is a disconnect between Cameron and Flacco that needs to be resolved. It is obvious that former quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson was a buffer in between them that now former QB coach Jim Zorn was not (probably because Zorn is a disciple of the West Coast offense while Cameron runs the "Air Coryell" offense). In Cameron's defense, I will say that the team did not exactly do him any favors by overloading the offense with slot receivers, but Cameron seemed like he was doing too much ego placating and not enough scheming to use his offense to capacity. But there are other factors involved in why the offense didn't work. To wit:
  1. Ray Rice is not a classic Coryell running back. The offense uses a powerful inside running game to keep the defense from rotating too many players into the flats and the outside thirds of the defense. Rice CAN run inside when the OL is completing their blocks, but he is not a power runner in the classic sense.
  2. Joe Flacco is not comfortable throwing to a spot. He likes to wait until the receiver is open, and receivers are not usually open in the NFL because the secondaries are too good. The Coryell offense is predicated on going through your progressions with the deep read first and then coming back towards the QB. Flacco has the arm, but he can't read the receiver's ability to break away from the coverage, and he doesn't like to throw it to the spot that the receiver is moving to before the receiver has made his move to that spot. He doesn't anticipate well. Again, this is something that he can develop, but after 3 years in the same scheme he should be further along than this, unless Cameron is playing it too safe in his coaching of Flacco (which is a valid possibility).
I am beginning to think that Cameron's disastrous stint as coach of the Miami Dolphins might have affected his coaching as an offensive coordinator. To put it another way, he's lost his mojo. He is so afraid of getting fired again that he won't open up the offense and let it take chances. One of the tentpoles of the Coryell offense is to shrug off an incompletion, because the offense is designed to chew up big chunks of yardage in a hurry. But Cameron seemed to be playing it safe, and as much as Flacco checked down last season, it makes me wonder if the official edict was to go to the safety valve if the 1st read wasn't there instead of actually going through the 2nd and 3rd option. Some of that could be attributed to the makeshift OL and Cameron not trusting that they could hold their blocks long enough for Flacco to go through his reads and some of that could be attributed to the team not having those tools that matched his offense. But no matter what, he needs to put up or shut up this season.
  • What the CBA means to me (and to you)
The owners opted out of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, so it expires March 4th. At that point, if there is no new CBA in place, expect the owners to lock out the players. This labor unrest is mainly about money (cue shocked reaction), but there are other issues at stake. The owners want a rookie wage scale like they have in the NBA, and they want more stringent drug testing (they only want that because it makes them look better in the eyes of Congress, and they want to be left alone to police the league how they please). Veteran players are fine with the idea of a rookie wage scale since that frees up more money for them, but everything else requires a tat for the tit (I don't think that word is dirty in this context, but it is always fun to type it).

But the big thing is the money. The league claims that the current agreement is economically unfeasible, but they refuse to open their books to back up their claims (since the Packers are publicly owned their books are open and they support the league's claim. But that is just 1 of 32 teams and it is not fair to assume that the problems of one team are the problems all teams). The last CBA was agreed to by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 2006, right as he was on the verge of retirement. It is fairly obvious that he did not want there to be any labor unrest on his watch when there hadn't been any since 1987, and he gave in to too many of the demands of the NFLPA, and he gave too much of the revenue pie to the players. But now the owners want to put the revenue genie back in the bottle but the genie is quite happy with the way things are now, and until the league can prove that the health of the league is at stake there is no reason for the players to back down.

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