Before the 2011 season, Eli Manning called himself a top-5 quarterback. Everyone laughed. He won the Super Bowl. Before the 2012 season, Joe Flacco called himself the best quarterback in the NFL. Everyone laughed. He won the Super Bowl. There really seems to be something to this self-proclaiming greatness thing. I am so getting laid tonight! Laugh all you want. I don’t care.
On a serious note, Joe Flacco’s year did remind me of Eli Manning’s year, but Eli Manning the 2008 version. Eli was in his 5th year when he won his first Super Bowl and though nothing about his regular season predicted he was headed for greatness, his team got hot at the right time and Eli came into his own in the post-season and won it all.
Flacco had a career best regular season this year, passing for a career high in yards, tying a career low in interceptions, posting his 2nd best interception total, and led the Ravens to a career high in points as the offense actually played better than their 12th ranked defense. However, the Ravens came into the post-season having lost 4 of 5, having fired their offensive coordinator, and winning a playoff low 10 games, despite 5 wins by a field goal or less. Flacco played well, but nothing about their regular season suggested this was going to happen (in hindsight you can look at their week 16 destruction of the Giants, but this is still obviously an incredibly surprising end to their season).
However, a few things changed in the post-season and they morphed into a Super Bowl Champion. Defensively, Ray Lewis’ return was huge (like the Manning/Flacco parallels there are definitely Strahan/Lewis parallels). He didn’t actually play that well on the field. Sure, he led the post-season with 51 tackles, but when you consider that only 11 of them went for a stop (a tackle within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd and 4th down), that’s not as impressive.
He also missed 3 tackles and allowed 19 catches for 251 yards on 23 attempts. Overall, his -11.7 post-season rating was ProFootballFocus’ worst. However, his intangibles on and off the field definitely made an impact. Veterans around him wanted to win this last one for Ray and as soon as he returned, they believed they had a chance. Plus, those veterans may have been holding out a little bit on defense in the regular season so they’d have something left for the post-season.
Offensively, their offensive line played much better in the post-season. Going with that alignment for the 1st time all season, the Ravens put veteran Bryant McKinnie in at left tackle, allowing Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele to play right tackle and left guard respectively, upgrading 3 positions at once and turning a weakness into a major strength. This helped Joe Flacco tremendously, as did Jim Caldwell taking over for Cam Cameron at offensive coordinator, and some great catches from his receivers. Still, plenty of credit has to be given to Joe Flacco, who became one of 7 active starting quarterbacks with a ring and put himself into that elite category with Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger.
I hate to overreact to 4 games, but Flacco was amazing, completing 57.9% of his passes for an average of 9.1 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions and I have reason to believe that will continue into 2013, despite still a less than stellar statistical regular season track record. Caldwell is here to stay as offensive coordinator and with every throw Flacco made, we learned even more how bad of an offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was.
Cameron was best known for not using Ray Rice enough, but the most damaging thing he did to this offense was not allowing Flacco to air it out more. In 6 games under Caldwell (excluding week 17 when he didn’t play), Flacco threw 20+ yards downfield 41 times, completing 20 for them for 714 yards, 6 touchdowns, and no interceptions. He’s arguably the best deep ball thrower in the NFL and might be even more accurate 20 yards down field than 10. He always looked like he was holding back.
I expect his strong play to continue in 2013, assuming the offensive line continues to hold up. Flacco needs time to set up the deep bombs and I don’t know how much they can trust Bryant McKinnie, a 34 year old free agent with a history of weight problems, going forward. Still, I believe in Flacco into the future. He’ll never put up the numbers Aaron Rodgers did after his Super Bowl run, but he can do what Eli Manning did.
The Ravens will lose quite a bit this off-season. They’re in a tough cap spot and they have to take care of Flacco. I don’t expect either Paul Kruger or Ed Reed to return as free agents. Ray Lewis is obviously gone and soon to be 37 year old center Matt Birk may follow him into retirement. Anquan Boldin, meanwhile, may be a cap casualty. They also have to deal with the fact that no Super Bowl winner has even won a playoff game since the 2004 Patriots. The 2013 Ravens will have everyone gunning for them and they could be both tired and complacent. While there’s nothing about winning the Super Bowl that says you must fail to win a playoff game the following season, I’m not going to pick the Ravens to repeat. They may win a playoff game or two, but that’s just too tough in today’s NFL.
I’m listing this one first as a formality. Obviously, if Joe Flacco does not re-sign, the Ravens will have a huge need at this position. However, he’ll almost definitely be back with the Ravens. If they can’t reach an agreement before the deadline, they’ll just slap the franchise tag or exclusive rights franchise tag on him. He won’t be allowed to hit the open market.
Ray Lewis announced he’ll retire at the end of the season, so this is it for him. Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe were the starters in his absence this season, but the former really struggled and the latter is a free agent. They’ll need to bring someone else in at the position either way, but obviously re-signing Ellerbe and making McClain the 3rd linebacker would be the ideal outcome.
The Ravens’ offensive line really struggled this season, but in the playoffs, they were able to plug Bryant McKinnie in at left tackle, which allowed Michael Oher to play on the right side and Kelechi Osemele to play at left guard, upgrading three positions at once. McKinnie is hardly dependable, however, and he’s a free agent heading into his age 34 season this off-season. Clearly an offensive line with Osemele at left guard and Oher at right tackle is best for them, but it only works if they have a left tackle. They may opt to bring in a young offensive tackle through the draft.
Anquan Boldin will make a non-guaranteed 6 million in his age 33 contract year in 2013 and there are rumors he could be cut, with the Ravens backed up against the salary cap and needing to take care of Joe Flacco. Either way, they need a successor for him because he’ll be a free agent heading into his age 34 season next off-season and wide receivers normally take a year or so to develop. They need a long term complement for Torrey Smith.
Ed Reed is another veteran who might not be back because of the Ravens’ salary cap situation. He’s a free agent who turns 35 in September and, according to rumors, the Super Bowl was probably his last game with the team. Reuniting with Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis or joining Bill Belichick in New England are rumored destinations for the future Hall of Famer. The Ravens, meanwhile, don’t have an obvious replacement.
The Ravens will get top cornerback Lardarius Webb back in 2013, but who knows how much they can depend on him after he tore an ACL for the 2nd time in his career. Cary Williams, meanwhile, is a free agent and, if he’s not brought back, they’ll need to replenish depth.
Terrence Cody hasn’t been the player they expected him to be when they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2010. He was still splitting snaps this year with Ma’ake Kemoeatu, who is a 34 year old free agent this off-season. Cody, meanwhile, is in a contract year in 2013. This could be a position they address this off-season, either through the draft or free agency.
Matt Birk is another veteran the Ravens have. He’s still dependable, but also 37 in June. They drafted Gino Gradkowski in the 4th round last year to be his successor, but if Birk decides to hang them up, they could bring in some competition for the unproven Gradkowski.
This is only if they don’t add a left tackle (or even a right tackle) or bring back McKinnie as a starter and Kelechi Osemele has to play right tackle. The rotating door of Jah Reid, Bobbie Williams, and Ramon Harewood was a mess for the Ravens in the regular season at left guard. More likely than not, however, Osemele will begin the 2013 season as the starting left guard.
Paul Kruger had a breakout year this year, just in time for his contract year. They’ll be alright without him because Terrell Suggs figures to be healthier in 2013, while 2012 2nd round pick Courtney Upshaw should play better, but they should still try to retain Kruger if they can, though that may be tough given their cap situation. If he doesn’t return, they’ll need to add depth.