The night before this game, I found myself at an extremely pleasant family reunion. After my mom took it upon herself to tell all our cousins that I had an upstart blog about the Ravens, I got to fling some stats around with male family members who crawled out of of the woodwork (i.e., “The Man Zone” on the back porch with lawn chairs and beer). Everything was going well until I earnestly asked everyone about the Texans game. Who thought we’d win? Everyone hedged. “Well … I mean, we could,” said Cousin Rodney. “I’m not super-confident, but it’ll be … a fight,” said Cousin Marshall. “Anything is possible,” said Cousin Lee.
Yes, that was the state of things. NO ONE in Maryland expected the Ravens to beat the Texans on Sunday. That includes me, hence the doleful prediction I made. But, did I expect us to lose so monumentally, so catastrophically, so embarrassingly? To be “skull-dragged,” as one friend put it, across hot coals on national television? No. I did not expect that. I called us getting an old-fashioned spanking with a switch, but I expected the Ravens to manage to break the switch in half first, or to at least elude capture for a little while and run bare-butt around the barn before finally getting caught. What the Ravens did, instead, was to see the switch coming, catch the Texans off-guard with a quick spit to the face, and then, while the Texans were on their heels—confused and nervous, thinking, “This might be harder than everybody said!”—trip on some cow poo and fall back onto a rusty pitchfork. And then it turned out that the pitchfork was on top of a land mine, so we also exploded.
This was the worst loss the Ravens have suffered in five years, which makes it the worst loss of the Harbaugh-Flacco Era. The offense played without spark. The defense, while decimated, blew coverages and committed stupid penalties, which did not help the cause when the game was still in reach. Only three guys came to play: Justin Tucker, Terrell Suggs (a miracle), and ex-Texan Jacoby Jones, who said he got his “feelings hurt” when Texans fans ran him out of town for fumbling twice against the Ravens in the playoffs last year. It was an uninspiring display given that we claim to be gunning for the Super Bowl and were facing the only other AFC team with a winning record. I knew this shellacking was coming (heck, I even called that Jonathan Joseph would pick off Flacco), but it still bothers me. After the game a friend asked, “Well, how did that feel?” My response: “Terrible, but as expected. … Like intercourse with a cactus.”
We Are in the Danger Zone
This year started promisingly. After thrashing the Bengals with an up-tempo offense, we fans gushingly wondered about the potential of the new-look Ravens. More speed, with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones! Eliteness from Joe Flacco, who can now make meaningful audibles at the line with bête noire Cam Cameron loosening the leash! And more Ray Rice and Dennis Pitta! Well, BONE ME SIDEWAYS, that joy was short-lived. We Ravens fans are back to seeing what we always have: a terminal case of clusterfuckitis on offense. No matter what guru or assistant or expert or shaman of the black magicks is brought in to help the offense perform, the outcome is bad. Always. And that affects a defense! How can a unit that was lackluster/barely competent to begin with, and now is outright terrible thanks to injury, influence a game when it’s running on fumes because the offense three-and-outs faster than Mark Sanchez in a windstorm?
What’s to blame for our perennial suckitude on offense and our all-around badness this year? It’s organizational. The Ravens are widely praised for being a well-run outfit, and mostly this is deserved: Steve Bisciotti walks a fine line between being the typical billionaire who throws money at his team and an over-invested stakeholder like Jerry Jones. Ozzie Newsome is quietly brilliant at drafting defensive playmakers. But while spending so much attention these past few years on finding offensive complements to Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb, the front office has kinda-sorta ignored the defense. We’ve invested so much effort into correcting a weakness that, in the wash, an actual strength has atrophied. Oh, and by the way, that weakness actually hasn’t been corrected, so now the team is weak ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BALL. With a top-tier running back, good to great wide receivers, and an above average quarterback, that is not a personnel issue. That is a coaching issue. See below.
Cam Cameron Is the Worst of All Things
It’s vogue for Baltimore fans to bash Cam Cameron, but the man deserves every ounce of venom spewed his way. Cameron bases our offense around a scheme known as the Air Coryell, which revolutionized football about 40 years ago (YES, IT IS REALLY OLD AND TERRIBLE) with “the route tree.” In the route tree, a 1 is a pass to the flat, a 9 is a streak down the field, and the numbers in the middle get progressively deeper. A team must have three things in order to effectively run the Air Coryell: the right players (e.g., really fast guys who can run the streaks/9s), a line that can block long enough for the players to execute (e.g., long enough for the really fast guys to run down the field), and an offensive coordinator who is thoroughly plugged into the plans and adjustments of the defense, since the routes do not allow the receivers to improvise much. The Ravens have one and a half of those things. Flacco has the weapons. Our line is decent enough, despite the fact it is anchored by a center as old as Methuselah and a left tackle who moonlights as a false start machine. Cameron is the problem. He’s such a problem that in order to get myself in the mood to broach him, I opened a new tab and went to Google for “poop synonyms.” Dead serious.
On third-and-3, Cameron will call a play that sends receivers down the field on low-success, long-developing 9 routes, as if our receivers are great at getting separation (they aren’t) or our line can block that long (it can’t) or that is a logical thing to do in the first place (it isn’t.) He’ll call play-actions before establishing a run game. He won’t make it easy for Rice to establish a run game, because he’ll call dives into the teeth of a defense when it stuffs the box, as if Rice is a power back who can plow through waiting defenders (he isn’t) or as if our line can push opponents off the ball when opponents know we are about to run (it can’t.) He doesn’t believe in quick slants, a simple staple of every offense in the NFL, or screen passes, which are used to perfection by the elite offenses we are jealous of, e.g., the Saints or Patriots. He refuses to run Flacco from shotgun, despite the fact that Flacco worked exclusively from the shotgun in college, has looked far more comfortable and aware when working from it in the pros, would be farther away from his pedestrian line and thus have a cleaner pocket from it, and has gangly giraffe legs, making every traditional dropback from him look like a Kyle Boller Self-Trip (TM). Against the Texans, it never occurred to Cameron that putting Flacco in shotgun would have put MORE DISTANCE between him and the leaping Houston D-line.
Sadly, because the Ravens have been pretty successful in the HarFlack Era and Cameron was hired at the start of it, he’ll probably never be fired. It’s going to take the Ravens’ completely tanking a season in order for Harbaugh, who is notoriously loyal to his hires, to even consider canning him. Until then, Cameron will just be permanently “on the hot seat,” as if that means anything (it doesn’t.)
Here Are Some Disturbing Trends
If you’re like me and have watched all seven Ravens games so far, you already know that we are one of the most unimpressive 5-2 teams in recent memory. At the halfway point of the season, what have we learned?
- On offense, the Ravens are only feisty and creative when they play at home: We have the longest active home winning streak in the NFL at 14 games, and have won the most home games of any team in the last decade. But right now the Ravens are 1-2 in road games, with the ugly loss to Houston signaling more problems to come. I’m not saying we can’t succeed unless we smell garbage and Old Bay: Flacco is already tied for most road wins in playoff history. But we FLATLINE in opposing stadiums. Some of that falls on Harbaugh, because the troops don’t look focused enough. Some of that falls on Cameron, because the offense scores 32 points per game at home but only 15 points away. And some of that falls on Flacco, who rocks a 106.5 rating at home but only a 55.8 on the road. Super Bowl teams create an identity and mostly stick to it, no matter the venue.
- Our receivers have trouble getting open against man/press coverage, and now that this has been demonstrated, teams will be throwing it at us all the time. Not sure how this is the case when Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are two of the fastest receivers in the league and when Dennis Pitta is essentially Todd Heap 2.0.
- Our quarterback is as hot and cold as they come—from game to game, sometimes from series to series, and it’s more pronounced on the road: He can outclass Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game, or he can score an unfathomable 0.3 on a scale of 0 to 100, as he did against the Texans. Which made me do this.
- We are lucky that Hot Garbage Cary Williams stupidly rejected a multi-year offer from the Ravens this summer. Be you Andre Johnson or Dez Bryant, if you’re a top receiver, lick your chops at the chance to be “defended” by Hot Garbage Cary Williams. He’ll give you an eight-yard cushion on first-and-10 and a five-yard cushion third-and-short.
- Silver Lining #1: Rookie kicker Justin Tucker is a revelation. He CRUSHED two field goals from beyond 50 yards in the Houston game. The points didn’t matter since the game was a laugher, but this kid is Matt Stover with a stronger leg. Also, Billy Cundiff doesn’t have a job in the NFL anymore.
- Silver Lining #2: Terrell Suggs balls so hard. Dude came back about four months early from an injury some people never fully recover from and made impact plays in an NFL game. That is extraordinary. But as announcer Dan Dierdorf said during the broadcast, “An emotional lift will only carry the team so far.” Maybe, just maybe, Suggs’s return and the bye week are the medicine this defense needs.