For most of the 2019 season, the Ravens were the biggest story in the NFL. A novel offensive approach and the rise of eventual MVP Lamar Jackson transformed Baltimore into the most potent, exciting team in the league. Jackson and Co. finished the regular season ranked no. 1 in passing and rushing DVOA, and as the playoffs began, it seemed like the title was theirs to lose. Then, in the blink of an eye, that dream was gone.
The NFL’s single-elimination playoff format makes the postseason an unforgiving place. Teams can own a regular season, enrapturing fans all year, only to see a single nightmare outing bring the ride to a screeching halt. And that’s exactly what happened in the Ravens’ divisional-round loss to the Titans. It felt like everything that could go wrong for Baltimore that day did. Tipped passes turned into interceptions. Deep shots that were caught in September were dropped when it mattered most. The aggressive fourth-down mentality that had propelled Baltimore during the regular season led to turnovers and short fields. The red-hot Titans capitalized on every misstep, and just like that, the Ravens’ magical run was over.
When a team puts together the type of dream season that Baltimore had in 2019, it’s often seen as the start of something—especially for a franchise that’s returning a young MVP quarterback and a majority of both the roster and coaching staff. But year-over-year improvement isn’t a given in the NFL. How teams respond to the type of success that Baltimore had in 2019 is critical, and it often means the difference between regressing and clearing that final championship hurdle. Rather than sitting back and relying on the same formula that got them home-field advantage in the AFC, the Ravens have followed a blueprint that has helped past successful teams get over the top—one they’re hoping will pay the same dividends in 2020.
A variety of factors can hinder retooling efforts by successful teams the following season. Some max out their resources to get to the doorstep of a title and, after falling short, have no clear path to improving the roster. The 2017 Jaguars and 2018 Bears come to mind here—two teams that spent big on outside veterans to jump-start the franchise and were left without much recourse when their expensive rosters weren’t enough. In other cases, brain drain on the coaching side short-circuits a team’s trajectory. The 2016 Falcons lost a hot-shot coordinator to a head-coaching job, and that ultimately did them in. There are also plenty of cases involving lucky teams that were never quite as good as they appeared. Would-be contenders fueled by great defenses can often be fool’s gold, and teams that get scorching hot in inexplicable ways are generally doomed to decline (see: the 2017 Vikings).
It’s important for teams that reach the precipice of a title to know exactly how they got there, and why. The ability to honestly evaluate your own roster is a crucial part of taking the final step. Teams that downplay their own faults, roll with their rosters as constructed, and bank on in-house development typically regret it. But to general manager Eric DeCosta’s credit, the Ravens have shown this offseason that they’re not content to stick with the status quo. Baltimore spent the spring aggressively adding talent at positions of need and fortifying its established strengths. And in doing so, the Ravens have copied a model that’s allowed other teams to get over the Super Bowl hump a year after falling just short.
Over the past decade, there haven’t been many champions who fit that profile, but there’s a reason for that. As with any study of recent title winners, the Patriots muck up the results. Since the last CBA went into effect in 2011, only six other teams have won the Super Bowl. Of that group, only two had trajectories that closely resemble this current Ravens squad: the 2013 Seahawks and the 2019 Chiefs.
By now, the 2012 season is a footnote in Seahawks history, overshadowed by the back-to-back Super Bowl runs that followed. But that year, Seattle emerged as arguably the best team in the NFL. The 2012 Seahawks won their final five regular-season games, allowed a league-best 15.3 points per game, and finished first in weighted offensive DVOA. Following a 24-14 win over Washington in the wild-card round (a game now remembered for the knee injury that derailed Robert Griffin III’s career), Seattle went on the road to face the top-seeded Falcons. Ask any Seahawks fan about that 30-28 last-second loss in Atlanta. It still stings.
The 2018 Chiefs faced a similar kind of heartbreak. An offsides penalty in the AFC championship game gave the Patriots new life, and New England eventually pulled out the win in an overtime nail-biter at Arrowhead. The pain from those losses quickly subsided as both teams went on to win the Super Bowl the following year, and the Ravens are hoping to perform a similar sort of exorcism.
The roster tweaks that Seattle and Kansas City made in the wake of their playoff letdowns offer a couple of lessons that Baltimore has followed this offseason. The first is that it’s important to fortify and refresh areas of the roster that are already considered strengths. The Seahawks’ defensive line had plenty of bulk in 2012, but it lacked much pass-rushing talent. Starting defensive end Red Bryant checked in at around 325 pounds, and pass-rushing specialist Chris Clemons was the lone penetrator in a group full of stout run defenders. To give their front some juice, the Seahawks signed versatile defensive end Michael Bennett to a one-year, $4.8 million deal, and inked sack master Cliff Avril to a two-year, $13 million contract. After leading the league in scoring defense, the Seahawks spent a disproportionate amount of time and money to improve that group; Seattle jumped from 21st in adjusted sack rate in 2012 to seventh in 2013, helping Pete Carroll’s unit stave off regression and finish no. 1 in scoring defense for the second consecutive season. In the Seahawks’ lopsided Super Bowl win over the Broncos, Bennett and Avril were virtually unblockable.
Kansas City didn’t add any big-name free agents to its already potent offense last spring, but the Chiefs did use their first pick of the 2019 draft (56th overall) on speedy receiver Mecole Hardman. The Georgia product’s skill set may have seemed redundant with Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins already on the roster, but Hardman helped make an explosive Chiefs offense even more dynamic.
While Hardman provided reinforcements for a stacked offense, most of Kansas City’s available resources went toward its shaky defense, providing an example of how contending teams can hammer away at problem areas to finish off a championship-worthy roster. Along with hiring coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Chiefs wooed do-it-all defensive back Tyrann Mathieu with a three-year, $42 million deal; they then traded first- and second-round picks to Seattle for defensive end Frank Clark and later signed him to a massive five-year, $104 million deal. Those two contracts alone included more than $70 million in guaranteed money and a combined 2020 cap hit of $34 million. They also represented an ultra-aggressive push by the Chiefs’ front office that, at least in the short term, proved to be a resounding success. Mathieu’s presence at multiple positions helped transform the Chiefs defense down the stretch, and Clark notched a sack in each of Kansas City’s final five games. The value of the Clark deal is certainly up for debate, and the long-term ramifications on the Chiefs’ cap are still unclear (namely how those big contracts will affect Chris Jones’s future with the team). But the decision to make bold moves to rectify problem areas on the roster ultimately helped Kansas City get its championship.
In retooling their roster this offseason, the Ravens utilized both of these lessons. Baltimore’s main weakness in 2019 was an inability to create pressure without sending extra rushers after the quarterback. The Ravens blitzed on 54.9 percent of their plays last season. No other team topped 43.4 percent. Despite that blitz-happy approach, Baltimore finished 15th in the league in pressure rate. Edge rusher Matt Judon (who’s set to earn $16.8 million this season playing on the franchise tag) was the only Ravens defender to tally more than 31 pressures. Baltimore’s defense is built to blitz more than most teams. Sending extra heat is a trademark of respected defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, and the Ravens’ stellar secondary can hold up in man-to-man coverage better than nearly any other group in the league. But an inability to get after the quarterback with four (and sometimes five) rushers was still an issue, even for a team constructed to get away with blitzing. Enter Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe.
The Ravens acquired Campbell from the Jaguars for the low, low price of a fifth-round pick. Campbell will be 34 years old when the 2020 season kicks off, but he’s still one of the best defensive linemen in all of football. He tallied 71 pressures last season and remains a force against the run. Wolfe doesn’t have Campbell’s résumé, but he’s a capable interior pass rusher who will count for just $3 million against the cap this season.
Along with their new pair of defensive linemen, the Ravens also added LSU linebacker Patrick Queen with the 21st overall pick. Queen is a bit undersized at 229 pounds, but he’s a capable coverage man and blitzer who flies around the field. He should step in as a day-one starter who can stay on the field for all three downs—and even if he’s slow to develop as a coverage linebacker (which is the case for most rookies), he should give Baltimore’s pressure packages even more explosiveness.
Similar to the 2012 Seahawks, the Ravens defense was by no means a weakness last year. Baltimore finished second in weighted defensive DVOA after trading for Marcus Peters midseason and coming on strong during the second half of the year. But just like the 2013 Seahawks, the Ravens’ defensive additions will ideally allow them to improve on an already solid blueprint.
Baltimore’s offensive approach has generated a bit more criticism this spring, but it’s not hard to trace DeCosta’s thinking there either. The Ravens used the additional second-round pick they acquired in the Hayden Hurst deal on Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins. DeCosta’s decision to take a running back that high was likely met with some dissent in the analytically forward Ravens front office, especially considering Baltimore had other needs to fill (at receiver, edge rusher, and along the interior of the offensive line) and was already set to return the entirety of a backfield that finished first in rushing DVOA last season. Adding Dobbins with the 55th overall pick felt like a move with limited upside. But let’s flesh that out a bit.
Mark Ingram will turn 31 next season, and his calf injury hampered the Ravens’ running game in their playoff loss to Tennessee. Gus Edwards is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season; if Baltimore tenders him next spring, he’ll likely make more than twice what Dobbins will in 2021. A team’s rushing success is typically tied more to scheme and its talent up front than the skills of an individual running back, but with potential regression looming for the Ravens offense and questions about the interior of the offensive line following stalwart guard Marshal Yanda’s retirement, it’s possible that DeCosta believed Dobbins gives Baltimore’s running game a better chance of sustaining last year’s success than whatever guard was available late in the second round.
With the way the Ravens’ running game is constructed, it seems like Baltimore could have found an eventual successor to Ingram and Edwards at a lower price. A replacement-level back dropped into the Ravens’ cushy offense could probably average 5 yards per carry. But by adding a back like Dobbins, the Ravens are planning for their future while also maximizing their present. It’s more likely a back with Dobbins’s skill set will be able to transcend the slight deterioration of the Ravens’ overall structure and allow Baltimore to keep leaning on its run game and Jackson’s unique talents as a QB, even as other circumstances shift.
How that decision will eventually play out is anybody’s guess, but the mind-set that DeCosta and Baltimore’s front office took this offseason aligns with that of other teams who’ve gotten over the finish line in the recent past. The Chiefs’ late-season run last year and the ascension of Patrick Mahomes made it easy to forget that Baltimore ruled the league for most of 2019. But by applying a similarly aggressive approach to their moves this spring, the Ravens now have a chance to remedy that one year after the Chiefs did the same.