FOOTBALLSTORIES-BALTIMORE, FORMER HEAD COACH BRIAN BILLICK ON THE 2015 RAVENS
In my experience, having been around this game and this league for nearly 40 years, every team enters the season believing they are contenders.
But the great Bill Walsh once told me that at the end of the day, there are really only a half dozen teams heading into the season that have a legit shot at winning the Super Bowl. Sure, there are outliers, for example, our championship run in 2000 was preceded by an 8-8 season and Baltimore hadn’t finished with a winning record since the inception of the organization.
But at the end of the day, while everyone says it publicly, there are only a handful of teams that can realistically believe, from an unemotional business perspective, that they can and will contend for a Super Bowl that season.
In early August, while covering the Baltimore Ravens’ training camp for the NFL Network, head coach John Harbaugh, in a very gracious and classy gesture, asked me to address the team post practice.
I took that time to express my belief that the 2015 Baltimore Ravens are one of those handful of teams that has a legitimate shot to be standing on the podium come February 7, 2016 at the
conclusion of Super Bowl 50.
Here are five reasons why:
1 – Joe Flacco. It’s a quarterback driven league and the Ravens have a dandy in Flacco. Flacco has led the Ravens to six playoff appearances in just seven years with the team. The only other player to do that in NFL history…Otto Graham. But not only does Flacco get them into the postseason, he wins when it matters most. Since he entered the league in 2008, his 10 playoff victories are more than any other quarterback. That’s three more than Tom Brady if you are keeping score.
Yes, he lost a dynamic deep threat in Torrey Smith this offseason, but if anyone has proven he can play through transition, its Flacco.
He lost Anquan Boldin to a trade, he lost favorite target, Dennis Pita to injury and all he did was set a career-high in passing yards with 3,986. We in the media make a big hubbub about the “elite” quarterbacks in the NFL and Flacco deserves to be a big part of that discussion.
2 – Returning Offensive Line. The Ravens will return all five preferred starters from last season, 76 starts among them. That’s a group of starters that set franchise records in points and total yards, and most importantly, kept their quarterback clean. The Ravens finished third best in the NFL in sacks given up with Flacco being taken down just 19 times in 16 starts. Only Peyton Manning started all 16 games and was sacked fewer times.
All the while, they blocked for a running back that led the NFL in yards per carry with 5.4 last season. Justin Forsett is a solid back, but lets face it, he came to the Ravens as a journeyman player that had just seven career starts in seven previous seasons. His 2014 success is due in large part to those five mauling lineman.
3 – The Defensive Front. Sure, trading Haloti Ngata to the Lions sounds detrimental to the defensive front, but the number actually suggest otherwise.
When Ngata was suspended four games last season for performance enhancing drugs, rookie DT Timmy Jernigan started in his sted, and the team went 3-1 in that span and actually allowed fewer yards per play and had a higher sack percentage with Jernigan on the field. Combine that with Ngata’s would be $16 million cap hit to Jernigan’s $1 million and the move looks absolutely brilliant from both a business and performance perspective.
On the edge, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are the best pass rushing tandem in the NFL. Last year, they combined for the most sacks (29) for any duo in the NFL and the team as a whole finished with the second most sacks in the league.
Even more impressive, they were just as good against the run, ranking as the fourth best rushing defense and doing so in the AFC North – a division known for its commitment to the running game.
4 – John Harbaugh. More than anything, winning in the NFL is all about the talent level of the players, but having a coach that can maximize that talent and continually put his team in the best position to win cannot be overstated.
John Harbaugh does just that. In fact, over the last seven years, he has done it better than any coach in the NFL not named Bill Belichick. And Harbaugh has done it while having to play the Steelers and Bengals twice every season while Belichick has benefited from playing in the much weaker AFC East. While much improved this year, the Bills and Dolphins haven’t been very competitive this decade.
5 – Special Teams. The often overlooked but still very important component of the game, particularly for a team with this make-up, the Ravens boast arguably the best pair of specialists in the entire NFL. Justin Tucker and Sam Koch have been the symbol of consistency. Tucker has hit on 90% of his career field goal attempts and also had a career high 60 touchbacks on kickoffs last season.
Koch, the starting punter for the last nine seasons in Baltimore, had a career low in attempts with just 60 (a very good sign offensively) while also setting a career best in net average of 43.3 yards. Those touchbacks and booming punts, along with solid coverage units, aren’t the sexy topics of post game press conferences, but they surely do have an impact on the game.