A sparse chant of “let Joe throw!” echoes down from a small cadre of fans in purple camo pants sitting in the 200-level. From the same corner of M&T Bank Stadium, a season ticket holder shouts in a hoarse Dundalk pitch “let Rice run the f$#%ing ball!” Their dissonance melds into a single cacophony that breezes in the general direction of Malcolm “Cam” Cameron. The Ravens offensive coordinator hears none of this. He glances up at the game clock. 5:54 remains in the third quarter. It is Christmas Even 2011, and the Ravens have just stretched their lead over the Cleveland Browns to 20-0. Nobody seems pleased.
They say the best position to have in a football town is backup quarterback. You get to wear a baseball cap and a pair of headphones and look like you’re listening intently during timeouts. Nobody knows what you might be capable of if called in for duty. Thus, you might be the next Joe Montana. If backup QB is the most desirable job in football, offensive coordinator ranks dead last, just behind the guy responsible for washing Terrence Cody’s jock.
The play-caller is the most important decision-maker in the scope of a single football game. A non-play-calling head coach might make a crucial “go for it on 4th” decision or throw a pivotal challenge flag, but ultimately, everything that leads a team into those situations is dictated by the decisions made by the offensive coordinator. Cam Cameron made 62 decisions on that chilly Christmas Eve afternoon. Every single one of them was questioned. Maybe Cam Cameron deserves to be questioned. To a certain extent, so does every decision maker in pro sports. However, what Cameron endures publicly would make most of us crumble privately. How much of it is warranted, and how much of it is “Mobtown” simply piling on?
At every level of team sports, there are a vociferous group of supporters who think they know better. Every coach, down to the volunteer dad coaching his daughter’s under-8 soccer team, is aware of this. It’s one of those jobs where everyone thinks they know better. Everyone went to school, thus everyone knows how to do a teacher’s job. Everyone’s watched a football game, has beyond a 101-level grip on modern offenses, and thinks they could call better plays. Perhaps they’ve even spent a few dozen hours playing Madden, with similar-but-hardly-authentic playbooks for all 32 NFL teams.
Like most professions, calling NFL plays is much harder than it looks on the Xbox. Take a look at Brian Billick’s playbook (here in full PDF) from the 1998 Minnesota Vikings. It checks in at 278 pages (most NFL teams issue separate playbooks for offense and defense) and features about a dozen different plays per page. Keep in mind that this offense is almost 15 years old. Do you think NFL offenses have gotten more or less complex in the last decade and a half? Now take this document, and imagine you had to author it over the course of a spring. No big deal. Then, teach it to a group of position coaches in a matter of weeks. Then, teach it to thirty guys who barely (or didn’t) graduate college. Once you’ve mopped up those paltry tasks, bring your creation to an NFL field every Sunday and get those thirty guys to execute the thousands of diagrams perfectly from memory, all against an equally determined defensive coordinator and a wrecking crew of NFL defensive players (whose playbook is half as thick).
This is the point where fans will rightly point out that Cam Cameron is well-compensated to perform these tasks as his full-time job. That’s a very fair point. It needs to go both ways, though. If a third of NFL offensive coordinators fail annually in these tasks, how could a guy clocking 50 hours a week in the shipping industry know any better? Clearly, fan frustration has derived from key lapses in third down conversion and seemingly conservative decision-making. Long-time Ravens fans might be so starved for offense, though, that they don’t even know it when they see it. Cameron has called the plays in Baltimore for four seasons. In those years, his Ravens offenses have been in the top five in franchise history in both yards per play and total points scored every single time. Those may not be the standards he is held to, but against his predecessors, Cameron is unequaled. So why does the mob call for his head week in and week out?
The mob will never be happy because the mob doesn’t even know what it wants. The “let Joe throw”/”let Ray run” dichotomy illustrates perfectly the tension of opposites an offensive coordinator faces. This dichotomy is at the forefront of the torches and pitchforks metaphorically surrounding one of the four offensive coordinators remaining in the NFL playoffs. There are plenty of football reasons as to why both philosophies are situationally valid. From a fan’s perspective, the “let Joe throw” bloc derives from the very context in which the Baltimore Ravens exist. Historically, the Ravens have not been a “pass-happy” franchise. The last five Super Bowl champions have thrown more times than they’ve run. In short, the grass always looks greener.
The other side derives from a cultural pervasiveness of the nebulous idea of “smashmouth” football. Announcers and analysts get fired up for passing TDs, but when it comes to controlling the clock at pounding the ball, they speak in all caps. “IN ORDER TO WIN GAMES IN THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE, YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO RUN THE FOOTBALL.” This ethos parlays nicely with Baltimore’s fans that value toughness and simplicity.
Caught in the middle, as always, is Cameron. They screamed at him to run the ball. He called 459 rushing plays this season. Those plays resulted 124.8 yards per game, which was good for 10th in the league. They looked at the top-10 rushing attack, featuring a Pro Bowl feature back, and screamed “let Joe throw!” So, Cameron let Joe throw. He let him throw 542 times, just seven tosses fewer than the franchise record (set by Vinny Testaverde in 1996). So far, Flacco has been good when he’s needed to be, the proof being simply that the quarterback hasn’t played the Ravens out of any meaningful games.
Cam Cameron surely isn’t out to please his critics. His advocates, the few he may have, aren’t his source of motivation either. He’s out to move the football. You can question him, which is your right as a fan. What you can’t do is ask the impossible, which is pleasing two philosophies engulfing the mob of Raven nation on the brink of its third AFC Championship game. Whether he lets Joe throw or lets Ray run, the end will have to justify the means for Cameron.
When half the people disagree with every decision you make and the other half disagree with the one you made immediately prior, you are by definition perpetually wrong.
In the eyes of Mobtown, only two more wins will make Cam Cameron right.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com