For years in Baltimore, the purple and black clad faithful have clamored for one thing: a quarterback whose jersey they can feel safe purchasing. After years of amending Zeier, Grbac, Banks and Boller jerseys with duct tape and magic marker, Ravens fans have found their man in Joe Flacco.
“Now get ‘im some weapons!” their cries echo through the talk radio and message boards.
Photo from the Baltimore Sun
Don’t get me wrong, the Ravens have never had a wideout even worth sniffing the early rounds of any fantasy draft. It would be nice to see a Reggie Wayne or Andre Johnson streaking down the sidelines of M&T Bank Stadium, surely. However, when you take a look at the AFC North in 2008, it seems apparent that sticking to their guns may be what keeps the momentum of the surprising 11-5 2008 season going.
In an interesting case of perception vs. reality, regardless of its reputation of a hard-nosed, mud-faced, cold weather division, the AFC North is pass-happy.
In 2008, despite an injured Carson Palmer and a no-show season from Chad Johnson, the Bengals still threw the ball 55% of the time. The Browns chucked it on 54% of their snaps. The Super Bowl champs? Well, even though their reputation, like the Ravens, speaks to three yards and a cloud of dust, the Steelers actually passed the ball 52% of the time.
The Ravens, in fact, are the only team honoring the North’s reputation as The Other Black and Blue (with the original mantle going to the NFC North, naturally). Baltimore passed the ball just 42% of the time, which is remarkably low not just for the AFC North but for the modern era of the NFL. Granted, this is largely in part to having a rookie quarterback at the helm (by comparison, the Atlanta Falcons’ rookie Matt Ryan and threw the ball 46% of the time, which also can be traced to having one of the best rushers in the game in Michael Turner). Still, the Ravens’ meal ticket was the three-headed monster of McClain, McGahee and Rice. Now, in ’09 the attack may break down differently (I’d like to see more touches for Rice), but philosophically, the Ravens are the lone wolf (or bird) in their division when it comes to old school football.
So what does this all mean? Well, for one, Cam Cameron might as well be using be using Brian Billick’s old stationary, which reads “Former Offensive Pass Guru Turned Woody Hayes Enthusiast.” Secondly, and more importantly, it means that in the AFC North there is a clear rift in the economics of moving the chains.
While this year’s free agent market is a thin one, there are still going to be pass-catchers on the market. The temptation, and the pressure, will be there to ink a commodity name wearing a number in the 80s. If the Ravens are unable to sway a receiver from the open market, the pressure will intensify to grab one in April’s draft. With an especially deep receiver class the temptation will certainly be there to select one in the first two rounds. But we’ve been there before. Taking receivers early means big money, and more importantly big expectations (anyone seen Travis Taylor lately?)
Nobody is claiming that Derrick Mason is a spring chicken, but he is extremely reliable. Like Marvin Harrison before him, the man has made a heck of a career of turning around and catching the football consistently. His ability to stay healthy and limit drops on the safe routes has been and will be crucial in Flacco’s development. For now, the inconsistently explosive Mark Clayton will have to be the Big Play Guy. There may be better number three guys in the league than Demetrius Williams, but there are certainly worse. All in all, it’s not an outstanding corps of receivers, but one you could survive on. Throw a late round pick into the mix, a dollop of Heap and a dash of Yamon Figurs for good measure, and you have a pretty good pass-catching group for a team that never passes. You can’t get A’s in every subject in the NFL. Somewhere, you have to sacrifice resources. With the Browns and Bengals, hopelessly trying to pass their way to the top of the North, they are sacrificing not only their ability to control the clock by running the football, they are exposing themselves defensively.
The other thing that this lopsided offensive mindset in the AFC North means is that there is an absolute premium on the ability to defend the pass. The priority on inking Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, and/or Bart Scott is noble, but it is clear that to win in this division you had better be ready to defend the past. With Chris McAlister unceremoniously shuffled out the back door and Samari Rolle not far behind, the Ravens most pressing rebuilding needs to happen in the secondary. The amount of free agent d-backs worth their salt will not be great, and rookie corners have a hit-and-miss record. This makes the decision to let breakout safety Jim Leonhard slide into the free agent pool a frustrating one. Granted, there won’t be a penny leftover if the Ravens are able to re-sign Lewis, but with everyone else attempting to air it out, wouldn’t it make sense to specialize in stopping the pass?
Warren Buffet once said, “You cannot buy what is popular and do well.” In a division where teams are overpaying due to demand for receiving, I’d heed Mr. Buffet’s advice.