Analysis: Fumbling the playoffs, Baltimore style
How the Baltimore Ravens’ seemingly guaranteed postseason slot fell through the cracks
Since the year 2000, the Baltimore Ravens have reached the postseason 13 times.
Looking back on the 2021 regular season, the Ravens did not match their previous regular season performances, nor did they reach the playoffs. Despite Baltimore having a team with such a talented and fresh roster, they would see their picturesque season, with a near-guaranteed postseason slot, disappear before their eyes.
The run-heavy Baltimore offense is often lauded for its success on the ground — led by franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson. Jackson’s a difference-maker with his legs and set the NFL record for most rushing yards in a single season by a quarterback in 2019, with 1,206 rushing yards.
While Jackson’s running skills certainly make him stand out, the 25-year-old quarterback was quoted in a 2019 interview saying that he would rather throw the ball than run.
Statistically, Jackson runs the ball himself 32 percent of the time, while throwing the other 68 percent. The Ravens’ offense emphasized on the run game with star running-backs Gus Edwards and JK Dobbins. However, all three would be gone from the Ravens’ roster by the end of the season.
Injuries are an integral part of every team’s overall performance. They can make way for bench players to showcase their talent, but they can also be the catalyst for a losing season in many instances. In 2021, injuries for the Baltimore Ravens seemed to be a phenomenon that was ever-present and unavoidable.
Before the start of the season, Baltimore suffered significant losses to their starting roster. The Ravens lost franchise cornerback Marcus Peters, defensive-end Derek Wolfe, guard Ben Powers and veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith. These initial injuries, while damaging to the cohesiveness of the Baltimore defense and pass protection, were manageable.
In addition, many of the injuries that the Ravens starting squad suffered were not in-game injuries, but serious, season-ending injuries that took place during practice sessions.
The Ravens’ injury troubles quickly became unmanageable. In the following weeks, the Ravens would lose newly-drafted Dobbins, Edwards, running-back Justice Hill, offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, full-back Patrick Ricard, safety DeShon Elliott and newly re-signed, star cornerback, Marlon Humphrey. These injuries left Baltimore without a single starting running-back, a battered secondary and a weak offensive line, creating a recipe for disaster.
Despite the unsavory odds, the Ravens managed to start the season strong, and the team scraped by with a record of 8-3, further solidifying their standing in their division and likely securing them a playoff berth.
Just when Baltimore seemed to be approaching the light at the end of the tunnel, they suffered what was undoubtedly their biggest loss of the season — Jackson.
The Ravens take pride in their offense, which has been carefully catered to the needs and skills of NFL MVP quarterback Jackson. The run focused offense allows Jackson to use his innate running ability and supplement it with the occasional deep throw down the field and passes to his most frequent target — star tight-end Mark Andrews.
Baltimore had been placing more emphasis on their pass targets. Over the past couple seasons, the Ravens have been beefing up their wide-receiver core with draft additions like Rashod Bateman and trade acquisitions like Sammy Watkins from the Kansas City Chiefs.
Despite the steadily improving wide-receiver core, due to the lack of Lamar Jackson’s presence on the field or that of any starting running backs, Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh's expertly crafted team was in shambles.
The battered Baltimore squad put up a surprisingly good fight given the sheer number of key starters missing. After reaching the peak of their season at eight wins and three losses, they would lose three games with their injured squad by one point — including a loss from a nail-biting game led by backup quarterback Tyler Huntley, against the NFC champion, Green Bay Packers squad.
These three losses could have been avoided. Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh chose to attempt two-point conversions to avoid going to overtime. In all three attempts, the Ravens fell short. This resulted in the losses of three games that could have been otherwise won and kept the Baltimore squad in playoff contention.
Expectedly, Harbaugh caught flak from Ravens fans over the ambitious play calling, but maintained that it was a team call which led him to decide to go for two points on three separate occasions. These three games which were lost to aggressive play calling, would have opened the postseason gates for the Ravens — if won. This leaves many to wonder what the outcome would have been if Harbaugh had more faith in his team and chose to take Baltimore into overtime with an extra-point completion.
Unfortunately, these three failed two-point conversion attempts led to losses, combined with a blowout loss to the division rival Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore’s playoff hopes quickly dwindled and eventually disappeared altogether - leaving the Ravens without a postseason slot and significant ground to cover in terms of improvement and recovery in the offseason.
Baltimore’s season ended at a mediocre record of 8-9, following six straight losses after the peak of their season at 8-3. While this clearly isn’t the outcome that the Ravens organization hoped for, Baltimore has a seemingly bright future ahead of them and many reasons to be excited about the 2022 regular season.
There has been some speculation around a possible coaching change after John Harbaugh’s aggressive play calling cost the Ravens a potential playoff berth. However, it is unlikely that a change would happen in the head coach position, as Harbaugh's track record in Baltimore shows that he is more than capable of leading the Ravens to the playoffs.
After finishing 4th in the AFC North division, Baltimore will receive a decent lineup in the upcoming NFL Draft that could help fill in the weak spots of their on-field squad — namely offensive line and cornerback positions. Jackson, while injured, showed improvement when healthy and should enter the 2022 season ready to play with a refreshed and dangerous Ravens squad.