The Ravens Don’t Lack Discipline

This morning there’s a lot of talk about how undisciplined the Ravens are, and how John Harbaugh’s coaching should be scrutinized for having allowed this state of affairs to go uncorrected. To all of this, I say:

Be careful what you wish for – you just may get it.

The Ravens’ love affair with aggression goes all the way back to 2000 – our beloved Super Bowl season. The team was encouraged to be nasty, to be angry, to be mouthy. The Ravens were the team that would kick down your door and shout “Where is the son of a bitch?” The organization wanted its players to be intimidators; the result was spectacular and we loved it. But, there was a price to be paid, because the NFL was paying attention, too. Soon, it became clear that the crews officiating the Ravens games were looking at the team a little more closely than its opponents. No matter, as long as the Ravens were winning games, the penalties could be tolerated.

This mindset has been passed on genetically ever since, and the result has been a team that we have grown to love for its intensity and its passion; we have also learned to expect them to take penalties that seem unnecessary and at times, ridiculous. And yes, every now and then, they have a collective meltdown (21 penalties against Detroit in October, 2005, 13 penalties for 100 yards against New England in December 2007). Still, winning solves everything.

(The Oakland Raiders were the most penalized team of the 1970s, and no one criticized them for being undisciplined. Instead they were hated and feared. Being a consistently winning organization will do that for you.)

Harbaugh accepted this position knowing the culture – a culture that has been cultivated for a decade; to expect him to eradicate that in a year or two is unreasonable and more to the point, not a good idea. Most of these same “undisciplined” players took this team to the AFC Championship game last year, and no one called them to task for over-aggression. (Remember? The big complaint last year was that the offense was one dimensional.) What’s different this year? New faces in prominent places are committing the penalties now; not because they’re undisciplined, but because they’re not as good as the individuals they’ve replaced.

The ugly fact is that offensive linemen hold when they get beat; so do defensive backs. Would you rather that the offensive lineman let young Joe Flacco get hit rather than risk a holding penalty? (For the answer to this question, ask David Carr.) Would you rather the burned defensive back just give up the big play, rather than risk an illegal contact penalty? If you want to eliminate penalties in the offensive line and defensive secondary, don’t preach discipline – get better players.

One big problem with the whole “coaching discipline” idea is that you don’t want players on the field thinking – you want them reacting. When Terrell Suggs got flagged for a block in the back on Domonique Foxworth’s interception yesterday, he was doing what he should have been doing – trying to block downfield for his teammate. The problem isn’t that Sugg is undisciplined, it’s that he isn’t a very good blocker. How much time do you want Suggs spending in practice learning how to avoid blocking-in-the-back penalties?

Yes, the Ravens are a heavily penalized team, but they’re in good company. In fact, 5 of the top 6 most-penalized teams in 2009 would make the playoffs if the season ended today. On the other hand, the Browns have committed over 30 fewer penalties than the Ravens. Do you still want the Ravens to make “discipline” a focal point of its team philosophy?

Be careful what you wish for – you just may get it.

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It’s Not Going To Be Easy, But Here’s How The Ravens Make The Playoffs

After watching the Bengals sweep Pittsburgh yesterday, it occurred to me that the Ravens losses have been to Cincinnati, and at New England and Minnesota. Maybe they’re not really that bad, they’re just not elite. And we’ve all seen teams that were not considered elite sneaking into the playoffs and then going deep into January (actually, that would include last season’s Ravens). Having given it due consideration, the Ravens still have a path to the postseason, but it’s a narrow path. Here’s the way I see it:

These things are a given: The Patriots will win the AFC East, the Bengals will win the AFC North  and the Colts will win the AFC South. Either the Broncos or the Chargers will win the AFC West.

What’s still fuzzy are the two Wild Cards. Here are the teams still in the picture: NY Jets, Miami, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Jacksonville, Houston and the loser of the AFC West race. Of those seven, I’m going to dismiss the Jets and the Dolphins out of hand. [Rex Ryan & Tony Sparano quietly leave through the door in the back of the room.]

Jacksonville and Houston, both 5-3, are facing games against San Francisco, New England, Indianapolis and each other. Both are unexpectedly in contention, and I suspect that at least one of them will succumb under the weight of late-season pressure. However, I also expect the AFC South survivor to earn one of the two Wild Card berths.

The loser of the AFC West race, either Denver or San Diego, each now with three losses, will very probably finish with six or seven. The Ravens have beaten both of these teams, and so have the first tiebreaker, effectively eliminating a threat from the AFC West.

This leaves the real threat to the Ravens’ Wild Card chances, the detested Steelers. The two haven’t met yet, and if one team sweeps the other, that will likely be enough to get that team into the playoffs. This is obviously true of Pittsburgh, which only has three losses, but it is also true of the Ravens, and here’s why:

If the Ravens win the games they’ll be expected to (Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Oakland) that’s eight wins. That leaves two games against Pittsburgh, plus Indy and a visit to Green Bay. Baltimore needs to win at least two of these games, in addition to the others. Of these four, because of the power of the tiebreaker, the two games against the Steelers mean more than matchups with the Colts and the Packers. In other words, beating the Colts and Packers will not mean as much to the playoff math as will the Steelers’ games.

(Of course, if the Ravens lose to the Browns tonight, I will quickly and politely escort them to that door in the back of the room.)

It must be galling to Rex Ryan to have lost to Jacksonville in the way he did. Rex has spent every minute since he arrived in New York talking about a new culture epitomized by defensive toughness. The defensive “genius” imported Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard to jump start that new culture, and now, a defense that looked so good early on is costing him games the Jets should have won. I guess getting away from football for a week didn’t solve all of the Jets’ problems, and now the rookie head coach will have to try and get inside the heads of the head cases he encouraged. I suspect Ryan will become less and less mouthy as the season wears him down. Lesson: Don’t make yourself a target until you’re sure you can deflect the arrows. Didn’t Rex learn anything from watching his Dad’s example?

Isn’t it amazing how excellent Ravens’ linebackers fade into obscurity once they leave the team? And we’re talking about players who were supposed to be game-changers with their new teams. Let’s see, there’s Jamie Sharper, Edgerton Hartwell, Adalius Thomas and now Bart Scott. Am I forgetting anyone?

Watching Tom Brady take apart the Colts last night gave me hope for this Sunday; of course, the Ravens aren’t the Patriots. I’m also pretty sure Peyton Manning is going to light up our secondary. The Colts’ defense is so much weaker without Bob Sanders, it’s amazing. It’s kind of the way the Steelers suffer without Troy Polamalu. I’m starting to consider strong safety the most second most important position in the NFL. By the way, I put that loss entirely on Bill Belichek, the new spokesman for Bad Idea Jeans.  His decision to go for the first down on his own 30 yard-line has to be one of the riskiest moves in recent memory, and it rightfully blew up in his face. Think about this – if Mark Clayton catches that pass, the Pats might be sitting at 5-4.

Trying to handicap the NFC makes my head hurt. The Giants and Falcons  are awesome, the Giants and Falcons suck. The Cowboys are a joke, the Cowboys are pretty good, the Cowboys suck. The Cardinals and the Panthers are pathetic, the Cardinals are going to run away with their division and the Panthers are beating some pretty good teams. The Packers are average, good, terrible, beating Dallas. Come to think of it, maybe the Ravens should play in the NFC…