1.) Steve Bisciotti is not going to change his spots just to appease critics.
When asked for a word to sum up his feelings on the 2016 season, Bisciotti said “bewilderment.”
But as the Ravens owner made clear in answer after answer Tuesday, that feeling did not translate to any great urge to make sweeping changes.
Bisciotti is well aware that many fans wanted and even expected changes to the coaching staff after the Ravens missed the playoffs for a third time in four seasons. But it’s not in his nature to make changes for the sake of change, and he considers it poor leadership to bow to pressure on that front.
“I didn’t get where I am by just firing people,” he said. “It’s just not a good model, especially in this business.”
Bisciotti’s words weren’t startling given the pride he’s always taken in his franchise’s stability. But the degree of comfort he expressed with general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh was striking.
He refused to throw down any ultimatums for what Newsome and Harbaugh must achieve in 2017 to keep their jobs. “I can just tell you that I trust my partners,” he said, looking to the general manager on his right and the coach on his left.
Bisciotti does not view the Ravens as a franchise adrift. Rather, he said a return to deep playoff runs is within reach if the team’s existing parts simply function better.
He fired plenty of executives in the corporate world, but he said it was easier to isolate problems in that context than in the NFL, where the reasons for a team’s successes and failures are deeply interconnected.
Bisciotti’s remarks amounted to a 70-minute defense of his longtime operating philosophy.
He’s correct that the best professional sports franchises tend to be stable at the top. He’s correct that Newsome and Harbaugh have earned significant leeway because of their past successes.
But if the team doesn’t improve substantially in 2017, this will be the last year his gospel of steadiness plays well with even a healthy minority of Ravens fans.
2.) Bisciotti put much of the onus for improving the offense on Joe Flacco.
Many fans were stunned when Harbaugh announced last week he’d retain Marty Mornhinweg as his offensive coordinator. That after the Ravens struggled to move the ball, score points and maintain any semblance of a running game for long stretches of the season.
Predictably, Bisciotti faced a question about improving the offense less than five minutes into Tuesday’s news conference. His answer centered on Flacco.
“That to me is the big one on the offensive side of the ball,” he said. “We need to get more out of Joe, and Joe would agree with me.”
Bisciotti explicitly placed Flacco beside Harbaugh and Newsome as the three franchise leaders who must perform better in 2017.
Flacco received the largest signing bonus in league history in March, and his salary makes him easily the most important player on the Ravens. But by most sophisticated measures of quarterback play, he was one of the 10 worst starters in the league in 2016. That disconnect between pay and performance lay at the heart of the team’s struggles in 2016.
Flacco’s instinct might be to blame himself and his uneven technique. But Harbaugh said the Ravens need to improve everywhere from coaching to blocking to receiving to give Flacco a chance to return to peak form.
When Bisciotti was asked about retaining Mornhinweg, he pointed to Flacco’s comfort with the offensive coordinator as a key factor. He also said he’d consider asking Flacco to participate more aggressively in big-picture thinking about the franchise.
Both owner and coach said they expect Flacco to improve the further he gets from his 2015 knee surgery.
Based on the variety of answers, however, it was clear the Ravens’ leaders regard optimizing Flacco as a complex problem. It was equally clear they regard it as priority No. 1.
The upshot? No one involved with the franchise will receive more scrutiny than No. 5 over the next 12 months.
3.) The Ravens are as worried about their defense as their offense.
When Bisciotti explained his bewilderment with this year’s team, he emphasized the defense’s collapse over the final third of the season.
The Ravens went into their Week 11 loss in Dallas with the best defense in the league — a balanced group that had begun to draw comparisons to great units from the franchise’s past.
But that level of performance was nowhere in sight in vital games against the Cowboys, the New England Patriots or the Pittsburgh Steelers. Those teams are led by the greatest offensive stars in the league, and the Ravens were simply not equal to them.
Newsome pointed to more secondary depth as the No. 1 offseason need on defense, and it’s hard to argue that after the team’s only elite cover cornerback, Jimmy Smith, suffered through another injury-plagued season.
But Bisciotti seemed more broadly dissatisfied with second- and third-year players who did not improve as expected in 2016. He cast a harsh light on cornerback Shareece Wright, and he could just as easily have brought up defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan or outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith.
Given the questions around those players, the impending free agency of stalwart nose tackle Brandon Williams and the advanced years of pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, the Ravens face an unsettled picture on the side of the ball where they’re supposed to be stronger.
4.) Pass rushers aren’t as great a priority for the Ravens’ front office as we thought.
Newsome listed three chief priorities for improving the roster: increasing cornerback depth, making the offensive line larger and stronger and acquiring another potent wide receiver.
It was surprising to hear him leave a productive pass rusher off the list, given how little pressure the defense put on Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger in December losses.
Newsome later explained that such players are hard to find without a top-five draft slot or a big pile of money. He said the Ravens need to focus on developing Smith and Matt Judon, the young pass rushers they’ve already drafted.
I expect the Ravens to take another shot at striking pass-rush gold with a lower-round pick. But it sure sounded like we’re headed for another season of them relying heavily on Suggs.
Newsome said coaches and executives were unanimous in wanting Suggs back, and that makes sense in itself. The veteran linebacker often played well despite serious injuries. And he’s one of the few remaining connections to the Ravens’ glory years.
But Suggs will turn 35 in October, and we’ve seen the limits of a defense that relies on him as its dominant pass rusher.
5.) The Ravens are coping with a dissatisfied fan base that will be angered further by a likely increase in ticket prices.
The news conference was short on concrete news, but team president Dick Cass made it clear the team is likely to raise ticket prices for 2017 after increasing them just once in the last eight years.
Cass cited the $45 million the team has spent on stadium improvements and its record of keeping prices modest relative to the rest of the league.
But there’s no greater way to poke an irritated fan base in the eye than to charge more for a mediocre on-field product.
Expect to hear plenty of grumbling about prices mixed in with fans’ discontent over Mornhinweg, Harbaugh, Flacco, etc.
Bisciotti acknowledged rising dissatisfaction with the team but said it’s a good sign fans are disappointed and angry rather than apathetic.
He and Cass noted that renewal rates for season tickets have always remained close to 100 percent, even when the team has struggled. And they’re probably correct in believing we’re nowhere close to fans dumping the Ravens in significant numbers.
But between the 8-8 record, the lack of changes in the coaching staff and the likely price increase, this will not be an offseason of sunshine and daisies.