Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is trying to walk the line without falling off the edge — and possibly taking down his team, as well.
Everything seems to be great in the purple Kool-Aid world of the Ravens. The team has won the AFC North title. The Ravens have a bye in the opening round of the playoffs, giving them a chance to heal, and they will get a home playoff game for the first time since 2007.
But here's the problem: The team's two potential Hall of Famers, middle linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, haven't played well, and the Ravens haven't addressed the issue.
You can't hide them any longer. They're still playing well enough for the Ravens to win most of their games, but are playing poorly enough where they might cost them deep into the postseason.
Harbaugh knows it.
He watches film. As the players say, "the eye in the sky doesn't lie." But for right now, it's not a fight he chooses to take on because if he does, he risks losing his team.
Baltimoreans have been down this sensitive road before. The Orioles went through it with shortstop Cal Ripken. Reed and Lewis are still both enormously popular in the locker room, especially with the young players who practically worship them.
If you upset Reed and Lewis, you're rolling the dice with team chemistry. Also, there is a loyalty issue here because both have been faithful to the organization, especially Lewis, who is still the face of the franchise.
This is a difficult time for Harbaugh. It's tough even writing this column because Lewis and I were rookies at the same time; he as a player and I as a beat writer.
We've been through 16 training camps together, and a lot of great wins and tough losses. There isn't a Raven player who has been more passionate and dedicated to a city or a team.
But it's difficult watching Lewis play on Sundays. He is a victim of his own success, having set standards so high that even he can no longer reach them. He is still one of the better linebackers in the league, but not the Lewis that used to destroy running backs, and take away a team's desire to play against him.
Lewis made progress in dealing with a turf toe injury Sunday against Cincinnati compared to the previous two weeks, but he has become a liability on third down and passing situations.
Teams are picking and isolating on him because he can't backpedal and drop into coverage anymore. Lewis won't admit it and Harbaugh won't address it because the Ravens live in "Ray's World."
But with the decrease in playing ability comes a decrease in power, and it's time for Harbaugh to have that talk with Lewis. He can stay on the field in running situations because Lewis can still defend the run from tackle to tackle, but he needs to come off in passing situations.
This isn't only about "Ray's World", but about a team capable of reaching a Super Bowl.
Reed's situation is different. With Lewis, it's physical. With Reed, he's losing the mental game he has been playing with himself. He no longer makes plays. He can't even make tackles for fear of suffering a recurring neck or shoulder injury.
In the past two weeks, we've seen him give up big plays versus both the run and the pass.
You respect Reed because another neck or shoulder injury could be a life changing event, but at the same time, he needs to step up his game or step off the field.
There may have never been a better safety to ever play football than Reed. He gambles and freelances a lot, but most of the times he is correct.
I've had my share of fights with Reed, and at times he has gone over the line and made it personal. But I've never questioned his respect and love of the game, or his love for his fellow man.
Yet on Sunday, he didn't bring down Jermaine Gresham after a long reception and couldn't catch Bengals running back Bernarnd Scott on a 25-yard touchdown run around left end. Earlier in his career, Reed would have stopped that play for a 5-yard loss.
Each Sunday now, I keep waiting for Reed to make an interception and glide down the sidelines 70 yards for a touchdown in those long, easy strides.
And I keep waiting and waiting and waiting …
Like the Lewis situation, this is a tough call for the Ravens. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano and Reed have a history going back to their player/coach days at the University of Miami.
But on the sidelines Sunday, players privately questioned why Reed wasn't pulled after whiffing on a tackle. The Ravens have safeties-in-waiting in Tom Zbikowski — who was dealing with a head injury Sunday — and Haruki Nakamura, but neither has the experience to call the plays on the back end like Reed, or can cover as much ground.
With the bye week, the Ravens have some free time off and this is the perfect opportunity for Harbaugh to talk with his two legends. He needs to make some modifications because the stakes are greater now, and he also could lose some players' respect without doing something.
The guess here is that Harbaugh won't do anything. He'll continue to play as usual because he doesn't believe the changes would be so significant that it's worth risking team chemistry.
Actually, he might be right. Everyone is criticizing Lewis and Reed now. We're all doing his dirty work. Great players have strong personalities, and they'll usually dig down and play just well enough to prove everyone wrong.
And if it works out that way, great. If it doesn't, then Harbaugh is open to second guessing. Until then, fans will root for Lewis and Reed because they have been heroes here for so long. They'll hope the Ravens make it to the Super Bowl and both players have enough juice left to make spectacular plays and win a championship.
And maybe then they'll leave because it would be a fitting end to two Hall of Fame careers, instead of the way they are playing now.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun