The Ravens' decision to trade veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin for a sixth-round draft pick in March following a contract dispute may have hindered the team's ability to defend its Super Bowl title.
As Boldin thrived with the San Francisco 49ers this season -- finishing with 85 receptions for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns -- the Ravens were simply unable to replace his physical presence outside.
Combined with a serious hip injury for tight end Dennis Pitta and not having Boldin, the Ravens didn't have a downfield target who could regularly make the contested catches that helped quarterback Joe Flacco thrive in the postseason last season, when he threw 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in four playoff games and was named the Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl XLVII.
With the Ravens' run of five consecutive postseason trips over after an 8-8 regular season coach John Harbaugh acknowledged the impact of not having Boldin.
"Well, if we had been able to replace Anquan, then...," Harbaugh said. "Defensively, we were able to replace those guys and it showed up in the way we performed on defense. We probably weren’t able to do that quite the same way with Anquan, unfortunately. So, I don’t know how to answer that question. It is what it is; it’s a fact.
"You’ve got a guy who was a big part of what we were doing, but he wasn’t the only guy we lost. There were a lot of guys we lost last year that were a big part of what we were doing, and that is probably going to be the case every single year. As a coach, you just can’t get caught up in that. You can’t look back."
Looking back on the Boldin decision, it involved several moving parts.
The Ravens were unable to get Boldin to budge when they attempted to convince him to take a $2 million pay cut off of his $6 million base salary to lower his $7.531 million salary-cap figure. Following a dominant postseason in which he caught 22 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns, Boldin didn't think he should be paid a dollar less than his scheduled salary.
The Ravens had a tight salary-cap situation, and traded Boldin to the 49ers when the Minnesota Vikings wouldn't offer more than a seventh-round draft pick for him.
The Ravens picked up $6 million in salary-cap space, creating the financial flexibility to obtain reinforcements that included outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, defensive end Chris Canty and middle linebacker Daryl Smith.
The thinking was that Pitta would have a huge season and take over a role similar to Boldin. However, Pitta fractured and dislocated his hip and was limited to four games and 20 catches for 169 yards and one touchdown.
"I’m talking to the fans here," Harbaugh said. "I’m watching guys that left here and watching them make plays for other teams. Of course, I’m thinking the same thing you’re thinking: ‘Man, it’d be great if he was making that play for our team.’ It’s human nature you feel that way about it. And yet, there were other guys that we added. With the cap restrictions, you take the money, they go from one person to another person that we added, and those guys were making plays for us.
"You mentioned those guys, Elvis Dumervil being a great example, Chris Canty being another example. We spent to the cap. It’s not like we didn’t spend the money. You’ve just got to do the best you can in this salary cap era of being the strongest team you can for the money that you’re allotted, and hopefully, it works out. That’s really the reality of it.”
The Ravens signed tight end Dallas Clark (31 catches, 343 yards and three touchdowns) and Brandon Stokley (13 catches, 115 yards, no touchdowns), who ended the season on injured reserve with a concussion.
Although rookie wide receiver Marlon Brown caught 49 passes for 524 yards and seven touchdowns, it wasn't enough.
“You better understand that injuries are going to happen," Harbaugh said. "But I don’t know that we necessarily had a go-to guy in the slot that was really a good answer to replace Dennis when he got hurt. Replacing Dennis Pitta was tough for us, and it probably threw us off a little bit."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun