1. The discipline on this team is atrocious. But that is nothing new. It's been that way all season. But this time, it not only cost the team, it kind of embarrassed the fans.
First off, let's address some things in regards to the referees. I didn't grow up in Maryland, but I am finally starting to understand why every Ravens fan seems to believe they'll never get a favorable call to go their way, especially against the Steelers. I don't believe there is some absurd conspiracy against Baltimore, handed down from the days of Paul Tagliabue, and I never will. But I can understand why it feels like the Ravens are playing 11 against 14. Because some of the calls in this game were not good. The illegal contact call on Frank Walker at the end of the game shouldn't have been called. Period. Ben Roethlisberger was running around in circles, well outside the pocket, and that means a receiver can get bumped -- not held, but bumped -- past five yards. You could see Ravens coach John Harbaugh screaming at the referees "Read the rules!" and he was right. It was bogus, and it bailed out Roethlisberger from one of the dumbest throws I've ever seen. The holding call on Kelley Washington -- which negated Willis McGahee's touchdown was pretty chippy as well. Even if it was holding, and it could have gone either way, the defender was pretty much out of the play. Heap got mauled on an early route in the end zone when the Ravens were forced to settle for a field goal, held in a way that was much worse than anything Walker or Chris Carr did. And there was no call.
That said, if you strictly blame the referees -- and not the coaches and players -- for the 113 yards in penalties, you're insane. Seriously, don't do it. It makes you seem like one of those people who barks at the moon. The referees didn't force Haloti Ngata to blast a guy on a punt return after Carr was well out of bounds. The referees didn't tell Oniel Cousins to completely lose his cool and cheap shot a Steelers defensive lineman when the Ravens were possibly in position to tie the game with a field goal. The referees certainly didn't force the Ravens to jump offside late in the first half, giving Roethlisberger a free play to take a shot downfield on Walker. No referee told Terrell Suggs to blast a guy in the back on Domonique Foxworth's interception return for a touchdown, which probably didn't even matter in relation to Foxworth scoring. (Even if Suggs just gets in the way there, Foxworth probably scores.) Those were all crucial plays, and those were all on the players (or coaches, who need to drill it into the players not to do that stuff). The Ghost of Art Rooney himself would have been justified throwing flags on those plays.
But let's get back to the fan's embarrassment for a second. At some point, if you play that sloppy, that careless, that erratic, and you essentially act like you don't care and don't think it's an issue game after game, then you no longer deserve the unambiguous, unequivocal support of your fanbase. The fans have a right to be mad this evening. They have a right to be upset with head coach John Harbaugh, because he's the man who ultimately needs to be accountable for everything that happens. He was chippy in his post-game comments when asked about the penalties, which I thought Billick had trademarked. (Getting grumpy with the media after your team suffers a meltdown? That makes sense.) I still think Harbaugh can be a very good NFL coach, but maybe things came a little too easily last year. This year has been a better test of how well Harbaugh can guide a team through uncertainty and adversity, and right now, he gets a C grade at best. Maybe Rex Ryan really did help him overcome a few things last year we didn't know about. (I'll tell you what, Rex Ryan never would have blitzed Foxworth from out wide on 3rd-and-2 against one of the best quarterbacks in the league when it comes to handling the blitz. That call made zero sense, and Santonio Holmes proved it by walking into the end zone. Even if Foxworth gets there, he'll just bounce off Roethlisberger.) But Harbaugh has to show he's learned from all this and make the right adjustments. Maybe that happens next week, but more likely it doesn't happen until next year.
Fans want a football team they can enjoy watching, but also take pride in. Even if that's absurd on some level, it's the truth. And do Ravens fans feel proud of this team right now? I doubt it. This team clearly had the talent to make the playoffs this year, and they'll probably still get there. (Although the Jets victory doesn't help.) Whether they deserve to go is another issue entirely.2. Even if Walker wasn't brought here to be a starter, and he's only playing out of necessity, putting him out there is unfair to the rest of the players. Harsh, but true.
From what I understand, Walker is a great guy, one of the nicest people in the Ravens organization. Every year, he gives everyone in the building -- from the owner to the janitors and receptionists -- a Christmas card. He's smart, funny and a all-around good person. He just can't defend anyone anymore. He used to be a pretty decent player, but those days are gone. And they're not coming back.
The Ravens were slow to use Lardarius Webb over him early in the season, and when Webb got hurt, they still should have explored other options. It's unclear whether this is on Ozzie Newsome or on Harbaugh. But they should have -- and could have -- corrected it during the season. The Broncos signed Ty Law off the street, suited him up two days later, and he played better than Walker has at any point this year before getting hurt. Walker actually isn't bad against the run, as he showed against the Steelers. He can come up and make tackles. But getting beat right before the half, letting the Steelers crawl out of a hole and drive down for a touchdown, was inexcusable. Even if you don't want anything to do with Chris McAlister -- and I understand the reluctance there, because he wasn't any good either at the end of his Ravens career, so I don't know why people only remember his good games -- there were other options out there. It's hard to understand what would have to happen at this point for the Ravens to go in another direction. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then the definition of Ravens insanity is throwing Walker out there over and over again and expecting he'll bat down a ball or not get flagged for interference.
3. Listening to Dick Enberg and Dan Fouts every game would make my ears bleed.
As Enberg might say, "Oh my." Chalk this up as yet another thing in this column that will get me on Santa's "Naughty List" next year, but Enberg is reaching Pat Summerall-late-in-the-game territory. And that's sad, because in many ways Enberg is the narrator of my childhood sports memories. But listening to him Sunday was like listening to my garbage disposal when I accidentally drop a spoon down there while it's running. He can't see which players are making tackles and he seems only marginally cognizant of the current NFL rules.
Fouts is like the annoying guy who sits behind you in a movie and says "I knew that was a bad move! Batman should have known the Joker wasn't dead in that scene! I do believe that Batman has once again underestimated what the Joker is capable of! Boy, I really think Batman will regret saving Harvey instead of Rachel Dawes!"
Few things annoy me more than when color guys drag out their tired memes about "fundamental football" and then try to pass it off as profound. No one does this in a more grating way that Fouts. I don't even think Will Ferrell was trying to skewer him as bad as he did in that SNL skit years ago, when Dennis Miller joined the booth. But never has satire rang more true for me than watching Ferrell parody Fouts by saying "The team that scores the greatest combination of touchdowns, field goals and safeties should come out on top!"
4. Derrick Mason probably makes that catch in the end zone 99 times out of 100. But the one time he lost concentration probably cost the Ravens the game. And it sort of sums up his whole season.
I wrote a few weeks ago, this has been such a strange season for Mason. He's been so good at times, and so bad at others. I have no idea if there is something going on inside his head, something off the field, that's made it harder to concentrate this year, but it sure seems like it. Physically he can clearly still play, but mentally he's been all over the map. I remember once watching an interview with Jack Nicklaus in which he said that, when he was in the winter of his career, he felt like physically he could still do all the things he could do in his 20s and 30s, but mentally, he couldn't focus for four hours straight. Just a little distraction or breakdown here or there, and a whole round would be ruined. To me, that seems like as good of an explanation as any for Mason's erratic season. He still gets open, still runs great routes, still can make big catches. But sometimes his brain just isn't locked in, and when you're a professional athlete, that can make all the difference.
5. Todd Heap really has played one of the best seasons of his career.
I have to admit, there was a time the last two years when I really thought Heap was overrated. I've always thought he had good hands, but not great hands. He made way too many catches with his body, and he seemed slow out of his breaks and prone to key drops. (Like in the AFC divisional playoff game against Tennessee.) But I realize now all of that was related to Heap's health.
Here is a guy who is finally healthy again, coming off a year in which he sucked it up and did whatever was best for the team (blocking all the time to protect the rookie quarterback) and he never complained at all. Watching him jump up like a ballet dancer and come down with the ball the last couple games has been a thing of beauty. I actually find myself wishing the Ravens would go to him more, just over the middle of the field, because I think it would help Flacco open things up, especially when he tends to get dialed in on outside routes and ignore the middle of the field.
Heap really kept the Ravens in this game Sunday, doing something that the Ravens haven't had enough of this year: He won balls that could have been caught by either he or the defensive back. They're called 50/50 balls (in football speak), and they come down to talent, focus and desire. You ask your playmakers to go get you two or three a game -- in situations where they're not particularly open -- to be the guy who wants it more. Heap did that today, and it was huge. It would be nice to know why they went away from him in the second half. But that's just one more question that seems as though it will go unanswered.