Every Ravens fan has their preferred scapegoat from the 2010 season -- the players or coaches they primarily blame for the team's failure to reach the Super Bowl last year.
Joe Flacco took his share of heat during the offseason, as did the offensive line. The non-existent pass rush, the geriatric wide-receiving corps, and the vanilla defense of recently departed defensive coordinator Greg Mattison all took their share of lumps, too. Even Ozzie Newsome hasn't been immune.
For a team that went 12-4 in the regular season, it seems there was plenty to complain about. But I'd argue that no one took the beating that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron did, on talk radio, on message boards, in the comment section of our Ravens Insider blog. Flacco's critics and his defenders don't agree on much, but they do seem to agree that Cameron isn't the right man to nurture the fourth-year quarterback any longer. After resisting it for most of the season, because it felt too much like cheap and easy criticism, even I concluded it was probably time for the Ravens to thank Cameron for his service and go in a different direction.
The lockout, of course, probably saved Cameron's job. I tend to believe John Harbaugh would have gone in a different direction -- perhaps primarily at the behest of his boss, Steve Bisciotti -- had the Ravens been able to spend an entire offseason installing a new system and working with players. But the labor situation gave Cameron a reprieve, and so like it or not, he and the Ravens are still figuring out if this marriage is going to work.
Whether or not he's the reason Flacco didn't completely take the next step in 2010 -- from a good player to a great player -- is impossible to know. (Of course, barely an hour goes by in this town without someone calling into talk radio to rant: "If you don't see that Cameron is the problem, you just don't know football!") The truth is, people can make assumptions based on their gut, but what's frustrating is we have no idea why Flacco, for all his gifts, still struggles with certain coverages, or why last year's group of Ravens receivers couldn't seem to get open on important third-down plays.
Was it Cameron's fault or Flacco's that the quarterback didn't see Troy Polamalu creeping toward the line of scrimmage? It is Cameron who over-thinks things during games, or is it Flacco? Whatever the truth is, the Ravens appear to have taken away the excuse that Flacco isn't allowed to change Cameron's plays, and he has to run them like an emotionless android. Harbaugh reiterated that point after practice Wednesday.
"I think Cam and the offensive coaches have done a great job of building the offense in a way that Joe has the choice almost every play. ... I'd say at least half the plays we've called are plays where [Flacco] can make a decision to change a run to another direction, change a run to a pass, change a pass to a maximum protection, or back to a run. And he's done a great job with that."
As much pressure as there is on Flacco, there is probably even more on Cameron this season. Whether it was intentional or not, both Harbaugh and Bisciotti have made comments that will have fans doubling down on their belief that Cameron should be the scapegoat if the offense doesn't get off to a good start this year. It started with Harbaugh's comment at the end of the season that he liked the idea of Cameron "under fire" and that was one of the reasons he wanted to keep him as the offensive coordinator. And it continued Tuesday with a comment by Bisciotti during a conference call with season ticket holders.
"I have faith in Cam," Bisciotti said. "We fire coaches around here and we will continue to fire coaches. He's a good guy, a brilliant mind. I understand all the pressure that was put on Cam in the offseason. I like Cam Cameron under pressure."
The verbiage -- under fire! under pressure! Remember, we've fired coaches before! -- has been an interesting choice. It's almost like hearing talking points in a political campaign. Harbaugh and Bisciotti, who have both shown they have rabbit ears when it comes to the fans, are speaking to Ravens fans with a dog whistle that says: We hear your concerns. We share them. Any NFL coordinator would argue they're pretty much always under pressure, so this is nothing new for Cameron.
Coordinators are easy fall guys for fans because no one wants to admit the players, who are the reason we actually watch the games, might not be up to the job. But by acknowledging the pressure to get it right this year is both external and internal, Harbaugh and Bisciotti are making an interesting choice. They seem to believe Cameron will perform his best when he's coaching for his job, and that's an enormous burden to carry entering a season with so much uncertainty.
It's a tactic that seems to work when you're running a business, something Bisciotti knows a thing or two about. Will it translate to football? It's interesting to listen to Cameron when he addresses the media these days. He's a confident guy, but there are subtle doses of humility that creep into his answers now. Asked this week whether he believes the Ravens will be able to integrate Lee Evans into their offense quickly, Cameron seemed to be delicately acknowledging he deserves some of the blame for the disappointments of T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Donte' Stallworth from a year ago. He knows he can't afford a slow roll out with Evans, no matter how little offseason prep time he's had.
"I think that is one thing that I can do a better job of, is adapting to a new guy quicker," Cameron said. "I think we're wanting to speed up the process to get these guys acclimated. ... I know I can do a better job. We, as a staff, are challenging ourselves to do a better job, and yes, we are going to tweak things to do what they do best and grow from there."
He also acknowledged just how woeful the Ravens were in short yardage a year ago, a problem that was particularly glaring on the road late in the year.
"We just didn't block as well as we were capable," Cameron said. "I think we have some ideas, and we are on the right track to get those things corrected. We are going to get bigger people out there. We are going to get stronger people out there. At times, you might see two or three of our defensive guys out there in short-yardage [situations] like you did two or three years ago. I think we have to be more creative. If you can run over a team, you run them over. But at the same time, if a team is stout and physical, you are not always going to be able to beat your head against that wall. You maybe have to spread people out."
On paper, you could argue Cameron deserves some patience, at least at the start of the year. Losing Derrick Mason and Todd Heap will be good for the Ravens -- especially Flacco -- in the long run. But initially, it's going to complicate things. When you combine that with the fact that the Ravens still have serious questions on their offensive line at right tackle and center, it has the potential to get ugly against the Steelers in Week 1. How will a fan base that still has the sour taste of a playoff loss to the Steelers in which the Ravens gained just 28 yards in the second half deal with another shaky offensive performance? Harbaugh acknowledged Wednesday he's had to frequently remind himself to be patient with the progress of the team, considering how little time they've had to work on their issues.
"You just have to take a deep breath sometimes and say 'We're not where my eye says we should be,' " Harbaugh said. "Whether it's in terms of execution or in terms of personnel. We just have to take a step back and keep working on those things, whether there are guys out there that could help us with trades or something. So it's been a very strange training camp."
Fans, though, seem to be well past the point of patience with the offense, and with Cameron in particular. Cameron hasn't presided over a decade of average offenses, but this town is going to unleash a decade of frustration on him if the Ravens struggle. Bisciotti says he likes the idea of Cameron under pressure, that he thinks he'll perform his best. We're about to find out if he's right.