Did the Ravens underachieve this season?
Not by as much as they think they did.
They would have you believe that their 4-8-1 record doesn't begin to reflect the level of their talent.
They would have you believe that their potential in 1997 was equal to that of many teams currently driving for the playoffs.
With all due respect, they're coming in pretty close to where they deserved.
A little beneath their ability, maybe, but not much.
Owner Art Modell insists they're just "two or three players away" from the playoffs, but the reality is that they started the season with a fair number of holes and they'll end the season with even more.
Thus, the opinion stated here four months ago: Nothing that happens in 1997 should cost coach Ted Marchibroda his job.
Yes, the Ravens are better than they were a year ago, and yes, they're probably a little better than 4-8-1, but not so much better that Marchibroda should be punished for losing.
It would be different if they had established any pattern of success, but the franchise is 47-77-1 in the '90s and 8-20-1 in Bawlmer, so let's be realistic.
The Ravens do have some fine, young players to build around, courtesy of two strong drafts, but they still reside in the NFL's bottom half.
Many of the players on other teams in the bottom half also believe they're better than their records, which is no surprise considering that they're proud, competitive pros at the peak of their sport.
But their argument is subjective and without merit in the face of the ultimate tool of objective definition -- their won-lost record.
The reality is that you're never any better or worse than your record, period.
If you're 4-8-1, well, you're 4-8-1.
The Ravens are 4-8-1 for a multitude of reasons.
They have a starting quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, who has won one playoff game in 11 years as a pro.
They're unsettled at running back, to say the least, with Bam Morris always in trouble, Jay Graham not having played enough and Earnest Byner having played too much. (You can't talk about underachieving when you're changing backs every week.)
Their offensive line is a strength, but not one starter has gone to the Pro Bowl.
Starting to understand?
On defense, they're building around a corps of young, talented linebackers still learning the pro game. (Read: making mistakes.) Their front four has played pretty well, but the secondary is lacking at least one starting cornerback and one starting safety.
The pass defense is ranked 28th (out of 30 teams) and the overall defense is ranked 26th, and, please, let's not suggest that the improved defense has underachieved. The defense has played better than anyone expected.
Let's face it, the Ravens are what they are, a team that still has some growing to do.
The notion of under- achievement comes from all the close losses, from the 3-1 start, from the fact that they're winless in their past five games despite having been outscored by only eight points (if you throw out the Pittsburgh debacle).
Shoot, it's easy to argue that the Ravens would be sitting at .500 with just a few more well-timed breaks.
But their pattern of losing close games in the final minutes has gone on for far too long for anyone to suggest that it's just a matter of the breaks going against them.
Just the breaks? Just bad luck? Hello?
You don't get to 8-20-1 on the curses of bad luck.
You get there because you belong.
Giving up key late drives to Glenn Foley and Bobby Hoying is bad defense, not bad luck.
That's not to say that the Ravens aren't going in the right direction, because there are signs that they are. Those signs are named Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware, to name just three.
But when you consider what they should do in the next draft, which of their holes they should fill, you begin to understand that they haven't underachieved in 1997.
They could stand to draft a quarterback to add to their mix. And a running back. And another receiver to replace Derrick Alexander. Another cornerback? For sure. How about two? Another safety wouldn't hurt. Some depth in both lines.
Anything else? Give us time to think, we'll come up with more.
The point is that it's a long wish list, and teams with long wish lists are teams that need a lot of help.
The Ravens are nothing if not such a team.
Sure, they could have a better record than 4-8-1 if they'd gotten a few breaks.
But not a lot better.
Pub Date: 12/07/97