John Harbaugh met with the Baltimore media on Tuesday morning to talk about his first non-winning season as the Ravens' head coach and where his team will go from here. The franchise will hold its annual "State of the Ravens" presser next week. This one was just John flying solo.
He started the press conference by apologizing to fans for the Ravens not meeting their usual expectations of making the playoffs and competing for the Super Bowl and finished by saying the Ravens will be back.
In between, there were several interesting tidbits and takeaways during a 42-minute Q&A session.
1. The first question Harbaugh was asked was where things went wrong in 2013 and what needed to be better in 2014. He first said that the Ravens needed to run the ball better. Next he said they must also protect quarterback Joe Flacco better. Not hard to read between the lines, huh? It is clear that rebuilding the offensive line will be the top priority this offseason, partly out of necessity as starting tackles Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher will both be free agents. Harbaugh talked about how much center Gino Gradkowski grew in terms of the mental aspect of the position -- while more or less acknowledging that it was a big step down from Matt Birk, who was like "an offensive line coach basically" out there -- but said that Gradkowski will have to battle to keep his job. Harbaugh said the only position that won't be up for grabs next season is right guard, where the Ravens have a Pro Bowler in Marshal Yanda, though he made it clear that he wants Monroe to return.
2. Changes could be made to Harbaugh's coaching staff. Or none could be made at all. Harbaugh was noncommittal when asked about potential changes, saying, "I don't plan on doing anything right now," then acknowledging that reporters would likely interpret that as him saying there is a possibility that one or more of his coaches -- most notably run game coordinator Juan Castillo -- won't be brought back. Well yeah, he didn't exactly come out and say that everybody would be returning. Harbaugh did endorse his staff, though, including Castillo. It sounds like Harbaugh and the front office will take their time to evaluate the staff before making decisions. Still, it seems the marriage between Castillo and the Ravens is heading toward Splitsville, but don't be surprised if he quickly lands elsewhere.
3. Harbaugh conceded that the Ravens were never able to fully replace wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the slot, especially after tight end Dennis Pitta got hurt. Neither Tandon Doss nor Deonte Thompson seized Boldin's old slot receiver spot and the Ravens brought in veterans Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokley after Pitta fractured his hip. While Harbaugh was complimentary of those two, he said the Ravens weren't able to replace what Boldin brought to the table. "It is what it is," he said. "That's a fact." But Harbaugh pointed out that the money they saved by trading Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers allowed them to sign productive players in Elvis Dumervil and Chris Canty. Would the Ravens have done the Boldin deal knowing they would be without Pitta for most of the season? We'll never know.
4. Harbaugh said that 2013 first-round draft pick Matt Elam, who started at free safety after Michael Huff flopped, is "probably" a strong safety. But he added that safeties are "more interchangeable" in today's NFL. He implied that the Ravens want two safeties who are fast enough to cover deep and physical enough to play in the box so the team can disguise its looks, particularly in the blitz package. Still, Harbaugh said that Elam, whom he felt had a solid rookie season, "is pretty darn good when he is running to the ball and making tackles." I suspect finding a free safety will be a priority so Elam can slide into more of a strong safety role.
5. The strangest moment of morning came when I asked Harbaugh to elaborate on his decision to keep starting running back Ray Rice on the sideline for much of the first half of Sunday's season-ending loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. After the game, the coach told reporters in Cincinnati that the decision was made by the offensive coaches because the Ravens "were backed up" in the first half. But on Tuesday, Harbaugh said, "I really can't explain that adequately right now, in all honesty. That was something that happened during the game that when I looked over and saw it, I put him back in the game." Wait, am I the only one who is confused right now?
6. Harbaugh gave two primary reasons for why the pass rush produced just three sacks in the final five games of the season. First, he said the ankle injury suffered by Dumervil impacted the outside linebacker, who was the team's most efficient pass rusher according to metrics from Pro Football Focus. Second, Harbaugh said that defensive coordinator Dean Pees made the decision to blitz less and play more coverage down the stretch. "Dean knows I'm not a big fan of [sitting back]," he said. "I like blitzing. To me, we're a blitzing team. We're a pressure team." The coach did point out, though, that while the Ravens didn't touch Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton once, they did pick him off four times Sunday. Still, Harbaugh said the disappearance of the pass rush late in the season was "disappointing."
7. Harbaugh was asked about how the loss of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed affected the leadership dynamic in the locker room, a fair question after the Ravens lost their final two games to miss the playoffs. Harbaugh, who has downplayed questions about those two in the past, said Tuesday that "I think our guys missed them" and added that he recently spotted cornerback Chykie Brown watching a Lewis speech on his iPhone to get fired up for a game. Harbaugh said Lewis and Reed are "always a part of us going forward." It seems clear now, though, that while those two were past their productive playing years, they left a void in the locker room.