1.There will never be another player like Ray Anthony Lewis.
Before we address much of what went wrong Sunday against the Bills -- and how fortunate the Ravens were to escape with a victory -- let's take a moment to reflect on what Lewis has meant to this franchise, and this city.
It's fitting, in a way, that Lewis saved the Ravens from what would have been an embarrassing defeat today. Fitting because, even after 10 years, it's still a joy to watch him play football. In a year and a half of writing this blog/column, I've been pretty up front about the fact that it bugs me when people say he's as good as he's always been, and that he hasn't lost a step, because it's really not true. If you believe he's the same player he was when he was in his prime, I'm not sure you really understand football, especially defense.
But pointing that out doesn't mean he's not a great player, or that I think he is any less fun, or fascinating, to watch. In fact, in some ways, I find him more fascinating now. He's still very good, and at times, great. I wish every person had the opportunity to stand next to him. Whatever you think of him, the man has a presence that's impossible to deny. I think people get carried away sometimes playing up his mystique, insisting that he can will other players to achieve great things just by getting in their face. But when you stand four feet away from him and listen to him talk, you understand that there is at least some truth to the legend. Charisma has a definite energy to it, and love him or hate him, he has that charisma.
He's still probably the best linebacker in the game, and today's 15 tackles, a forced fumble, a sack and a pass deflection (that turned into an interception) proves that. It just doesn't look as easy as it once did. But there is a nobility to the struggle that I admire.
Watching a transcendent athlete will himself to compete at a high level even though he cannot do the magical things he once could, at least to me, is one of the best things about sports. In a way, once we reach a certain age, we're all fighting off the inevitable march of Father Time, whether we're athletes or artists, bankers or businessmen. We all wish we could combine the wisdom that comes with age with the endless possibilities of youth. But life doesn't work like that.
Watching Ray Lewis these days, at least for me, is a bit like watching Jack Nicklaus win the Masters in 1986, or Pete Sampras capture the U.S. Open in the final tournament of his career. It's like seeing Michael Jordan, in the twilight of his Bulls career, use a series of head fakes and fade-away jumpers to score 50, even though the man guarding him might be quicker and younger.
In 2000, when Lewis was at the peak of his powers, it was a bit like watching a superhero. (Though admittedly not someone everyone loved, like Batman.) He closed ground faster than anyone, maybe faster than anyone in the history of the game. Watching him now is a bit like watching an aging warrior who refuses to yield to the inevitable. He gets lost in pass coverage, and can't quite get to the edge like he once could, but it's not for lack of trying. It's a bit sad to think about all the years of Lewis' prime that the Ravens wasted, simply because their offense was so inept. But you can't change the past, just like you fight off the future forever.
But with a combination of pride and savvy, wisdom and skill, you can fight it off for a while if you're an athlete like Ray Lewis. However long it lasts, and whatever you think about him personally, we should all feel fortunate to have witnessed the journey up close.
2. It's hard to envision the Ravens winning a Super Bowl with their current pass rush.
Seven games into the season, it's time to acknowledge that the current personnel simply cannot get to the quarterback frequently enough. We can talk about schemes and blitzes and Greg Mattison's calls until we're purple in the face, but stopping a good quarterback starts with getting in his face, and right now, the Ravens don't do that enough. It's not about technique or effort; it's about talent. The Ravens don't have enough.
Can they make the playoffs? Certainly. Can they win a playoff game? Absolutely. But unless they luck out and somehow don't face Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers (a virtual impossibility) I don't see how their secondary and linebackers can hold up when the opposition's quarterback has five and six seconds to throw the ball. Harvard grad Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't a bad quarterback -- after some of those throws, he probably deserved to ask Terrell Suggs "How ya like them apples?" -- but he was given way, way too much time to throw the ball. He almost certainly would have driven the ball down the field for the winning score if not for Lewis' ball theft.
What's the answer? I'm not sure there is one right now. It's obvious the Ravens knew this was a concern in the offseason, and thought drafting Sergio Kindle would help fix the problem. But bizarre circumstances obviously derailed that plan. Relying on a healthy Paul Kruger to inject life into the pass rush is probably wishful thinking as well.
The Ravens are going to have to get creative, or at least roll the dice on someone outside the organization. If Shawne Merriman will play for the veteran minimum, or some kind of incentive-laden deal, it might be worth giving him a chance. He's not the player he was when he first came into the league -- not even close -- but even on one leg, he might be better than what we've seen so far, even if it's only in a limited role.
3. If you are one of those people who theorized that the Ravens secondary might actually be better, or more fundamentally sound, without Ed Reed, hopefully you realize how silly that hypothesis is after today.
The Ravens secondary didn't play well today, but that was mostly because the corners were finally exposed a bit. Reed may gamble from time to time, but the Ravens (for the most part) actually want him to gamble. If he doesn't bait quarterbacks, this defense isn't good enough to create turnovers unless it involves ripping the ball out of a ball carrier's hands. In one game, he forced a fumble and picked off two passes. If that's what happens when someone gambles too much, then the Ravens should double down on Reed.
Reed is, simply put, one of the best ballhawks in the history of the NFL. He may throw an ill-advised lateral now and then, and he may say some bizarre things about his contract or plans for retirement, but if this team is going to make a deep playoff run, Reed is as important to this defense as anyone, and that includes Lewis. Reed isn't the kind leader who wants any attention, or needs any of the credit, but he is a truly influential figure behind the scenes. As bad as the secondary looked at times today, imagine how bad it would have looked had he decided to wait until after the bye to return.
4. Todd Heap is clearly tougher than gas station beef jerky, and the Ravens would not have won today without him, but watching him fall to the ground virtually untouched on the flea-flicker touchdown to Anquan Boldin was scary. I'm not sure he should have played this week.
Obviously the Ravens doctors know a lot more than we do about Heap's medical condition, and I can only assume he was given a clean bill of health and was telling the team doctors the truth about his mental state last week (after the Brandon Meriweather hit), as well as this week (when he looked like he passed out in the middle of a play). But for a second there, I was worried he had suffered some kind of brain aneurysm.
The NFL is always going to be violent. The threat of suspensions and fines for helmet-to-helmet hits may reduce concussions, but it's never going to limit them. And players like Heap, who take shots to the head, are always going to want to go back in the game. I still think the NFL needs independent doctors not affiliated with the team on the sidelines of every game to help make those decisions. They don't have to have the final say, but they should have some say. No one wants to see a player fall down like Heap did today, and never get up.
5. The tackling, outside of Lewis, has gotten worse and worse each week.
Fabian Washington is the biggest offender in this category, but he's not the only culprit. The Ravens have gotten into a bad habit of either going for big hits, or arm tackling, and it's going to come back to bite them if it keeps up. It might be time for John Harbaugh to spend some time over the next two weeks making his players square up on the ball carrier.
Maybe some of it is mental fatigue, and maybe a week away from football will help the Ravens clear their heads a bit. This team is neither as good as the hype they received before the Patriots game, nor as bad as some fans are suggesting right now.
They have some issues that we harp on every week (play-calling, pass rush, blitz schemes, and Joe Flacco's mechanics) so I'm not going to rehash those. We didn't learn anything this week about those issues we didn't already know. Cam Cameron still draws up exotic boom-or-bust trick plays (like the flea flicker), but then throws the ball when he should be running it (the three straight passes that preceded the game-tying field goal by the Bills). And Mattison still needs to figure out when to blitz and when to rush three (he was burned by Fitzpatrick when he tried both).
But no matter how frustrated you get, understand that neither Cameron nor Mattison are getting fired this season. That's not the way Harbaugh works.
A 5-2 record going into the bye week is hardly something to feel depressed about.
Buck up, Ravens fans. The 2000 Super Bowl season, if you recall, was hardly a smooth ride. There is still a lot about this team we don't know, and won't know for several months.