I’m sure neither Smith nor the Ravens imagined that his last game for the franchise would be one without any playoff implications. But it was an apt summation of a three-year union that never quite paid off to the extent the team and player had envisioned.
Smith came to Baltimore in the twilight of his career because he thought it was the perfect place to chase a Super Bowl ring and add the last few exclamation points to a possible Hall of Fame resume.
On his best days with the Ravens, he was the most thrilling receiver in franchise history. He wasn’t as fast as Torrey Smith or as physically imposing as Anquan Boldin, but he played with such ferocity that he could turn even the most basic catch into something indelible. The stiff arm, the ball twirl, the way he’d seek contact with his 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame. Even past this prime, he was something to see.
A ruptured Achilles brought an abrupt end to Smith’s 2015 season. And when he came back this year, Joe Flacco did not target him as often as he had pre-injury. Smith remained one of the offense’s key players as the Ravens made a late playoff push. But the team was simply not the title contender Smith had hoped to find when he left the Carolina Panthers.
Away from the field, Smith was a complicated man to cover. I heard him make many insightful observations about his social responsibilities as a prominent black American. He could be hilarious, as he was this year when I asked if he enjoyed watching Justin Tucker kick (in sum, the answer was no). He was downright tender when discussing or interacting with his children. But he could also be a terse interview subject for weeks at a time, and he wasn’t above intimidating a reporter if he didn’t like a line of questioning.
As with his play on the field, there was an element of combat in everything Smith did. He felt he needed that edge to thrive for 16 professional seasons.
Imagine how magnificently he would have fit with the Ravens of 2010-2012, surrounded by so many other big talents and big personalities. He simply came this way a few years too late.
Regardless, we got to watch one of the best, most memorable players of the last 15 years fight his way to the end. That’s a worthy mark to add to the Ravens’ story, even if it’s not the exact mark Smith wanted to leave.
3.) Joe Flacco was not good enough this year.
You could feel the symphony of groans rumbling around Baltimore when Flacco threw an interception in the end zone just before halftime, killing a drive that could have put the Ravens right back in the game. He did not see Bengals safety Shawn Williams lurking a few yards from his intended target.
It was the exact sort of mistake Flacco has never managed to eliminate from his game. For all his arm strength, toughness and inherent calm, No. 5 has blind spots.
And the simple truth is Flacco was not good enough often enough for the Ravens to contend in 2016. He reached career highs in yardage and completion percentage, but as he has acknowledged, those numbers were more products of the style the Ravens played than of his excellence.
Pick any more sophisticated measure of quarterback play — QBR, DVOA, etc. — and he was below average.
He threw ill-timed interceptions, struggled to keep the offense moving at his preferred tempo and failed to hit on enough of the downfield throws that are supposed to be his trademark.
Because of his contract, Flacco is as clear a franchise player as you’ll find in the NFL. That will be the case for years to come.
But based on the way he played in 2016, it’s fair to ask how good a thing that is for the Ravens.
Flacco is an admirable athlete in many ways. I’ve never heard him skirt the responsibility that comes with his position and salary. And I appreciate that he’s never tried to muster false bravado to answer critics of his placid demeanor.
We know he’s good enough to lead a stacked roster to perennial playoff runs. But the Ravens do not have a stacked roster at the moment, and if anything, they might be headed for a rebuild. The last four years have taught us Flacco is not the player to carry a limited roster. So fans might be in for several seasons of frustration with their team and their quarterback.
4.) Dennis Pitta’s production this year was both miraculous and symptomatic of a troubled offense.
When you consider how few people believed Dennis Pitta would play another NFL snap at this time last year, it’s astonishing he just completed an 86-catch season.
The hip injury that cost Pitta most of three seasons would have ended most careers. His was a genuinely sad saga to watch. And yet he never gave up on football, even when the people around him seemed to fear for his long-term health.
No one seemed happier to have Pitta back than Flacco, who targeted the tight-end a team-high 121 times this season. Flacco looked for Pitta 16 times against the Bengals, twice as much as he targeted any other receiver. And Pitta made a career-high 11 catches.
So is that a good thing for the Ravens?
Well, yes and no. It’s good for Flacco to have a possession receiver he trusts. But Pitta averaged just 8.5 yards a catch. And if Flacco sometimes looked to him instead of probing downfield for Smith or Mike Wallace or Breshad Perriman, that tendency probably contributed to the overly conservative offense we saw Sunday and for much of the season.
That’s not a knock on Pitta. He did a remarkable thing this year. But in the ideal Ravens offense of the future, he’d probably see the ball less.
5.) If you want to feel better about the Ravens’ 2016, look to the rookie class.
The front office’s spotty record in recent drafts has been one of the key storylines behind the franchise’s recent mediocrity.
But this year’s rookie class includes a half dozen players who could be starters or significant contributors to the Ravens’ next playoff team.
Ozzie Newsome could not afford to miss with the No. 6 overall pick. Given Ronnie Stanley’s steady improvement in the second half of the season, it seems he did not. Would the Ravens be thrilled to have Jalen Ramsey in the secondary? Sure, but a starting left tackle is nothing to sneeze at.
Second-round pick Kamalei Correa was a modest disappointment, and third rounder Bronson Kaufusi didn’t play a snap because of injury. But the Ravens hit the jackpot when they drafted guard/tackle Alex Lewis, cornerback Tavon Young and running back Kenneth Dixon in the fourth round. Lewis and Young both started for portions of the season, and Dixon established himself as the team’s likely back of the future with his hard-grinding style.
Undrafted free agent Michael Pierce demonstrated star potential as an interior pass rusher (and a possible replacement for Brandon Williams if Williams departs in free agency). And don’t forget Perriman was still a rookie this year.
Perriman is a frustrating case, because he struggles to get open and has yet to find a consistent wavelength with Flacco. But when he hits the open field, as he did on a 39-yard catch and run to set up a touchdown against the Bengals, he covers ground like few players in Ravens history. Because of that speed, he still carries a whiff of star potential.
If the Ravens end up with even one useful pass rusher out of Correa, Kaufusi and fifth-round pick Matt Judon, this might go down as one of the best rookie groups in team history.