Nationally, quarterback Lamar Jackson might be the Ravens’ most polarizing figure. But in Baltimore, that title belongs to offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Over two seasons of record-breaking success and frustrating struggles, no one has been more consequential to the Ravens offense than Jackson, the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player. But a close second is the 48-year-old Roman, who in January 2019 was tapped to build a “revolutionary” system around Jackson’s unique talents.
As Jackson has dashed by defenders in the regular season, only to be stymied in some of the bigger tests of his career, Roman’s role has come under scrutiny. The offense’s ebbs and flows have evoked memories of previous Roman-led offenses, which had bright starts and sour ends. And with the fifth-seeded Ravens playing the fourth-seeded Tennessee Titans in the wild-card round Sunday, a rematch of last season’s playoff loss, Roman has a golden opportunity to change the narrative.
For better or worse, there is a symmetry to Roman’s past decade in the NFL. Eric Davis, a former 49ers cornerback, recalled Roman’s 2012 season in San Francisco, his second year as the team’s offensive coordinator. After an injury sidelined starting quarterback Alex Smith, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, John’s brother, turned to Colin Kaepernick.
With a midseason overhaul he would later replicate in Baltimore, Roman pivoted to pistol formations and read-option schemes that better suited the speedy Kaepernick. It was a daunting task to take on, especially for a coach who’d coordinated only one offense in his career — a New Jersey high school’s.
And yet: “It was a hit. It worked, man,” said Davis, who provided color commentary for 49ers radio broadcasts during Roman’s tenure. With a formidable offensive line in place, Roman took a handful of talented skill position players — Kaepernick, running back Frank Gore, wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis (Maryland) — and worked the new scheme to perfection, “attacking defenses with unorthodox angles,” Davis said.
The 49ers rode Kaepernick and an explosive offense, along with an imposing defense, to Super Bowl XLVII, where they came up just 5 yards short of glory against the Ravens.
“I remember watching his offenses, even back to San Francisco days, and he throws about as much at you and puts about as much pressure on you schematically in the run game as any coordinator in football,” said CBS analyst and former NFL safety Adam Archuleta, who covered the Ravens’ 38-3 win Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals.
When Roman and Kaepernick returned for their first full season together in 2013, San Francisco came within one tipped pass of a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance. But the offense had started to slip, with Kaepernick’s completion percentage and efficiency dipping from the previous year.
In a 2014 season filled with injuries and turmoil, the offense struggled and ranked among the league’s lowest-scoring units. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, the rushing and passing offense regressed from top-10 units in 2012 to merely average in 2014.
As Harbaugh and the 49ers parted ways, Roman and much of the remaining staff were fired. To some, the struggles of Kaepernick and the offense were an indictment of Roman and his philosophy, proof that an option-heavy offense so reliant on a quarterback’s legs was not sustainable.
“Every offense, regardless of what it is you do, is going to eventually slow down,” Davis said when asked about the perception that opposing defenses had caught up to Roman’s schemes. “You’re going against professional defenders. You’re going against professional defensive coaches. So they’re going to study what you do.”
In 2015, Roman joined Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills staff as offensive coordinator. In his first season under Roman, Tyrod Taylor, another mobile quarterback, finished with the best statistical season of his career. Taylor was named to his first and only Pro Bowl, and Roman’s offense once again ranked in the top 10 in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.
“I think there’s a lot of respect here in Buffalo for what Greg Roman did, particularly with Tyrod as his quarterback,” said Steve Tasker, a former Bills receiver who now co-hosts a weekday Bills radio show.
He pointed to Taylor’s limitations and the lack of receiving talent on Buffalo’s offense. “You’re very limited in what you can do in the passing game with Tyrod because Tyrod was hesitant to pull the trigger. He took care of the ball and protected it a lot, but he had a hard time pulling the trigger into tight windows. The guy had to be open before Tyrod pulled the trigger, and Greg was aware of that.”
Despite Roman’s progress with Taylor in Year 1, he didn’t last through a second season. Ryan fired Roman after an 0-2 start, a decision that still puzzles Buffalo News sports columnist Vic Carucci.
Roman’s short stint was “hard to put in a neat definition,” Carucci said. Carucci said working under Ryan might not have been ideal for Roman — “You’re trying to swim in the ocean, and the waves bat you around and pull you under” — but the swiftness of Roman’s exit was jarring to Carucci.
“Something went sideways,” Carucci said.
The Ravens hired Roman in 2017 as a senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach, and in 2018, he was promoted to assistant head coach. After an injury to quarterback Joe Flacco forced Jackson into the starting role as a rookie, Roman helped reconstruct the team’s running game. The Ravens won six of their final seven games and claimed their first AFC North title in six years.
When offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was not retained after the season, Roman was named his replacement. In 2019, the Ravens broke the NFL’s single-season rushing record and finished with the league’s most efficient passing and rushing offenses, and Roman was awarded the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year award.
“I think everything he’s been doing — and all the coaches have even doing — is trying to just find ourselves and what we can do well,” coach John Harbaugh said last week. “Also, in terms of what people are doing against us and counteracting those kinds of things. And then there’s growing in terms of execution; coaching the techniques and the assignments and all the little things that go with it. Football is a big sport. There’s a lot going on in any given play in football. [There are] a lot of elements to it; you’re chasing all those things at one time.”
Throughout this season, Roman’s passing offense has been criticized for its lack of creativity. Greg Cosell, a senior producer at NFL Films and analyst on ESPN’s “NFL Matchup,” called the passing-game concepts “remedial.” After a 28-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in which he had one catch, wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown tweeted, “What’s the point of having souljas when you never use them (Never!!).” Roman answered questions after Jackson said defenses were calling out the Ravens’ plays before the snap, concerns that Carucci held during Roman’s time in Buffalo.
But the Ravens’ season has been one of adjustments, on and off the field, and their offense has evolved as much as any in the league, changing how it attacks defenses not only on a conceptual level (new inside-run schemes for Jackson) but also a procedural level (a greater willingness to use play-action on first down). In their regular-season finale, the Ravens rushed for a franchise-record 404 yards and became one of four teams since 1950 to run for 400 yards in a game.
“We’ve probably seen more looks that we haven’t seen on film before than any other time in my career,” said Roman, whose offense finished No. 11 in DVOA this season. “And that goes back to last year, to a certain extent, but definitely this year. It’s been great for everybody — great experience having to adapt on the fly.”
“Every coach evolves,” Archuleta said. “Good coaches adapt to their players, what their players do well. No coach is perfect. No scheme is perfect. ... If you try to be all things to everybody, you’re not going to be anybody at all. You do what you do best, and you double down on what you do best. You don’t try to placate critics. If he’s being him, which I think he is, then you do you. I can’t live in a world where we try to bow down to our critics. I look at this offense as one of the most difficult offenses to defend, and that’s good enough for me.”
Just a year ago, Roman’s ability to adjust in-game was questioned, as he strayed from the run in the team’s 28-12 loss in the divisional round to the Titans. After months of tinkering, Roman and the offense might be better suited to play their game when it matters most.
“I think that he has a chance, a real chance, to answer a lot of those questions in a positive way if it turns around,” Carucci said. “To me, this is a defining postseason for him as much as it is with anyone else on the Ravens.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Jonas Shaffer and Childs Walker contributed to this article.
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