In a 40-plus-minute news conference at the team facility in Owings Mills, coach John Harbaugh’s first media availability since the Ravens’ 8-9 season ended short of the playoffs in early January, he talked at length about quarterback Lamar Jackson’s up-and-down season, the criticism around offensive coordinator Greg Roman, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s departure and the team’s hopes for a healthier 2022.
Here are three takeaways from Monday’s news conference.
John Harbaugh does not think his team’s offense is broken.
Plenty of Ravens fans spent the last three weeks hoping they would wake up to news that Harbaugh had fired Roman. But Harbaugh gave no indication he had considered such a severe move as he fielded questions during his first session with reporters since the team’s season-ending loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers more than three weeks ago.
He did not lay out a detailed case for why he believes Roman should call the offense going forward, but he did make it clear he still believes in the plan his staff built around the talents of quarterback Lamar Jackson.
“We’ve done some pretty darn good things here over the past three years offensively,” he said. “I think we have a really good vision and understanding of what we want to build offensively, the players we want to build around and what we need to do it.”
The Ravens dropped from first in offensive efficiency in 2019 to 11th in 2020 to 17th in 2021, according to Football Outsiders, and Harbaugh pointed out several deficiencies, from their lack of explosiveness on designed runs to their inability to complete drives. They ranked sixth in total yardage but 17th in points, almost the inverse of what they did the previous season, when they ranked 19th in yardage and seventh in scoring.
Harbaugh acknowledged the poorly spaced pass routes that drew criticism from analysts and fans but suggested some of those plays were natural byproducts of the latitude receivers such as Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown have to improvise. He said Jackson and his top targets need to continue developing chemistry to eliminate miscues in such situations.
He talked about the questions the Ravens need to answer on their offensive line, which he called “the basis” for everything they do. Will left tackle Ronnie Stanley be healthy enough to reclaim his role as the foundation stone?
So much comes back to Jackson, who finished the season on the sideline because of a slow-healing bone bruise. Harbaugh said he talked to his quarterback Saturday and that Jackson plans to start working out the day after the Super Bowl.
Harbaugh has watched the same games as everyone else over the past three weekends — the magnificent performances turned in by Joe Burrow, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, all of whom will stand as AFC roadblocks in the decade to come. Can Jackson, the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2019, go score-for-score with these quarterbacking supernovas?
Harbaugh said the road forward cannot look exactly like the road behind. The Ravens will rely on Roman’s run designs but probably not to the degree they did in 2019. They will have to continue asking more from Jackson as a passer, a process that seemed well underway in the early weeks of the 2021 season, before the offense stagnated. Harbaugh did not forecast a ground-up rebuild but said Roman and his staff will spend the next few weeks sorting out their scheme priorities.
“In broad strokes, it’s the same idea,” Harbaugh said. “Then, you’ve got to dive down into the small brush strokes and continue improving all of those things. Lamar is really determined. The conversations that I’ve had with him — he’s really, really determined.”
A change in coordinators will not mean a drastic change in philosophy on defense.
Harbaugh made a significant change at the top of his defensive staff, replacing Martindale with Mike Macdonald, the youngest defensive coordinator in the league. But he did not lay out a case for sweeping reform on that side of the ball either, even though the Ravens fell from sixth to 32nd in pass defense.
Harbaugh portrayed the decision to move on from Martindale as a matter of career timing more than philosophical disconnect. “Sometimes, it is just time,” he said. “I feel like we both felt that way.”
We’ll hear more from Macdonald and Harbaugh on where the defense is headed when the Ravens formally introduce their new coordinator Wednesday afternoon. But Harbaugh indicated Macdonald will be fine-tuning approaches that have worked in Baltimore for the better part of two decades.
“It’s not going to be dramatically different, I don’t think, structurally,” Harbaugh said. “You try to build off where you’ve been before. That’s the thing I think we’ve done here. There’s an amazing tradition of defense here.”
Macdonald learned how to be an NFL defensive coach on the Ravens staff, working beside Martindale. He’s far from an outside hire, though he spent last season at Michigan.
“That’s the reason for Mike,” Harbaugh said, explaining the hire in the context of his sermon on continuity. “That’s the reason we went the way we did.”
Will we see fewer blitzes than we did from Martindale, whose aggressiveness felt like a sea change after he took over from Dean Pees in 2018? Harbaugh didn’t say.
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Better health, most notably for former All-Pro cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, would give Macdonald a leg up no matter how his approach might differ from Martindale’s. “That’s a good place to start,” Harbaugh said.
The Ravens will treat better health as a battle they can and must win.
Injuries dominated this team’s narrative from the first week of the season to the last, robbing a carefully constructed roster of its star power and its depth.
“This year, we just got smashed with them,” Harbaugh said, acknowledging a factor he had refused to lament as his team tumbled in the standings.
But he did not simply shrug off these breakdowns and hope for better in 2022. “You can say it’s bad luck. You can say it’s a fluke. I get that,” Harbaugh said. “But I don’t feel like we have the luxury to live there. It’s not something where we can say that’s it. We’ve got to turn over every stone. We’ve got to look at every possible avenue to make sure we do the best we can to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
To that end, he held a four-hour meeting with his training and performance staff two weeks ago to begin the process of upending the team’s routines. Strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders will remain in place, and Harbaugh did not mention any other staff changes. But they discussed revamping offseason workouts, practice schedules and training methods. Harbaugh has commissioned overhauls of his offense and defense in the past, and he used similar language to describe this reform effort.
“We’re going to look at everything,” he said. “We’re going to change a lot. You don’t change for change’s sake, but sometimes, you’ve got to make changes in the way you do things.”
His words suggested the Ravens will look at their 2022 injury rate not as a matter of fortune, but as a performance metric.