Football men wait a professional lifetime for such an opportunity — a blank canvas on which to apply all they’ve learned about the patterns and rhythms of the NFL game.
That was the challenge Ravens coach John Harbaugh issued to his new offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, as they began preparations for the 2019 season: Build an attack from the ground up, with streamlined terminology and an emphasis on using every one of quarterback Lamar Jackson’s gifts to baffle opposing defenses.
“There are several coaches on our staff that have always wanted to do this,” Roman said Wednesday after watching his offense complete the second day of mandatory minicamp. “What would I do if I could start from square zero? We’ve been granted than opportunity.”
The Ravens rolled to the playoffs last season behind the most run-heavy offense the NFL had seen in decades. Their emphasis won’t change drastically, not with a running guru at offensive coordinator and one of the fastest players in the NFL at quarterback. But they aim to be far less predictable and far more dangerous through the air.
We won’t truly see how Roman’s offense differs from that of his predecessor, Marty Mornhinweg, until the Sept. 8 season opener. But he described some features Wednesday, including simplified vocabulary, nontraditional deployments of the team’s gifted tight ends and emphases on switching tempos and making quicker decisions at the line of scrimmage.
“We’ve got, I think, a lot of different boxes we can pull things out of,” Roman said. “I think you’re going to see some elements of things you’ve seen in the past. You’re going to see some new stuff. You’re going to see some new stuff that looks like old stuff. We’d like to be pretty multiple in the problems we present to a defense.”
When veteran players returned to the team’s training complex in May, Roman began by describing his plans for the offense in broad terms. Then he trusted his position coaches, all of whom collaborated on the redesign, to drill into the arduous work of teaching techniques and terminology.
“We had to go back and look at everything from the ground up, look at where football is and where we are,” Roman said. ”A real thorough housecleaning took place, starting early in January. It was a long process, and we like where we’re at, but we’re always streamlining and tweaking.”
Now that his players are translating abstract concepts to on-field movements, Roman said he’s pleased with the state of his planned revolution.
After three weeks of organized team activities and two days of mandatory minicamp, the revamped offense still looks like a young animal, finding its legs in a land of apex predators. For every pretty connection between Jackson and second-year tight end Mark Andrews, there’s an interception by the star-studded Ravens secondary.
That’s as it should be, Roman said. He’s not worried about judging individual battles at this point in the season. Even the worst misfires yield vital lessons.
“We get to throw a lot of things on that canvas,” he said. “Test this out and say, ‘Eh, that might not be us,’ or, ‘Wow, that really is us.’ We’re really not competing against our defense as much as we’re competing against ourselves. We’re trying to get everybody prepared for training camp; that’s the goal. And I think we’re accomplishing that.”
With the players not yet in pads, work on the passing game has outpaced time spent on the run.
The team’s offensive coaches say they actually like going against the likes of Earl Thomas, Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey in practice, even if the results (five interceptions during Wednesday’s practice) are sometimes humbling.
“It doesn’t do anything but make you better,” Ravens wide receivers coach David Culley said. “Basically, every day in practice, we go against as good as we’ll go against during the season. Especially for these young guys, this is as good as it gets.”
Ravens safety Tony Jefferson has been impressed.
“I think the offense is doing a much better job changing things up,” he said. “It’s definitely not a predictable offense. … I’m loving it. I’m loving what Lamar’s doing. I’m loving our receivers; we’ve got some big-bodied receivers, some unknown receivers, too, who might make a name for themselves this preseason. We’re all excited to see it.”
With first-round draft pick Marquise “Hollywood” Brown still sidelined by a Lisfranc foot injury, Culley has yet to get an honest look at the receiving corps he’ll roll out in Week 1. That won’t come until training camp. On the other hand, he’s seen some unexpected highlights from undrafted free agents such as Antoine Wesley and Sean Modster.
“We’re not where we want to be right now,” Culley said. “But I think we’re progressing very nicely. … It’s still basic football. It’s still pitch and catch with guys doing the right things. But we’re headed in the right direction.”
Of course, the story of the offense will ultimately come back to Jackson’s progress as a passer, ball handler and decision maker. The second-year quarterback has still unleashed plenty of wobbly throws over the past four weeks, but coaches and teammates have unanimously praised his overall development.
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“Every day is a step forward for him,” Roman said. “If you would divide all the different things that go into playing quarterback, I think it would be amazing to many people how many columns there are. I think he’s raised his level in every column, to a certain extent. Lamar’s the kind of guy where, the more he does something, he’s going to get better at it.”