For the 2018 Ravens, it's win now or face an uncertain future

Ten years ago this September, the Ravens started over.

Owner Steve Bisciotti had fired Brian Billick, an emotionally rending decision that led to him hiring a largely unproven coach named John Harbaugh. Meanwhile, the team prepared to test its latest solution at quarterback, an unassuming, lightly viewed character named Joe Flacco.

That uncertain beginning led to the longest period of sustained success in franchise history — six playoff appearances in seven seasons, highlighted by a victory in Super Bowl XLVII.

A decade on, Harbaugh is still the coach and Flacco still the quarterback, but for the first time in their tenure, hints of sweeping change loom over one of the most stable franchises in the NFL.

We already know that when this season ends, general manager Ozzie Newsome, the greatest constant in Ravens history, will hand control of the front office to his longtime lieutenant, Eric DeCosta.

In February, Bisciotti said he had considered firing Harbaugh after the Ravens fell short of the playoffs for the third straight season. It was the first time he’d ever implied doubts about Harbaugh’s performance.

Then in April, the Ravens traded back into the first round of the NFL draft to select quarterback Lamar Jackson, the highlight-machine 2016 Heisman Trophy winner from Louisville. Though Harbaugh made it clear Jackson would apprentice under Flacco for at least a year, teams don’t draft a quarterback in the first round without designs on starting him eventually.

If you ranked the most important jobs in each NFL franchise, the quarterback, the coach and the general manager would appear on every short list. The Ravens face the prospect of imminent change at all three, especially if they do not improve their performance on the field this season.

A franchise sometimes derided by its own fans as boring could be staring at its next great reset.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, said former Cleveland Browns general manager Mike Lombardi, co-host of the “GM Street” podcast and author of the upcoming book “Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Championships and Building Dynasties in the NFL.”

“The owner sets the direction, obviously, and he’s looking for a significant improvement in terms of where they went from last year to this year,” Lombardi said. “Whenever an owner’s publicly saying that, people think it’s a bad thing, but actually, it’s a good thing. You now know what’s expected. There’s no gray area.”

Though Bisciotti refused to issue an ultimatum for the team’s performance this season, he did put Harbaugh on the public hot seat in a way he never had before.

“It was certainly a consideration, but not one that I was inclined to make this year,” the Ravens owner said at his annual season-ending news conference when asked about removing Harbaugh.

If that comment lingers in Harbaugh’s mind at all, he refuses to say so. “There’s no expanding on that,” he said. “It doesn’t change anything.”

He has often said the NFL is a year-to-year league under the best circumstances. So the urgency to win now is a given.

“I think that’s how you think about it, because it’s just the reality,” Harbaugh said. “I think probably if you look at life, it’s the same way. We’re all on one-year contracts. We’re all on one-day contracts. That’s just the nature of things. So you do the best you can with where you’re at and what you have, and you try to help people be the best they can be. Everything else is just, why are you worrying yourself about it?”

Safety Eric Weddle compared Harbaugh’s situation with his own as a veteran player.

“You can’t control what’s going to happen after the season, especially with Harbs. He’s very secure with himself, and I think a lot of that mindset is the same we have as older players,” he said. “You get to a certain status in this league and you don’t worry about the future. You know what you bring and what you are as a player or a coach. We all believe in him. … We’re not worried about what the future brings, whether it’s my last year or they’re going to replace me. It doesn’t matter. I can’t control that. What I can control is leading this team, and I feel Harbs is the same way.”

Harbaugh never rates his level of concern or excitement with a given team, but if you study his comments throughout the preseason, he seems bullish about this edition of the Ravens with its mix of seasoned stars and interesting up-and-comers.

He called the team’s training camp “probably about as good as I’ve ever seen.”

But after a month of unusually good luck in avoiding injuries, the Ravens learned that cornerback Jimmy Smith would be suspended four games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, and they watched left tackle Ronnie Stanley stagger off the field with a strained knee in the third preseason game (though Harbaugh said the injury was minor).

Such bad turns could be obscured if Flacco raises his performance to 2014 levels after three straight poor seasons.

Lombardi said the team’s immediate fortunes are directly tied to Flacco’s. With a reliable defense and an elite kicker, he sees them as a playoff contender if the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player does his part.

“If they get Flacco to play at a level in ’14, you’ve got to think they can do it,” Lombardi said. “But if he plays like he did after the ’14 season, that can’t work. … It’s a big year for Joe, not just for the Ravens. Flacco’s contract is more manageable after this season, and if he doesn’t have that kind of year, that’s going to be the end of that.”

Flacco’s performance and the extent of Jackson’s role will be major stories as the Ravens prepare for their season opener against the Buffalo Bills and will like remain major stories throughout the season.

In his now-infamous critique of NFL quarterbacks in GQ, Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey said “Flacco sucks” and said of Jackson, “I think he’s gonna do a good job.”

Those were not merely the words of one brash opponent. They offered a fair summation of the way many fans and analysts outside Baltimore seem to view the Ravens’ quarterback situation.

A few days later, an ESPN article rated Flacco the least valuable quarterback in the league.

Jackson’s possible ascent has been less of a story in Baltimore, where fans and teammates have watched the rookie’s uneven form in practices and preseason games. For each otherworldly move he unleashes as a runner, Jackson tosses a fluttering throw that would make your average college quarterback blush.

He’s working to perfect his mechanics, but he’s the first to say that effort is in progress.

Flacco, meanwhile, has delivered his best training camp in years. After missing all of last preseason because of a back injury, he’s been a steady presence at the helm of the starting offense, moving freely and flashing the rare arm strength that made him a franchise quarterback in the first place. He even answered a regular criticism by gathering his receivers for informal workouts before camp started.

“It’s night and day,” Harbaugh said, comparing this year with Flacco’s lost preseason in 2017. “Try to develop a passing offense without your quarterback all through training camp. Anybody who can’t recognize the difficulty of that doesn’t know football.”

This sets up a fascinating set of scenarios. What if Flacco plays better than he has since his last good season in 2014 and leads the Ravens back to the playoffs? Could the team hand the ball to Jackson in 2019 under those circumstances? Or what if Flacco plays modestly better but Jackson does not improve as quickly as hoped? Would that put the team right back in the same spot entering next season, even though the Ravens could save $18.5 million in cap space by cutting Flacco after June 1?

Flacco has acknowledged that Jackson’s presence creates an unfamiliar dynamic for him. But if he’s at all unsettled, he won’t let on.

Asked whether he expects to tire of the questions regarding Jackson, he said: “No, I don’t. Because I think we’re going to win and we’re not going to hear about it.”

Quarterback is not the only position where the Ravens seem headed for a generational shift.

The team’s most vocal leaders on defense, Weddle and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, are also nearing the end of their decorated careers, though neither has hinted at retirement after this season. Middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, already a key voice, seems poised to succeed them. But the Ravens have yet to reach an extension agreement with the impending free agent.

The team’s best and most experienced offensive lineman, Marshal Yanda, recently said he’ll have to weigh every offseason whether to continue his career.

The sense that the Ravens must win now is palpable.

“Every year this team doesn’t make the playoffs, the lines get thinner and thinner,” Mosley said. “I’m speaking on guys being here. They know that potential guys are losing their jobs, because when you don’t win, you’re replaced — that’s upstairs and on the field.”

The one certain change will come between the men charged with fitting these pieces into a winning puzzle.

Newsome has provided the franchise with a steady foundation from its earliest days in Baltimore on through the changes of coach and quarterback in 2008. Under his leadership, the Ravens represented a model of NFL sanity, replenishing their roster through the draft and rarely overreaching in free agency.

As he guided the ship, Newsome raised DeCosta to be his right hand. Bisciotti paid the assistant general manager handsomely with the understanding he would remain in Baltimore to become Newsome’s successor.

Because DeCosta and Newsome are so close and because this changing of the guard has been in the works for years, most observers predict minimal tumult in the front office.

“Eric’s been here,” Weddle said. “I have a great relationship with Eric, and most guys do. He’s very open personality-wise and likes to talk to the guys, so I don’t think it’s going to be worrisome for the players.”

Coaches and players rarely reference the coming transition.

“It’s business as usual, but business as usual in the NFL is high stakes, high sense of urgency in the operation,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t think it could be any more intense or more challenging. When you’ve got to go out there every Sunday and face a highly talented, highly prepared opponent — and they keep coming every Sunday like waves on the shore — you can’t do anything but have the highest sense of urgency. How could it be any different?”

That’s the discipline players and coaches teach themselves in a sport built on rapid turnover. Looking ahead is a fool’s preoccupation.

Or, as DeCosta said during the offseason: “We’ll worry about next year, next year.”

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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