After a season that turned his quarterback into a limping bystander, his defense into a turnstile and his injured reserve into a list of expensive absentees, Ravens coach John Harbaugh had a lot to think about in the early days of this offseason. Early in Monday’s season-ending news conference, he shared something he’d scribbled down, a mantra of sorts.
“Change is inevitable,” Harbaugh said, “and growth is required.”
Those two ideas — competing in some respects, complementary in others — seemed to shape Harbaugh’s narrative of a disappointing 2021 season and the challenges of the months ahead.
In a 40-plus-minute news conference at the team facility in Owings Mills, 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, about the criticism around offensive coordinator Greg Roman, about defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s departure, about the team’s hopes for a healthier 2022.
But as Harbaugh looked ahead to next season, he envisioned progress being driven more from within, not from without. If change is inevitable in Baltimore, it likely won’t be the kind that drives big-type headlines this offseason. Even the hire of Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, a former Ravens assistant coach who will now succeed Martindale, won’t lead to a “dramatically different” approach, Harbaugh said.
Ravens officials like whom they have under contract and in the building and on staff. They just want more from them in 2022 — more consistency, more appearances, more discipline, more everything.
“You don’t change for change’s sake,” Harbaugh said. “But sometimes you have to make changes in the way you do things.”
The Ravens’ biggest move this offseason came at defensive coordinator. Martindale, one of the NFL’s most aggressive and respected play-callers, was not retained after one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history. After regularly ranking among the NFL’s best units, the Ravens struggled to stay healthy, force turnovers, record sacks and limit big plays.
In hiring Macdonald, who helped turn around Michigan’s defense in his one season at Ann Arbor, Harbaugh said the Ravens would “try to build on where you’ve been before.”
“That’s the great thing about continuity and the great thing about success,” he said. “I mean, there’s an amazing tradition of defense here. And it’s built on the players that have been here. It’s built on the schemes that have been used. It’s built on the mindset. It’s built on practice. It’s built on everything, you know? It’s built on the back of a lot of work. …
“The guys who are here, the coaches who are here, feel that pressure to kind of keep building on that. So where does that go? It’s not something that you want to start over on. It’s something you want to build on. So that’s the reason for Mike. And that’s the reason we went the way we did. I’m excited about where we’re going and what we’re going to do with that.”
On offense, where injuries and illness sidelined Jackson for five games and decimated the team’s depth at key positions, Harbaugh saw no need for change. Coordinator Greg Roman, whose unit struggled after a torrid start, is expected to return for his fourth season in charge.
Harbaugh saw hope for a bounce-back season in 2022. The Ravens finished sixth in the NFL in yards per game but just 17th in points per game. They avoided three-and-outs but struggled to sustain drives. Their red-zone efficiency and big-play production dropped off over the second half of the season. Their once-record-breaking running game was productive, but largely because of scrambles.
“Offensively, we’ve done some pretty darn good things here over the past three years,” Harbaugh 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. We came up short this year in a lot of ways.”
Penalties, sacks and quarterback hurries were especially damaging, Harbaugh said. Execution issues also cropped up; Harbaugh attributed some of the poor spacing in the Ravens’ passing game to receivers running the wrong route.
“I know we can look at that with the coaching staff that we have, build on the players that we have [and] kind of choose our scheme direction wisely,” Harbaugh said. “Let’s really take some time. … We’ve talked a lot about this in terms of, we have all the elements in our offense.”
It starts with Jackson, who’s entering the final year of his rookie contract after an inconsistent 2021. He finished his third season as a full-time starter with career highs in passing yards per game (240.2) but also interceptions (13) and sacks (38). He missed the final month of the season with a bone bruise in his right ankle, leaving the Ravens without their most important player during a six-game losing streak.
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Still, Harbaugh said he believes Jackson, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player, can be the centerpiece of a championship-level offense.
“I can’t even emphasize enough how determined he is to improve and get our offense where it needs to be,” Harbaugh said. “As a coaching staff and as a scouting staff, we want to do our part. We have to trust and rely on Lamar and all the players — and I mean, all the players to do their part and to go to work. …
“So all the things that happened this year, you look at the numbers and stuff like that that were a step back in terms of our offense, and you were talking about Lamar, those are all things that you can look at and you can understand why. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean … there’s no excuse. That’s how he looks at it. So let’s go to work and let’s get better at the things we need to get better at, and let’s let that talent shine.”
Harbaugh was optimistic that Jackson would return to workouts soon, and that the raft of other injured starters who missed significant time this season — left tackle Ronnie Stanley, running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, tight end Nick Boyle, cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, among others — would be back to full speed for the 2022 season.
Because of injuries and the coronavirus, 75 Ravens were active for a game this season, tying a franchise record. Harbaugh attributed the Ravens’ injury woes in part to bad luck, calling them “cyclical.” He pledged to “turn over every stone” this offseason as the team seeks improved health and injury prevention, but said head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders would remain on staff.
Two weeks ago, during a four-hour meeting with the Ravens’ performance staff, Harbaugh said he reviewed “every aspect of what we’re doing” to limit injuries, including revising the team’s practice schedules, training methods, conditioning work and analytical modeling.
“You can say it’s a fluke, and I get that,” Harbaugh said. “But I don’t feel like we have the luxury to live there. It’s not something that we can say that that’s it. We’ve got to turn over every stone. We’ve got to look at every possible avenue to do the best we can to make sure this doesn’t happen again. And that’s what we plan on doing.”