The Ravens ended the regular season with the NFL’s best record and could enter next season as Super Bowl favorites. They smashed offensive records with quarterback Lamar Jackson and will have him back as the centerpiece of a potent attack. They had maybe the league’s best coordinator pairing and lost neither to a head coaching job.
On Friday, John Harbaugh straddled the glory of 2019 and his optimism for 2020 with an acknowledgment that undercut both: The Ravens were having a season-ending news conference earlier than he expected.
“I felt like we were the best team — I said this after the game — that we could be this season,” Harbaugh said at his season-ending news conference, where he made his first comments since Saturday’s 28-12 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC divisional round. “All things considered, with where we were at, with our team and our roster, with our youth, with our experience, all the things that we had, with our coaches, we were the best team in the regular season that we could be, but we weren’t at our best in the playoff game, and that was disappointing. That hurts a little bit, to say the least.”
It was how the Ravens lost that rankled fans and surprised analysts. Here was the NFL’s best running offense, owner of the single-season rushing record, finishing with only a combined nine carries for running backs Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards. Here was a well-rested defense gashed by running back Derrick Henry. Here was one of the league’s most efficient regular-season teams ever somehow turning 530 yards into one touchdown and a 12-game winning streak into a second straight early playoff exit.
Asked about the Ravens’ play-calling on offense, which came under attack the past week, Harbaugh did not mention coordinator Greg Roman by name but said that, as head coach, he took responsibility for “everything.” While Jackson finished with a career-high 59 pass attempts, Harbaugh said the offense was “balanced at halftime, pretty much,” when the Ravens had thrown 22 times and run the ball 16 times.
Of those 16 carries, however, three were scrambles by Jackson, further skewing a run-pass ratio that had favored the ground game all season. Edwards, whose first carry went for 19 yards, finished with just three carries, and Harbaugh acknowledged that he Ravens "want Gus carrying the ball." The game, he said, "didn't play out the way we wanted it to play out. We didn't play our game."
Harbaugh said the matchup came down to “critical downs” where the Titans, the AFC’s sixth seed, executed and the Ravens, double-digit favorites, did not: Jackson threw a rare interception that glanced off the fingers of tight end Mark Andrews; Tennessee subsequently scored its first touchdown on a third-and-goal play from the 12-yard line. The Ravens couldn’t convert on “fourth-and-a-foot” early in the third quarter; Henry broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage three plays later for a 66-yard gain.
A drive-capping Titans touchdown extended their lead to 21-6 inside M&T Bank Stadium, where only a year earlier fans had watched the home team trail late in an AFC wild-card game. The Ravens went on to lose to the Los Angeles Chargers then, too, in what was Jackson’s first playoff start.
“The dynamic changes,” Harbaugh said of the two-touchdown deficit. “I think we shifted gears at that point in time. We knew we had to score points. Maybe a couple of series. They weren’t exactly giving us the ball back right away, either. That’s a team that controls the clock. I considered how many possessions we were going to have, and the decision was made to open it up, and let’s go try and win the game.”
The Ravens couldn’t. Jackson became the first player in NFL history to throw for more than 300 yards and rush for over 100 yards in a playoff game, but he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in Ravens territory. It was an uncharacteristic night from the NFL’s presumptive Most Valuable Player and its most efficient offense: 0-for-4 on fourth down, 1-for-4 on red-zone trips and 44 rushing yards by running backs.
Harbaugh was unflustered as he spoke after his third straight playoff loss, and when he addressed reporters again Friday, wearing a button-down shirt and holding a pile of notes, he remarked again on how much he had enjoyed the season. He was optimistic about next year, too. This offseason could reshape the defense, as last year’s did, but the Ravens are better positioned to absorb free-agent losses than they’ve been in recent years.
“Our guys are tough, they're resilient,” Harbaugh said. “We're going to start from the beginning. When we come back ... we'll be talking about building the foundation and starting to stack one good day after another. That's what we'll do and try to build the very best team that we can and be the very best team we can be this next season. We'll see where it takes us. Are we capable of winning the whole thing next year? Absolutely. Without question. Now we've got to go do it.”
The Ravens enter the offseason as healthy as they’ve been in Harbaugh’s tenure, and the team will head to Orlando, Florida, next week with up to a dozen Pro Bowl players participating. Some of them, Harbaugh might not see again in a Ravens uniform: Guard Marshal Yanda has not decided whether he’ll return for another season in Baltimore, and Matthew Judon, unless he’s designated with the franchise tag, will enter free agency as a highly coveted outside linebacker.
But the Ravens have a young and talented core, especially on offense. And in Jackson, they have a dual-threat weapon whom coaches and teammates say is as talented as he is humble. When Jackson visited Harbaugh on Wednesday, the coach recalled, he was asked where he needed to improve.
“Without getting into what they are specifically, he nailed it, the priority list, in the exact same order that Greg [Roman] and I nailed the priority list when we were talking on Monday,” he said. He added: “I think it’s really interesting to look at Lamar Jackson because if you look at the progress he made in the last year — the same question I think you might have asked last year, ‘How’s he going to get better going forward?’ He did a good job, right?”
For all that his team had accomplished this season and everything it might do in 2020, Harbaugh conceded that the past week was a “gut shot." He had not looked at the tape from Saturday’s loss as thoroughly as he might later this offseason. The game was painful, disappointing. This was the Ravens’ season — until they couldn’t play their game.
“That’s just the way the league works: Everyone runs the race, but only one wins the prize," Harbaugh said. "That’s the way the National Football League is set up. That’s what we love about it, that’s what we respect about it, that’s what makes it so hard.”