The Ravens’ offseason wish list for their offense includes playmaking wide receivers and tight ends, a healthier Joe Flacco and potentially a quarterbacks coach to work with Flacco on his mechanics. What it doesn’t include is a different offensive coordinator.
For the second straight offseason, head coach John Harbaugh decided to retain much-maligned play-caller Marty Mornhinweg despite mounting criticism about the direction of the Ravens offense and one of the most uneven offensive seasons in franchise history.
“We’re not making changes,” Harbaugh said early in his nearly 40-minute news conference Thursday. “If guys get opportunities to go somewhere and do some different things, we’ll see how that goes over the next couple of weeks. I think that’s something you deal with every year, but I’m happy with the coaches we have on defense and offense and we’re building going forward.”
The news comes four days after the Ravens lost to the Cincinnati Bengals in their regular-season finale and missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season, prompting an impatient fan base to call for widespread change.
Harbaugh is in the process of hiring a new defensive coordinator after Dean Pees’ decision earlier this week to retire. The Ravens also look like they’ll have to replace senior offensive assistant/tight ends coach Greg Roman, a significant loss given the impact Roman had on reviving the team’s run game. Roman coached on a one-year contract this season and he plans to explore other opportunities.
However, Harbaugh is opting for continuity with his offensive play-calling, believing the offense made significant strides under Mornhinweg over the second half of the 2017 season.
“I'm going to tell you what — I've said this all along and I'm not going to change it — we have great coaches and the creativity that I saw, the way we schemed guys open, schemed run game, schemed pass plays, schemed plays to be creative, I was happy with that,” Harbaugh said. “You can look at the stats. The bottom line is we improved tremendously and we faced a great deal of adversity on offense. In the end, the last half of the season, we were the second-highest-scoring offense in the league and that's not something that you take lightly.”
After a first half of the season in which they ranked at or near the bottom of the league in several primary offensive categories, the Ravens averaged 29.4 points per game over their last nine games. Only the NFC West-winning Los Angeles Rams averaged more points during that span.
Still, the Ravens finished 27th in yards per game (305.4), their third-worst offensive ranking in franchise history. They also were 29th in passing yards per game (189.4) and 27th on third-down conversions (34.1 percent).
Flacco, who was critical at times of the team’s relatively conservative offensive philosophy under Mornhinweg but was otherwise supportive of the play-caller, finished the 2017 season with the third-fewest passing yards (3,141) and touchdowns (18) of his career, the lowest yards per attempt (5.7) and his third-most interceptions (13).
Flacco, though, endorsed Mornhinweg’s return for a second full season – Mornhinweg took over play-calling duties in October of the 2016 season after Marc Trestman was fired — and maintained that his relationship with the veteran assistant was “growing” and “always evolving.”
Harbaugh defended Mornhinweg on a couple of occasions during the 2017 season and said the blame for the Ravens’ offensive woes should be widespread. Injuries ravaged the group and the front office’s decision to focus on the defense in recent drafts — the Ravens have picked just four offensive players in the first three rounds of the past five drafts combined — has left the team devoid of offensive depth and game-breaking talent.
However, Mornhinweg struggled to get consistency out of Flacco and the offense, and he never really was able to unlock the downfield passing game. Mornhinweg’s play-calling had also come under significant fire, although things opened up this season as his quarterback got healthier.
The 10-year quarterback hurt his back a couple of weeks before training camp and missed the entire preseason. Flacco was back in time for the regular-season opener, but it was clear that he wasn’t fully healthy and the team’s tepid offensive approach was influenced by the quarterback’s health and mobility.
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“To say that wasn't a factor in our passing game early, combined with the first injuries that we had there, it wouldn't be fair to Joe,” Harbaugh said. “I think Joe did a great job of fighting through that and really, I'd say Marty did a great job, too, of getting Joe from week to week, because it wasn't like he would come back the first week and he was ready to throw himself 100 percent into a bunch of grinding work. As far as numbers and things like that, the first half of the season to the second half of the season was dramatic. I think the number of interceptions and touchdown passes, it's just a dramatic turnaround. It definitely speaks to his health.”
Harbaugh also defended Flacco’s highly scrutinized mechanics, indicating that while there were some breakdowns, he generally felt they held up. Harbaugh, though, acknowledged that adding a quarterbacks coach to work directly with Flacco is something that he’s considering. He also didn’t rule out the Ravens drafting a quarterback with Flacco turning 33 years old on Jan. 16 while playing on a surgically repaired left knee and with a bad back.
“I don’t think that jeopardizes Joe at all, obviously. He’s our guy and I’m excited about our chances next year to have a great season. Joe is, too,” Harbaugh said. “But if we draft a quarterback, if that turns out to be the thing we do, it’s only going to make our team stronger.”
Ultimately, though, Harbaugh agreed with the perception that the team’s biggest offensive improvements need to be made around Flacco and with his supporting cast.
The regression of former first-round receiver Breshad Perriman and the injury-marred season for free-agent addition Jeremy Maclin left the Ravens lacking depth and production at wide receiver. The team was down to just two wide receivers late in the season-ending loss to the Bengals: veteran Mike Wallace and undrafted rookie Quincy Adeboyejo, who was promoted from the practice squad five days earlier.
Wallace and fellow wide receiver Michael Campanaro are both free agents. Maclin is a prime candidate to be a salary cap casualty and Perriman is hardly certain to be on next year’s team. Not only are there major questions at wide receiver, the Ravens also lack an explosive tight end that can stretch the field. Veteran Benjamin Watson, the team’s leading receiver this season, is also a pending free agent.
“The more you have a need in an area, the more you’re going to try to get that area filled, and the best way to do it is through the draft,” Harbaugh said. “So there’s no question that if anybody looks at the needs of our team, that’s where we’re going to be looking to fill our roster. I don’t think I’m giving away any secret there. Everybody in the league knows that.”