Ravens multihyphenate Greg Roman — assistant head coach, tight ends coach, running-game guru — spoke to reporters only once this season. That was in early November, before those outside team headquarters knew of Joe Flacco’s injured right hip, before Lamar Jackson and the Ravens defense had started a spirited run to the AFC North title.
The questions Roman was asked reflected the Ravens’ status quo entering their Week 10 bye; all but one were about the team’s tight ends. The first question, though, was about the very thing that has made Roman an attractive offensive coordinator candidate around the NFL (and possibly in Baltimore, too): Jackson’s restorative effect on the team’s running game.
Roman offered 220-plus words on scheme and execution. The results since have spoken for themselves. Over the final seven games of the regular season, the Ravens' Jackson-led offense rushed for an NFL-best 1,607 rushing yards, over 400 more than the runner-up Seattle Seahawks. Gus Edwards emerged from anonymity to become a workhorse running back. Kenneth Dixon, a Week 1 afterthought, finished the season with 117 yards on 12 carries in a postseason-clinching win over the Cleveland Browns.
In his two years with an offense perpetually wrestling with the Ravens’ supersize investment in Flacco, Roman became inseparable from each season’s most obvious success. In 2017, it was the emergence of running back Alex Collins and a ground game that averaged nearly 25 more rushing yards per game despite the loss of injured guards Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis. And this past season, it was the matching of Jackson’s talents to schemes that, for the season’s first half, had led the team’s rushing attack nowhere.
As coach John Harbaugh works toward a long-term contract extension with the Ravens, his offense has entered a watershed offseason. Flacco is out; Jackson is in. Jackson’s development will shape the contours of the Ravens offense, but so will the guy overseeing it. Harbaugh made the unpopular decision to retain offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg after last season. Now he faces a risky proposition: Keep Mornhinweg and risk losing Roman? Or promote Roman and fire Mornhinweg?
The Ravens’ season-ending loss Sunday to the Los Angeles Chargers could be a case study for Harbaugh and team officials. After the 23-17 defeat, in which the Ravens finished with just 90 rushing yards, Chargers defensive lineman Damion Square told Sports Illustrated that the defense knew what to expect “60 to 70 percent of the time.” Chargers players told The Athletic that the placement of left tackle Ronnie Stanley’s feet and the positioning of Ravens tight ends in the pistol formation were dead giveaways as to what would come next.
Was it a case of poor self-scouting in the Ravens’ game-planning, which players and coaches had lauded Roman for all season? Was it stubbornness in play calls, which Mornhinweg oversees? Or maybe it was the benefit of playing the Ravens for a second time in three weeks? Harbaugh hasn’t spoken since Sunday, but he said then that the Chargers simply executed better.
“We didn’t execute in our ball handling,” Harbaugh said, referring to the Ravens’ four fumbles. “We didn’t execute in our blocking as well as they played the defense. That’s why they deserved to win the game. They were the better team. In my mind, they won the game in that area right there.”
Before the Ravens and interested NFL teams decide on Roman’s future, they must first determine just how effective the team’s offense was, and how much of that was because of him. The Ravens finished No. 9 in the NFL in yards per game but No. 26 in yards per play. They had the 15th-most efficient offense, according to Football Outsiders, but were actually less efficient during their late-season playoff push, the analytics website said. Part of that was the Ravens’ emphasis on running, a generally less efficient offensive strategy, but their defensively challenged opponents didn’t help, either.
As NFL front offices look for offensive-minded head coaches who can keep pace with the league’s aerial revolution, the value of Roman’s mind could be diminished. Not in the Ravens locker room, though, where the former San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator is regarded by some as a savant.
“He’s a genius in the run game as well as the pass game,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said Monday. “G-Ro, he calls a lot of great schemes against a lot of these tough defenses in the NFL.”
“I think G-Ro does an amazing job every week just scheming different things up based on personnel,” defensive tackle Michael Pierce said last week.
“Greg Roman has been putting a great game plan together with Marty, and Harbs is looking over everything, and they've done a great job,” wide receiver Willie Snead IV said last month.
Even Mornhinweg, 56, said last week that Roman, 46, has “done just an absolute great job with the run stuff with Lamar.” Now, with the Ravens allowed to begin construction on a Jackson-centric offense for the first time, one that can amplify his talents and limit his risk for injury, they must decide on who will handle the blueprints.
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“I think they’re phenomenal coaches,” quarterback Robert Griffin III said Monday of Mornhinweg and Roman. “They did a good job of adapting the system based on who was playing and did a really good job maximizing the talent in the room. Obviously, you can always get more production and have better play calls, but I thought they did a phenomenal job all throughout the year and got us an AFC North championship and into the playoffs for the first time in a while. So I think they did a great job, and whatever happens with them, it’ll be the best thing for the team.”