Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti saw the empty seats at M&T Bank Stadium during the 2016 season. He's heard directly and indirectly from fans. He understands that discontent with the team's on-field product is higher than it's been in years.
"The pitchforks are out," Bisciotti said Tuesday. "They know it."
Seated between coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome, and to the left of team president Dick Cass, Bisciotti acknowledged that the team's 8-8 season left him at times frustrated and bewildered. However, the owner made clear that it hasn't resulted in his losing faith in Harbaugh, Newsome or embattled quarterback Joe Flacco.
The overriding theme of Tuesday's "State of the Ravens" address was Bisciotti's unwavering belief in two of his top decision-makers and in his franchise quarterback, who had one of the worst seasons of his career in 2016. Bisciotti pledged support and trust for all three as the team enters a critical offseason after it missed the playoffs for the third time in four years since winning Super Bowl XLVII.
"I didn't get where I was by just firing people. I think it's a bad model, especially in this business. I don't have as much to fall back on except to then say, 'Trust me, this is the right way to run a business.' That's not good enough for probably a quarter of our fans. Then, you're over the hill and you're an idiot. That's fine with me. I'll be more than happy to take the blame for that," Bisciotti said. "I guarantee you if I fire John, a lot of people would be happy, except me and Ozzie and Dick. Who am I ultimately here for? I have to trust my instincts."
In past news conferences, Bisciotti challenged former coach Brian Billick to change his ways or put former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron on the hot seat. However, he gave no such ultimatums Tuesday. He was calm and measured throughout the 70-minute, 30-question news conference, and said while he's concerned and aware of with the opinions of fans, he won't allow them to dictate his decisions.
He predicted a bounce-back year for Flacco and said it's far too simplistic to suggest that Harbaugh and others need to get to the playoffs next season to save their jobs.
"If Joe goes out for the year in Week 2, I'm going to grade it with a curve," Bisciotti said. "If we have the kind of injuries we had [in 2015], I graded with a curve last year at 5-11. I just can't project that out because there are so many variables that go into that. I really can't. I can just tell you right now that I trust my partners."
About the closest thing to a public rebuke was when Bisciotti said: "The one thing, I guess I want my fans to know is that I think John can coach better, I think Ozzie and [assistant general manager Eric DeCosta] can draft better, I think Joe can play better, and I think if all of them do it — and I think they're capable and determined to be better — then I think next year, we're sitting here with a playoff-caliber team, and I really believe that. … If you get improvement from quality people, then I believe that they can collectively bring this team back to prominence. I understand that nothing I say today is going to change opinions."
Since winning the Super Bowl after the 2012 regular season, the Ravens are just 31-33. They made the playoffs, and won one postseason game, in 2014. However, they've yet to win an AFC North title during that span.
An 8-8 season in 2013 was partly a result of a mass exodus of key players after the Super Bowl, and the departure of franchise greats Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. A 5-11 season in 2015 was the byproduct of a wave of injuries to some of the team's top players. However, this past season's 8-8 record stung because the team was in first place for a chunk of the season but never reached its potential or played aesthetically pleasing football.
By season's end, there were noticeable sections of empty seats during games at M&T Bank Stadium. Harbaugh's announcement last week that much-maligned offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg will return was met with public disapproval.
"I don't think I need to stand up here and sing a coach's praises who's had 25 years in this league and had tremendous success," Harbaugh said Tuesday when asked about Mornhinweg. "All these guys are great coaches. We need to find the right fit for us, the right fit for Joe, the right fit for our organizational philosophy and what we're trying to build and who we want to be and what our identity is going to be, and I believe wholeheartedly that it's Marty."
Asked about Mornhinweg's return, Bisciotti said, "My quarterback seems happy with it."
Bisciotti acknowledged the offense's run-pass ratio was "bad" and he said, "We need to get more out of Joe, and Joe would agree with me." But he expressed a belief that the organization also has to pay as much attention to its defense after it ranked No. 1 for parts of the season and then faltered badly down the stretch.
"I woke up yesterday and I realized I had the press conference today, and I thought about 8-8 and the disappointment and how many close calls we had and how we were this close to getting there and getting into those playoffs," Bisciotti said. "We have been a team that has never been a 14-2 team, an odds-on favorite to win. We've won two Super Bowls when people didn't expect us to. So when you're that close, it's really, really disappointing, and I can point to things that frustrate me that are brought to these guys' attention."
Later this week, the Ravens' top decision-makers will head to Bisciotti's home in Jupiter, Fla., to begin mapping out the offseason agenda. The first order of business, Bisciotti said, will be reviewing the team's salary cap situation. The cap is supposed to increase again this season, but the Ravens will still be challenged in building their roster, and will likely have to cut a significant group of veterans. Rush linebacker Terrell Suggs won't be one of those guys, as Newsome said he expects the team's longest-tenured player to return.
Five of the Ravens' starters, including standout nose tackle Brandon Williams and starting right tackle Rick Wagner, are headed to unrestricted free agency. That list doesn't include top wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., who has already notified the league of his retirement. Even if the Ravens re-sign a few of their own, they'll have to fill other holes.
"We need to add some depth in the secondary. We need to improve in the offensive line. We need to find a complementary receiver," Newsome said. "I think those are the areas that we feel like we should attack in the offseason, and whether it's through free agency or the draft or trades, whatever way we have to do it."