Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is looking forward to playing in front of friends on Sunday when they take on the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.
Like every revolution — the successful and the unsuccessful, the significant and the inconsequential — the Ravens offense will change by the day. Sometimes it will work, and other times it will not. It will zig one Sunday, then zag the next Thursday. Its outlines are hidden and nebulous, like some ancient treasure map, and still being drawn; quarterback Lamar Jackson said Wednesday that “We still get hit with new stuff.”
The seeds of change were planted months ago in Baltimore, if not long before. But the public reckoning begins Sunday, when the Miami Dolphins will be the first team to face a fully operational Ravens offense that coach John Harbaugh has said is unlike any in NFL history. Most season openers measure how far a team has come and how far it still has to go. The Ravens’ could be a referendum on perhaps the league’s grandest offseason experiment.
Only those inside the team’s Owings Mills headquarters know the exact parameters. But you don’t need a team-issued tablet to imagine what the offense might look like. A year after the Ravens claimed their first AFC North crown since 2012 with a Jackson-led offense that turned back the clock, running the ball more than 60% of the time, there will be more balance. More passes. More of Jackson showing he has an NFL-level arm, too.
But this “revolution,” as Harbaugh has called it, will start and maybe end on the ground. At the vanguard will be Jackson, who set NFL rushing records for a quarterback as a rookie. The offense he’ll oversee will be appropriately unique, a fusion of “medieval” personnel groupings — 300-pound fullback Patrick Ricard, three-tight end sets — and new-age tendencies: work a defense’s soft spots, get playmakers into space.
After an offseason of reinvention, the Ravens face an urgent question: Will it all work? The offense’s last iteration managed just three first downs over the first three quarters of a season-ending playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Defensive coordinators have now had months to prepare to stop Jackson, not just the week foisted on many last season.
And if it does work, where does that leave the Ravens? The NFL’s five most efficient offenses last season, according to analytics website Football Outsiders, were also the five most efficient passing offenses. To be remembered as football revolutionaries like Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, the San Francisco 49ers icons whom Harbaugh invoked in a July interview on NFL Network, the Ravens have to effect change. And to effect change, the Ravens have to prove their new way is a better way.
“We have to be us,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday. “We’re going to run it, and we’re going to throw it. That will change every week; the degree of which is based on how the game unfolds. We feel confident doing both. It’s always a challenge in this league. … We need to be the most effective Raven offense. However that builds itself, we’ll see.”
‘From the ground up’
Construction started after the Ravens’ AFC wild-card-round loss in early January. The Chargers, the only team to face Jackson twice last season, held the NFL’s best late-season rushing attack to just 90 yards at M&T Bank Stadium, and Jackson went more than a half without completing a pass before finishing 14-for-29 for 194 passing yards.
Maybe the most important changes have been kept private. Four preseason games revealed only a “little gist,” Ingram said, of the Ravens’ full playbook, of their schematic intentions. There was more zone-read action … but Jackson never bothered to keep the ball himself. There was a lateral thrown to a receiver motioning out of the backfield … but the target, Joe Horn Jr., wasn’t good enough to make the team. There was a jet sweep for Brown … but it was stopped behind the line of scrimmage.
As the offense was installed this summer, players said it resembled nothing they’d ever seen before. Jackson said he hopes fans leave Sunday’s game talking about “the best offense they’ve ever seen.”
“We could do so many things on this offense, from the running game, to the passing game, to speed option, everything,” wide receiver Willie Snead IV said early in training camp. “We could do whatever we want. That’s the best thing about it.”
Will it work?
The Ravens’ challenge is deciding on their meat and potatoes — and accepting that their presentation might not quite merit a Michelin rating. In a radio interview last month, Jackson said his ideal run-pass ratio would include “probably 30 passes a game,” a significant increase from his rookie year but a far cry from the workloads of the league’s heavyweights.
In the pass-happy NFL, it’s possible for run-first teams to keep up offensively. It’s just increasingly unlikely. Over the past five years, the NFL's most successful teams have, on average, been more effective passing than rushing. According to Football Outsiders, the average playoff team since 2014 has finished about 10th in passing efficiency and 13th in running efficiency.
As interception rates have fallen and completion rates have soared, almost every pass is becoming a good bet. Each of the past three seasons, Football Outsiders’ most efficient offense also led the NFL in passing efficiency. The two years prior, the top offense was the runner-up in passing efficiency. The top rushing offenses since 2014, meanwhile, haven't led an attack to higher than No. 2, and one finished as low as No. 10 in total efficiency.
“I love Lamar. I love John Harbaugh, love Greg Roman. I like how philosophically they play the ball in Baltimore,” ESPN analyst and former Philadelphia Eagles director of pro personnel Louis Riddick said in a conference call Thursday. “But unless he can get the ball outside and they can really utilize Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, and get the ball to these tight ends and get the ball down the middle of the field deep to [tight ends] Mark [Andrews] and Hayden Hurst and those guys, their outside is cast, as far as I’m concerned.
“I'm not buying into this, ‘Hey, this run game is just going to revolutionize how we attack people,’ because we saw what happened in the playoffs with that last year. That can be slowed down.”
The Ravens don’t believe that, mainly because they believe in Jackson. The dual-threat quarterback won the Heisman Trophy as a true sophomore at Louisville, and Ravens front-office officials traded up to pick him at the end of the first round last year because they believed his greatness could translate. Even now, there are only so many ways to defend him, former Ravens defensive end Chris Canty said.
The ESPN Radio personality and Fox Sports NFL analyst said in an interview Thursday that most defenses don’t have the manpower to account for a quarterback in running schemes, especially when that quarterback might be faster than every defender on the field. And if an opponent responds by playing more defensive backs, as the Chargers did? Canty said the Ravens have the size and strength to run through them.
With the NFL celebrating its 100th season this year, Canty joked that “it’s hard to say that you’re going to do something that’s never been done before in this league.” But he acknowledged that the Ravens will look different. They’ll play the way they want, with an inimitable style, an unconventional approach and a belief that through change, they can find a new way forward.
“It’s doing things that are outside of the box,” Canty said. “It’s trying to find creative ways to get the ball to your playmakers in space. That’s what the NFL has evolved into.
"It’s one of those things where you’re trying to play the space game, where you’re trying to get your better athletes in one-on-one situations, see if they can make a guy miss and get yards. That’s the part of it where, when Harbs says ‘revolutionize,’ I guess that’s where he’s going.”