After coming close in Cincinnati, Ravens can no longer hide from unsettling offseason

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Close, close, close. 

The underdog Ravens came close to knocking off Cincinnati in Sunday night’s wild-card clash that ended in a 24-17 loss. The Bengals had to wake up Monday feeling fortunate to have advanced to the divisional round after John Harbaugh’s team gave them everything they could handle. 

Backup quarterback Tyler Huntley came close to being the unlikely hero before disaster ensued at the goal line for what resulted in a likely 14-point swing with just under 12 minutes to go. Reserve wide receiver James Proche came close to catching the final end-zone heave that would have tied the game or — imagine this — potentially set up a 2-point try for the win. Long before that, Baltimore came close to scoring what could have been a pivotal touchdown at the end of the first half before settling for a 22-yard field goal and a 10-9 lead at intermission.  

Unfortunately, “close” is the word that’s come to define the Ravens in recent years with good teams derailed by some combination of fatal flaws, injuries, questionable decisions, untimely mistakes, and some bad luck. Even after the shocking playoff upset at the hands of Tennessee three years ago, the future appeared so bright with a young nucleus — headlined by unanimous NFL MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson — determined to “revolutionize” the league. To their credit, the Ravens have won plenty of games with a high floor for the regular season, but legacies are defined in January. Baltimore has won one playoff game in the Jackson era and has now gone a full decade without advancing beyond the divisional round of the playoffs, only adding to fan frustration. 

Close, but not close enough to the ultimate goal. And it’s not getting any easier in the quarterback-rich AFC either. 

After going “one and done” for the third time in their last four trips to the playoffs dating back to 2018 and with an injured Jackson failing to finish a second straight season, the Ravens are at a crossroads unlike any they’ve faced since Brian Billick was fired 15 years ago. Even after the stunning loss to Cincinnati in the 2017 finale, Baltimore enjoyed the benefit of a soft reset that offseason when Jackson was selected in the 2018 draft to succeed veteran quarterback Joe Flacco and current offensive coordinator Greg Roman took over for Marty Mornhinweg the following year. 

That’s not to predict owner Steve Bisciotti is about to clean house or to suggest he should, but questions run deeper than the future of Roman, whose offense once again fell apart in the red zone on Sunday as it has since early October. The failures inside the 20-yard line and the collapse of a passing game that began long before Jackson injured his left knee on Dec. 4 have made it difficult to envision Roman surviving for weeks, if not months now. And if Harbaugh were to balk at that notion, some of the cries for his own job will grow louder despite an overall track record of success that speaks for itself. 

Were running back J.K. Dobbins’ postgame comments an individual outburst or a sentiment shared by other players regarding the state of the offense?  

To be clear, the shortcomings extend beyond who’s calling the plays and designing the offense. But how does the organization go about finding a new offensive coordinator and fixing a woeful wide receiver picture — something general manager Eric DeCosta needs to own — without knowing what’s going to happen with Jackson? After two offseasons of unsuccessful negotiations and with the way this campaign finished, how much trust remains between the two sides? 

There are surely offensive coaches who would love the opportunity to work with a special talent like Jackson, but how eager is anyone to take the gig without knowing whether he’s even going to be a Raven in 2023, let alone the long run? If Baltimore plans to use the tag with the intention of keeping him next season, will Jackson sign it and show up in Owings Mills at any point before early September? Is there still a good chance for a long-term agreement, or are the sides going to continue the same dance for another offseason? Where does the fact that Jackson has now missed close to 13 full games over the last two seasons factor into the discussion, especially if he still seeks a contract that’s fully guaranteed or at least very close to it? 

These are the questions and concerns that now come to the forefront after a close loss to the Bengals in which the Ravens showed plenty of fight before their flaws did them in. 

Red-zone failures, puzzling clock management, and a franchise quarterback nowhere to be found. 

Close, but still so far away as questions will persist about whether the Ravens are moving in the right direction. 

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