OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The writing was on the wall for weeks before Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman announced he was “stepping away from the team to pursue other opportunities” on Thursday.
Regardless of semantics, head coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens weren’t about to embarrass the man who guided the best offense in franchise history in 2019 when Baltimore led the NFL in scoring, rushing yards, and touchdown passes on the way to a franchise-record 14-2 mark and star quarterback Lamar Jackson being the unanimous league MVP. Frankly, the next offensive coordinator will have a very difficult time approaching such single-season statistical acclaim, let alone exceeding it.
But change was warranted with the passing game backsliding and never evolving into the kind of aerial attack needed to help Baltimore play deep into January and early February, which is the ultimate goal. Roman was hardly the only one to blame for the passing woes, but three seasons of failing to rediscover that 2019 magic made it evident that his tenure had run its course.
“We’re all really proud of those things. Greg’s a great coach, and he did the best he could every single week, every single day,” Harbaugh said. “We leave that era kind of, and we move into the next era now in terms of our offense. I did ask Lamar about it, and he will be involved in it. I’ll keep him abreast to what’s going on, and I’m sure he’ll have some input along the way. But I know his focus — like he told me — is going to be on getting himself ready and getting his guys ready for next season.”
Of course, moving on from Roman was only the first offseason domino for the Ravens, who will now conduct an offensive coordinator search with great uncertainty surrounding the future of Jackson, who’s now scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in less than two months. Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta expressed optimism about striking a long-term agreement and were effusive with praise for their franchise quarterback throughout Thursday’s 45-minute press conference, but they had no other choice, especially after the turbulent finish to a season that saw Jackson sidelined for the final six games with a sprained PCL in his left knee and all the conjecture that accompanied it. Whether this saga results in a long-term extension, the franchise tag, or a trade — DeCosta said entertaining offers was “something that we’re not going to talk about at this point” — after two years of off-and-on negotiations, the Ravens were always going to be as positive as can be publicly.
But how might Jackson’s cloudy status impact the hiring process for Roman’s replacement? Undoubtedly, there are many offensive minds who would love the opportunity to work with such a special quarterback, but how confident can anyone — particularly external candidates already in a good place such as Philadelphia quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson — be that Jackson will be a Raven in 2023 and beyond?
Even the guarantee of a franchise tag only goes so far if Jackson takes cues from past tagged players who have skipped the entire spring and summer and not shown up until late August or later, which would make it very difficult to install a new offensive system and build rapport. Unlike last year when Jackson only skipped voluntary spring workouts, a franchise player is under no obligation to show up for anything if he hasn’t signed the tag. Of course, it will be Jackson’s choice whether to exercise whatever leverage he has without a long-term deal in hand.
Harbaugh downplayed the suggestion of Jackson’s uncertain status deterring interest from top offensive coordinator candidates, but it’s worth noting that Roman’s departure left the Ravens as the 10th NFL team needing to hire an offensive coordinator. In other words, there is plenty of competition at the moment.
“This is going to be a highly sought-after job,” Harbaugh said. “This is one of the top football coaching jobs in the world. Everybody’s going to want this job. I’m looking forward to getting started, and it won’t just be me. It’ll be other coaches and scouts involved in [the hiring process].
“We’re going to cast a wide net, and we’re going to look far and wide and close. We’ll get the best fit for what we’re trying to accomplish, and it’s going to be a highly qualified candidate.”
Even in the absence of a long-term agreement with Jackson, perhaps the Ravens will still get their top choice at offensive coordinator and the situation will be OK even if the quarterback is tagged. Asked about a potential spring and summer without his star player, Harbaugh fairly noted that the two-time Pro Bowl selection “does his own thing the way he wants to do it,” but you’d think Jackson has to exercise his leverage at some point, right?
A fair long-term deal with Jackson remains the optimal outcome, but on a day when DeCosta and the Ravens were all about selling optimism to an uneasy fan base, what gives confidence that now will be any different than the last two offseasons of unsuccessful contract talks?
“Respect, our feelings about him, that we know him, we know the person, our confidence level that he is the right type of guy to lead the team, and just optimism,” said DeCosta, who wouldn’t comment on whether Jackson seeks a fully guaranteed deal or if the organization is willing to give him one. “I try to be positive. If you’re going into a negotiation with a negative feeling, then your chances of getting that done probably aren’t going to happen. We’ve done a lot of contracts. I think we’ve [done] the second-most extensions in the league over the last four years, so we know it can happen.
“We try to be creative and strategic, and I truly believe Lamar wants to finish his career in Baltimore. I just believe that in my conversations with him and just watching him and talking with him and communicating. I think John feels that way too. All of those things kind of work together for me that tell me that we still have a chance and that I should be as optimistic as possible.”
How the offensive coordinator search goes could offer a glimpse into how much optimism there truly is.