“It’s the greatest play I have ever seen.”
– John Harbaugh (November 25, 2012)
FIVE DAYS AWAY FROM FOOTBALL was just what the doctor ordered as far as everyone in the building was concerned. The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time, almost exactly in the middle of the season. As much as the players use the down time to get away, see their families, go “home” – wherever that might be in 53 directions – the coaches used the final three weekdays of the week without a game to do what they call “self scouting.”
The NFL schedule is meat grinder, where the games happen Sunday; Monday and Tuesday are game-planning installment days; Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are practices days; and Saturday means walk-through and a plane ride every other weekend. There are no off days for NFL coaches once training camp begins in late July. The fan in Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti always marvels at the level of commitment of football coaches, who he’s said work more than any other category of business he’s ever seen.
And although the Ravens began the season 5-2, there was plenty of “self scouting” to be done and bad habits that they’d like to see their team break especially in light of the meltdown in Houston.
Cam Cameron’s offense had been sputtering week to week, depending on location and opponent. What worked so flawlessly against Cincinnati, New England, and Dallas – the “sugar huddle” tempo, spreading the ball around, creating holes for Rice and time for Flacco to throw – seemed like a distant memory in light of the poor Kansas City and Houston footage. After five years of trying to find more consistency, the Ravens still didn’t know what they were getting on any given Sunday, especially on the road when Mr. Hyde showed up far too often.
On defense, Pees was trying to evaluate combinations and schemes that would serve the personnel he currently had at his disposal, which was far different than the unit that stifled the Bengals eight, long weeks ago. Frankly, the Ravens didn’t have much to be proud of in regard to defensive statistics or categories. They weren’t stopping the run at all. They weren’t rushing the passer. They weren’t tacking particularly well. And without a pass rush and with Webb out and Reed gambling and guessing even more than usual, Romo and Schaub – a pair of legitimate top-shelf NFL quarterbacks – picked the secondary apart, especially running across the middle of the field where the Ravens’ linebackers were sub-par in coverage.
As the Ravens prepared to convene on Monday, October 29th, a monster storm was threatening the East Coast, which would impact millions of people over the next few days and weeks. Hurricane Sandy also took its toll on the organization that week as players scrambled to get back to Baltimore amidst altered flights, long drives, and chaos. Special teamer Sean Considine got stuck at the Chicago airport with his four small children. He and his wife had triplets who were toddlers and a 4-year old. Arthur Jones got stranded in Dallas. Terrell Suggs re-routed a flight into Raleigh and drove seven hours on Sunday night in the driving rain to make it back to Monday’s practice. Harbaugh was giving the team the usual Tuesday off in preparation for the game in Cleveland on Sunday, and the brunt of the storm spared most of Maryland, but created a state of emergency just 150 miles away as parts of New Jersey and New York were devastated and destroyed. The storm that eventually helped elect a President was wreaking havoc.
By Wednesday, it became a normal week and once again the Ravens had the thankless task of trying to find a way to sneak in and out of Cleveland with their 10th straight victory over the AFC North-rival Browns. The history of the Ravens and Browns and Art Modell was all written two decades ago. Now, it was simply a matter of a great franchise coming to a city with a poor franchise and continuing to rub more purple salt in the festering wounds. The fans of Cleveland still have incredible disdain for anything related to Art Modell’s Baltimore Ravens and probably always will.
“Everything we’ve done since our last game is geared towards going to Cleveland and being the best team we can be,” said Harbaugh, the sting of the Houston beating now in the rearview mirror. “We have everything we need – players and schemes – to play well. We have to organize it in a way that gives our players the opportunity to play their fastest and best under pressure, on the road and at home. We’ve had the chance with the bye to go into deep study and into the laboratory to figure out what we do best, and we want to take that into this game – and the other eight after that. We think we’ve learned a lot, and we’ll continue to push the envelope to be the best we can be. Our players are definitely good enough to get the job done.”
“There were some very real concerns. There are things that we need to do a lot better, not just from [Houston], but through the whole seven-game period that we felt like we needed to take a hard look at and we did, and I did feel good about it. I felt like our coaches, our players, the communication, we really went to work, and we really had some great conversations. We had some great discussions. We had some great study watching the tape. Guys did some great studies looking at numbers and things like that. In the end, what you try to do is make good counsel then make wise solid judgments about what makes us our best as we move forward. I am really excited about that – I really am. The proof will be in the pudding. So, if I say I am excited about it and we don’t play well, then you guys can hammer me, but I don’t believe that. We have gotten better every single year in the second half of the season since we’ve been here. That’s been something that has been a strength for the Ravens. I expect it to be a strength for us going forward.”