Reacting without overreacting will be key for Ravens after late-season collapse

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Six straight losses to end a season could break just about anyone, which could make the coming days at least mildly interesting for the Ravens after Sunday’s 16-13 overtime defeat to Pittsburgh.

If you’re hellbent on pressing the nuclear button by firing people left and right, this space probably isn’t going to be for you. We should be able to find some sensible ground between cleaning house and that over-the-top chatter about John Harbaugh being NFL Coach of the Year as recently as a few weeks ago.

There are certainly issues to address after an excruciating 8-9 season, only the second losing campaign of the Harbaugh era. But the key to reacting without overreacting is to not romanticize what the Ravens actually were when they were 8-3 and atop an AFC that was every bit as underwhelming in Week 12 as it looked over the final weekend of the regular season.

They didn’t look like a serious contender underneath that 8-3 hood, and many were saying as much at the time.

In truth, the injury-ravaged Ravens were an OK team that had found ways — some bordering on miraculous — to win six straight one-score games, which was a credit to their resolve but not exactly a predictor of greatness with a challenging remaining schedule. Consider that Baltimore had just beaten Cleveland in historically dubious fashion, ranked seventh in the AFC in point differential, and was tied for 27th in turnover ratio ahead of the Dec. 5 trip to Pittsburgh, the game that started the nightmare collapse.

The fall had little to do with that 20-19 defeat itself.

Having already lost left tackle Ronnie Stanley, cornerback Marcus Peters, running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, defensive end Derek Wolfe, safety DeShon Elliott, and inside linebacker L.J. Fort long before Week 13, the Ravens lost top cornerback Marlon Humphrey on the Steelers’ game-winning touchdown. Humphrey may not have been playing his best football in 2021, but the loss of the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback felt like the breaking point for a defense that had already struggled to put together 60-minute performances throughout the year.  

The season’s death knell came the following week when star quarterback and former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson suffered an ankle injury to open the second quarter at Cleveland. You hoped Tyler Huntley’s admirable play in relief might serve as a spark for Jackson — who had struggled in the weeks leading up to the injury — but the Pro Bowl quarterback wouldn’t play again and the second-year backup would regress in the final weeks, which included his three turnovers in Sunday’s loss. With Jackson’s extended absence went any remaining upside for a team that had already lost so much in the months prior. 

A group already missing so many key pieces couldn’t survive losing its star quarterback and best defensive player, and the Ravens didn’t win again with five of those last six defeats coming by a total of eight points. After needing fourth-down conversions, record-setting field goals, and fourth-quarter comebacks to win six straight one-possession games earlier in the season, Baltimore couldn’t make the key play in those one-score losses, especially with Jackson’s magic stuck on the sideline.

Instead, the coin that kept landing on heads earlier in the season just wouldn’t stop coming up tails, regardless of whom or what one chose to blame for the outcomes. In truth, if you saw in July just how much injury attrition the Ravens would experience, an 8-9 record wouldn’t have been all that surprising, regardless of the order in which the wins and losses occurred over 18 weeks.

To be clear, suggesting a disappointing season was just about injuries would be too dismissive and dangerously complacent. Though Jackson’s late-season absence and an offensive line without its best player made for an incomplete evaluation of a passing attack that was the hot topic entering the 2021 season, it’s perfectly fair to question whether coordinator Greg Roman has this offense on the right track after Jackson’s hot start began to cool in late October. The offensive line definitely needs more work, especially with Stanley’s ability to return to pre-injury form still up in the air.

A defensive line with multiple 30-something free agents needs to be rebuilt while the pass rush again didn’t show enough juice, the inability to disrupt a statuesque Ben Roethlisberger in crunch time on Sunday being the latest example. And 2021 reminded that you can never have enough cornerbacks and a playmaking safety would still make a big difference in the secondary. 

While being locked into the 14th overall pick in April’s draft will help, the cheapest years of Jackson’s rookie contract have now expired with the 25-year-old set to earn just over $23 million in his fifth-year option season, making general manager Eric DeCosta’s job more challenging moving forward. Jackson’s long-term contract status will be an even bigger story this offseason than it was last year with the talented quarterback coming off an injury-shortened campaign that already hadn’t been moving in the right direction.

Frustration stemming from six straight losses to close the 2021 season is more than warranted. The Ravens went a brutal 3-8 over their final 11 games, the kind of collapse not seen in these parts since Brian Billick’s final year as head coach in 2007. Even if Miami’s win over New England still would have eliminated Baltimore from playoff contention, you’re never OK with losing, especially against the Steelers to end the season.

Still, a former MVP quarterback missing roughly a third of the season — most of that coming at the very end — on top of the many other injuries the Ravens endured was just too much to overcome. “Next man up” doesn’t really apply to the quarterback position beyond maybe a game or two — unless you don’t have a particularly good one to begin with.

It’s neither exciting nor controversial, but a major key to the Ravens bouncing back in 2022 will simply be improved health. Their long list of injuries should prompt a careful evaluation of the organization’s strength, conditioning, and training programs to determine if changes are warranted, but much of it will likely be chalked up to rotten luck. Of course, that’s not going to calm anyone’s anger in the meantime.

The six-game losing streak makes it easy to want to overreact.

But the key to a successful offseason for the Ravens will be striking the proper balance between addressing the issues in their control and coming to peace with what was ultimately out of their hands in 2021.