I’d like to start this off with a rather famous scene from Alice in Wonderland:
“Who are you?”, said the Caterpillar.
Alice replied, “Well, I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?”, said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”
I would love it if John Harbaugh would explain exactly what is going on with his offense and frankly, what HAS gone on since he first took the reins as the head coach in Baltimore. I hear many fans and pundits talk about the Ravens and one general theme that seems to come up pretty consistently is the “identity” question.
So, who exactly are the Ravens?
Based on Harbaugh’s past interviews and press conferences, I believe that his offensive philosophy is very simple: Run the ball effectively, leverage play-action, attack through the air over the top, control the clock, and win the field position battle.
The philosophy laid out by the head coach (in this case, the offensive philosophy) is what the rest of the organization has to go on. This is especially true for scouts and members of the front office. Scouts are looking for talented players that will be good fits for the offense. Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta have worked under the premise of “Best Player Available” (a.k.a. BPA), but arriving at that BPA takes a lot of work. Those finalized BPA assessments not only take talent into consideration, but they also take needs into consideration. And what the team needs is often derived from the overarching philosophy as dictated by the head coach.
So, while it is true that talent trumps all, scheme does play a part in personnel decision making.
However, stints with Marc Trestman and even Jim Caldwell have derailed that philosophy quite a bit. I also think this may be part of the disconnect between the scouts, front office members, and the coaching staff (as discussed here).
Let’s take a look at the different coordinator eras and some of the personnel decisions made at the time.
Cam Cameron Era: 2008-2012
By my estimations, Cam’s offensive philosophy fit in well with what Harbaugh wanted to do. Cam ran a version of the Air Coryell offense that was all about the running back. Cam’s offense was geared towards power runs, vertical routes, play action passing, and check downs to the running back.
– Mason was the quintessential passionate veteran possession receiver and an excellent route runner.
– Heap was a possession tight end who could block and have an impact moving the chains and in the red zone.
– They had Michael Oher – a young and athletic lineman who was a good run-blocker.
– Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain were two big power backs who could rattle off big runs here and there. McGahee was also very good as a receiver out of the backfield.
– They wanted a smart and savvy veteran center who excelled as a run-blocker and could get everyone lined up properly, so they signed Matt Birk.
– The Ravens wanted a big, durable QB with a huge arm who could perform in poor, Mid-Atlantic winter weather. Enter Joe Flacco.
– Ray Rice was excellent out of the backfield and surprisingly powerful as a runner with excellent balance.
– They lacked a tough vet receiver after Mason, so they went out and signed Anquan Boldin.
– One area of weakness was the lack of a vertical threat, so they signed Donte Stallworth.
– They also wanted athletic tight ends – primarily receivers – so they drafted Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. They wanted more speed at receiver, so getting tight ends who could catch would make up for a lack of possession qualities at receiver.
– When McGahee left, they went out and signed Ricky Williams – a tough, downhill runner with good hands out of the backfield.
– After McClain, they signed Vonta Leach – arguably one of the best run-blocking fullbacks in league history.
– They signed Jacoby Jones – a vertical receiver with big play ability as a returner.
– Anquan was getting older, so they drafted Tandon Doss – a route-runner, possession receiver.
– They drafted Kelechi Osemele – a big mauler who was versatile enough to play multiple positions.
– They drafted Bernard Pierce – a big, tough runner with one-cut ability and good hands out of the backfield. (Pierce, physically, was a similar back to McGahee and Ricky Williams).
Jim Caldwell Era: 2012 – 2013
Then, as well all remember fondly, the Jim Caldwell era began abruptly during the 2011-2012 season. The result was incredible and laid the basis for Flacco becoming one of the top-paid offensive players of all time.
However, after the Super Bowl, the Caldwell era was lackluster…and that’s putting it mildly.
– After the Super Bowl, the Ravens front office got rid of Boldin and the subsequent 2013 NFL Draft only really produced two offensive players of note: Rick Wagner and Kyle Juszczyk.
– Drafting Juszczyk was, in my opinion, one of the first moves they made under Harbaugh that didn’t really align with his offensive philosophy. He is a very good player, but he isn’t the nasty run-blocker that Leach was and he wasn’t the bruising runner that Le’Ron was. For all intents and purposes, Juszczyk was an extension of the passing game.
– They thought they could get away with Gino Gradkowski at center because they drafted him and had him sit and learn behind Birk. Clearly, that didn’t work. Gino was also nowhere near the run-blocker that Birk was and his scouting reports from that time all indicated that Gino was athletic, but raw. Again, this was kind of a deviation from Harbaugh’s offensive philosophy.
– They traded for Eugene Monroe – an athletic left tackle with lots of starts under his belt and a similar player to Michael Oher.
In 2013 the Ravens had one of the worst offenses in the league – largely due to injuries on the offensive line, a severe lack of talent at receiver, and Flacco throwing a lot of passes. For example, Flacco threw nearly 100 more passes in 2013 than he did in all of 2012. That was a clear deviation from Harbaugh’s offensive philosophy. (Although with that offensive line and Rice and Pierce playing like garbage, I’m not sure more balance would have mattered much.)
After Caldwell left for Detroit, there was a lot of speculation about who Harbaugh would hire to be the new offensive coordinator. There were some who thought Harbaugh wanted to promote Jim Hostler from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator before it was known that Gary Kubiak was a realistic option. It honestly doesn’t matter who Harbaugh really wanted, as Kubiak was the guy to help the offense find their identity again.
Gary Kubiak Era: 2014 -2015
Like Cameron, Kubiak’s offense very much seemed to be in tune with Harbaugh’s philosophy. Hiring Kubiak signaled a shift from the Air Coryell offensive system to the West Coast Offense. Kubiak’s offense is predicated on running the ball and using play action to pick up chunk yards down the field. System-wise, the WCO changed the terminology of the plays, expanded the receivers’ routes, and changed the blocking scheme. Another big difference between Cam’s offense and Kubiak’s is Kubiak utilized the tight end much more than Cam.
Although Flacco and the rest of the gang had to learn an entirely new offense, based on their previous draft picks, it almost seemed like this was what they were going for all along. Flacco, Pitta, Juszczyk, Osemele, Pierce, Rice, and even Gradkowski all looked the part of viable components for Kubiak’s WCO.
– Kubiak’s offense incorporated the tight ends quite a bit, but they needed them to be able to block and catch. They drafted Crockett Gillmore, a former basketball player known for his ability as a blocker and receiver. (Gillmore was kind of a throwback tight end, similar to Heap).
– Had he not gotten hurt, I believe Pitta would have thrived under Gary Kubiak. Pitta is similar to Owen Daniels, who had a very good career under Kubiak in Houston. In fact, the Ravens signed Daniels for that season and he played great.
– They drafted a big, bruising, one-cut running back in Lorenzo Taliaferro who, in my opinion, was not too dissimilar (physically) from McGahee.
– They drafted John Urschel, a highly intelligent and athletic offensive lineman who excelled as a run blocker and was a good fit for Kubiak’s offense.
– They signed Justin Forsett, a scheme-dependent runner who was experienced with Kubiak’s offense and had a skill set similar to Ray Rice.
– Finally, they realized in the 2013 debacle of a season that Torrey Smith wasn’t capable of being the #1 receiver on the team. They also realized that they were missing that tough possession receiver so they signed Steve Smith Sr. – a similar vet presence and passionate nature to Boldin and Mason before him.
For many reasons, the 2014 season under Kubiak was the best offensive season the Ravens have ever had. I also think it was pretty clear that Kubiak’s offense was what Harbaugh truly wanted the Ravens identity to be.
Kubiak’s offense matched exactly what Harbaugh’s initial offensive philosophy was when he came to Baltimore in 2008: Ball control, downhill running, and attacking defenses through the air off of play action.
Marc Trestman Era: 2015 – 2016
Kubiak’s offensive concepts were so well aligned with what Harbaugh wanted that the next offensive coordinator that they hired – Marc Trestman – wasn’t even given the opportunity to install his own offense. Instead, he was told that he had to run the 2014 offensive playbook.
Now, even though Trestman is known for running the WCO, there were very few similarities between his version and Kubiak’s. Where Kubiak relied on the stretch run and play action passing, Trestman relied on spread shotgun formations with dink-and-dunk passing routes and delayed handoffs.
It was doomed from the start and frankly, Harbaugh and Ozzie should have realized that Trestman was never going to mesh with Harbaugh’s offensive philosophy. Nothing in Trestman’s history as a coach in the NFL or the Canadian Football League could lead anyone to think that he was going to replicate the same type of offense that Harbaugh so clearly desired.
To make matters worse, the offensive players drafted in 2015 were also in conflict with Trestman’s offensive scheme.
Some notes from year one of the Marc Trestman era:
– The last time the offense became pass-first was in 2013 under Caldwell and it was a disaster. Granted, the issues on the offensive line in 2013 were the biggest culprit, but Flacco threw the ball a significant amount more than he had in other, more successful seasons.
– They drafted Breshad Perriman – a vertical threat receiver with big play ability, but not particularly known for being a good route runner and not known to have consistent hands (very similar to Torrey Smith, who was not a great fit for Kubiak’s WCO).
– They drafted Maxx Williams – a receiving tight end with not much ability as a blocker (similar to Dennis Pitta).
– They drafted Buck Allen – a receiving back with good acceleration and cut back ability who is also built like Pierce and McGahee.
– They drafted Nick Boyle – a balanced tight end with solid blocking ability who could contribute in the short passing game (similar to Gillmore and Heap).
Year Two of the Marc Trestman Era
After the 2015 season, which featured an incredible number of injuries, Harbaugh agreed to let Trestman implement his own concepts and build an offense more in line with that Trestman wanted. However, Harbaugh stood firm on his original philosophy.
– They signed Mike Wallace – another vertical threat not known to be a great route runner and with questionable hands. (a la Torrey and Perriman).
– They signed Ben Watson – an old, but balanced tight end with blocking and receiving ability. This was already after having Gillmore, Maxx, Boyle, and Pitta, and shifting Dan Brown and Darren Waller to tight end. Yet, Trestman primarily uses multiple receiver sets not a tight end-rich offense. (This always struck me as odd considering in Chicago, Martellus Bennett had two of his best statistical seasons under Trestman.)
– They drafted Ronnie Stanley – arguably the best left tackle prospect in several years.
– They drafted Alex Lewis – a mauler offensive lineman with versatility (similar to Rick Wagner).
– They drafted Chris Moore – a vertical threat receiver with questionable route running ability and questionable hands (a la Wallace, Perriman, and Torrey).
– They drafted Kenneth Dixon – an athletic back with exceptional receiving ability, balance, and acceleration (similar to Allen, Forsett, and Rice).
As we all know, Trestman was fired after completely abandoning the run in his second season of going against Harbaugh’s offensive philosophy.
Marty Morninwheg Era… TBD.
Some may not agree with my premise here – I get that this isn’t a 100% catch-all answer for the lack of offensive consistency. I definitely think the issues Tony Lombardi raised here have contributed. However, if the scouts and front office are scouting players that fit Harbaugh’s offensive philosophy and the guy running the offense and calling the plays doesn’t share that philosophy, then it stands to reason that is potentially the biggest cause of inconsistency.
You wouldn’t draft a 260-pound defensive end to play five-technique (oh wait…they did…Paul Kruger…yikes). You wouldn’t bring on board a 225-pound power back and expect him to excel in a spread offense with a lot of perimeter-based runs and quick passes (uh oh…they did that too with Terrance West AND Trent Richardson…).
Ultimately, I think John Harbaugh is a good coach. He’s a good manager. He genuinely cares about the players and his staff. I think that can sometimes overcome not being a good X’s and O’s guy, which I’m not sure that Harbaugh is. When you’re not an X’s and O’s guy, you have to rely heavily on your staff to iron out those details.
To date, I don’t think that John has done a great job hiring staff who share his ideology and will run the offense and defense to those specifications. Kubiak clearly ran the type of offense that Harbaugh wants. They’ve been drafting players and signing free agents that fit Kubiak’s model basically since Harbaugh was hired in 2008.
After Kubiak left, maybe they should have done their due diligence and tried to hire an offensive coordinator who fits their philosophy. What’s done is done and I really hope that Harbaugh has finally learned a valuable lesson here. I hope Ozzie has too, because they all clearly need to get on the same page if they want to find offensive success again in the future.
[This blog was modified from a post I made on the RSR board. There’s been a good discussion on it there if you’d like to read further.]