Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Clayton's star begins to shine outside the bars of Billick's prison

Mark Clayton’s star is suddenly shining (18 for 384, 1 TD over the last 5 games). Not too long ago a source close to the Ravens described how happy he was to see both Clayton and Mason emerge in the passing game for the Ravens and be given opportunities to go vertical. He likened their play in the Cam Cameron offense to being out on parole after being incarcerated by the offense of Brian Billick.

As time goes by and as the Ravens continue to play well as a team, it’s difficult not to compare John Harbaugh to Billick. Billick was a task master with high end organizational skills. But given some of the recent comments made by current Ravens who played for Billick, the level of respect for the former skipper certainly looks shaky.

The Ravens success might also cast a shadow upon Billick’s ability to coach again in the NFL. There will probably be another team at some point willing to give Billick a shot somewhere down the road but a lingering question that Billick will have to answer is, “Why has the same team without the likes of Steve McNair, Boller, Ogden and to a large extent Willis McGahee improved by 6 games without you?”

Some will point to Billick’s Super Bowl ring and say that therein lies the answer for those who question Billick’s coaching acumen. I suppose such an argument is relevant to those who believe that Trent Dilfer was a good quarterback. The truth is both rode the coattails of an amazing 2000 Ravens defense and neither Billick nor Dilfer were all that good.

That was certainly an interesting play call from Cam Cameron at the 0:47 mark of the fourth quarter while leading the Jaguars 27-7. Troy Smith hit TE Edgar Jones on a 25 yard strike to the Jacksonville 11 yard line. On the surface it looked like a bit of piling on by the Ravens but clearly the call was a slight retaliation for Jack Del Rio calling a timeout just 48 seconds earlier while the Ravens were trying to run out the clock with recently acquired RB Jalen Parmele. Hey Cam (and/or John), if you really want to rub it in, try the fake kneel down/pass that Dan Marino perfected all those years ago.

Winning teams experience offseason losses

Successful teams experience losses in the offseason. Free agents will command more money on the heels of a winning campaign and they will oftentimes parlay such winnings into a lucrative contract. The same is true of assistant coaches.

Undoubtedly Rex Ryan will be in the mix of candidates being considered for coaching vacancies. Just as certainly, Ryan will have to address a lingering question that hangs over his head like a dark cloud: “Why did the team with which you’ve had so much success and a team that knows you best, pass on you as a head coach?”

Ryan obtaining one of those vacancies will hinge on his ability to convincingly address that question. If he doesn’t, he may be on the Ravens’ sideline for quite some time. If he does, there’s a very good chance that the Ravens will hand Ryan’s job over to Linebackers Coach Greg Mattison.

Attrition doesn’t just affect the coaches’ and players’ ranks. It might also extend to the front office. General Managers have also taken tumbles in ’08 with current vacancies in Cleveland, Kansas City, Jacksonville and Detroit. Owners of those clubs will probably have Eric DeCosta’s number in their cell phone book soon if not already.

Some believe that DeCosta has the inside track to be the heir apparent to Ozzie Newsome. The question is does DeCosta have the patience to wait? Now that it appears that the Ravens have finally found a franchise quarterback, it could keep Newsome around much longer than expected and that could make overtures from other teams more appealing to DeCosta. Here’s another related thought to ponder…DeCosta is from the Boston area and given the recent rumors tying the Patriots’ GM Scott Pioli to Cleveland, might that open up the New England gig for DeCosta? It could but then again if the job were all that, why would Pioli bail to the Staph Infection capital of the world? Is working for Bill Belichick that unappealing?

As you know Cleveland just let Phil Savage go and quietly that has to provide some relief to Ozzie Newsome. Savage would certainly have to consider Rex Ryan to replace Romeo “Where art thou” Crennel. And is there any doubt that if nothing else Savage would drive up the prices to keep Ravens’ free agent LB’s Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs?

You may recall that Scott was heavily courted three years ago by the Browns and ultimately took less to stay with the Ravens. Scott once told me that he really never seriously considered Cleveland saying, “I just went up there for a free steak.”

Jared Gaither worthy of MVP consideration

Now that the Ravens regular season has ended, many in the area are looking back and debating the merits of certain players who might deserve the tag of Ravens MVP. Joe Flacco, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis and Derrick Mason are among the most popular choices and justifiably so. Yet there is a player who flies a bit under the radar, who is also worthy of consideration.

His name is Jared Gaither.

One of the biggest questions the Ravens were forced to address entering the ’08 season was the offensive line. After the team broke camp and just before the conclusion of the preseason, few if any thought the Ravens had done anything to improve in that area. The truth be told the O-Line actually looked worse.

To add insult to injury the Ravens quarterback situation looked a bit frightening since the team was forced to start a rookie behind such a questionable line. Thoughts of Kyle Boller’s rookie season danced through our heads as gracefully as Jonathan Ogden dances in Gebco commercials. Mix in the retirement of JO and a banged up corps of running backs and it was difficult to forecast anything but gloom and doom for the Ravens ’08 campaign.

Gaither had at best an uneven training camp, missing a significant portion of it due to an ankle injury. He and book end tackle Adam Terry both spent more time with trainer Bill Tessendorf than they did with offensive line coach John Matsko during those summer days in Westminster. Making matters worse, Gaither didn’t appear to be in the best shape and he was called to the carpet on more than one occasion by Ozzie Newsome because of a questionable work ethic.

How could Gaither possibly make folks forget about Jonathan Ogden? Why did the Ravens commit the left tackle position to him so early in camp? And what would they do to protect a rookie quarterback’s blind side?

These were daunting questions with few answers.

Yet somehow, the light went on for Gaither. Somewhere, somehow, someone got to him and gave his maturation curve an EZ Pass and put him on the fast track. Not only did he dedicate himself to his craft, he played and continues to play with pain – another measure of maturity, selflessness and dedication to team.

What if Gaither didn’t come around? Would Adam Terry give the old matador’s effort and wave the proverbial red cape at speed rushers as they passed him by unabated to the quarterback? Would Joe Flacco have survived the season? And if he didn’t well there goes some of the gadget wizardry from Cam Cameron when Flacco is coupled with Troy Smith.

And without an offense, would the defense have caved like they did in ’07? Would they have all bought into the Harbaugh way if they were once again asked to carry a wretched offense?

I doubt it!

Gaither has been so good this season that he’s made us all forget about Ogden’s retirement. He has helped to keep Joe Flacco clean for the most part despite with teams that can really get after the quarterback: Pittsburgh, New York, Dallas and Philadelphia. Flacco has started and finished each game healthy over the course of a full season, something that has only been done twice before by a Ravens’ QB (Vinny Testaverde, ’96, Boller, ’04).

So if your criteria in choosing a Ravens’ MVP are tied to whether that player is replaceable or not clearly Reed, Flacco, Lewis and Mason loom large.

But then again so does that large man wearing No. 71.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yamon figures to be on the outside looking in

It’s clear that the Ravens have very little depth at the wide receiver position. The third receiver on the team’s depth chart at the moment is Marcus Smith. Smith looks rather clueless on the field yet they will need him to step up given the shoulder ailment of Derrick Mason. Mason will undoubtedly tough it out and give the team all he has but despite his warrior-like mentality and willingness to sacrifice for the team, Mason will spend time on the sidelines mending during the game or games ahead and that means Cam Cameron’s offense will need at least marginal productivity from a less than impressive backup group of receivers that in addition to Smith includes Yamon Figurs, Marcus Maxwell and Terrence Copper.

Figurs perhaps more than the other backup receivers has been a big disappointment. Outside of one TD catch against the Texans, the second year WR/KR has done next to nothing in a limited offensive role and his most memorable contributions are as a gunner on punt teams. Moreover he has been very timid as a return specialist and seems more likely to cough up a fumble than provide a game changing return. He has hardly been the Ravens’ answer to Devin Hester that the team’s front office expected. Figurs’ performance has inspired many to beg for a replacement and the most popular candidate is Jim Leonhard particularly when his success as a punt returner is taken into consideration. But don’t look for the Ravens to cave in to the clamoring for Leonhard. The responsibilities of playing safety and returning punts is physically demanding enough particularly at this late juncture in the season. Special teams coach Jerry Rosburgh could turn instead to Mark Clayton or possibly Tom Zbikowski.

The Ravens REAL MVP is...

Following a very lackluster training camp and preseason, the biggest concern in Owings Mills back in September was the performance or lack thereof of the Ravens’ offensive line. Coupled with the uncertainties at quarterback after the season ending labrum injury to Kyle Boller and the viral illness of Troy Smith, the team’s early season forecast consisted of little more than gloom and doom.

Yet almost immediately, offensive line coach John Matsko’s unit began to gel once the regular season clock started to tick. And despite injuries to RG Marshal Yanda, the move of Jason Brown to center, the retirement of Jon Ogden, and nagging injuries to Adam Terry and Willie Anderson, the offensive line has been one of the most consistently reliable groups on the squad.

Back in Week 3 of the season, I called Matsko to see if he would join us on The X Factor. Matsko graciously declined but asked if he could join us later in the season after he had more time to evaluate the progress of his unit. John Harbaugh has done a marvelous job assembling his staff and to his credit, he may have landed the team’s true MVP in Matsko.

Word is that the team is extremely pleased with the efforts of Jared Gaither and Chris Chester. Gaither is fresh off face to face encounters with two of the league’s most dominant pass rushers, James Harrison and DeMarcus Ware. Gaither did not allow a sack to either of these Defensive Player of the Year candidates who together have tallied 36 ½ sacks on the season. Gaither has also been effective as a run blocker and when you consider his overall performance, it’s difficult to build a case that suggests the Ravens have actually missed future Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden.

Outside of his on-field efficiencies, Gaither has surprised the coaches and front office with his work ethic and willingness to fight through the pain of an AC joint separation.

Chris Chester was labeled by many (this writer included) as a second round bust after two seasons littered with subpar performances. But the third year player has proven his critics wrong in ’08 while subbing for the injured Yanda. His experiences this season bode well for the team moving forward as they look to build youthful, quality depth. When considering the return of Marshal Yanda in ’09 and the likely addition of another tackle, Matsko’s boys have the making for arguably the team’s most effective unit.

Wanna get away?

Jameel McClain has been very productive in a limited role during the season’s second half. The undrafted free agent has shown an ability to make impact plays and the coaches have been very impressed with the former Syracuse Orangeman’s ability to absorb the playbook. McClain’s development and the promise of injured rookie Tavares Gooden will more than likely pave the way to Bart Scott’s departure.

One Ravens’ LB who could be labeled as a bit of a disappointment thus far is Antwan Barnes. Making matters worse for Barnes is the possibility that he may have suffered a season ending chest injury against the Cowboys. Stay tuned for more on Barnes’ injury as the week progresses.

An emerging weapon for the Ravens is punter Sam Koch. Koch is fourth in the league in net punting average and second in punts inside the 20. His contributions will become even more relevant if the Ravens play beyond this Sunday as they face potentially more threatening elements and tougher opponents on the road.

Some recent sports talk radio suggested that the Ravens will have cap space in 2009 approaching $27M to address the team’s needs at WR, DB and offensive line. The accuracy of such suggestions is a bit questionable.

At the moment, the team appears to have around $10 million of space after they tender all of their restricted and exclusive rights free agents. They could free up more room by jettisoning Chris McAlister ($8M), Samari Rolle ($4M) and Frank Walker ($1.6M). Unless McAlister is a willing participant in the salary haircut line, don’t expect him back. A case could be made for Rolle and/or Walker albeit at reduced rates. This will make for some interesting offseason debate.

The Ravens host the Jacksonville Jaguars this weekend and have been installed as early 11 ½ point favorites and the number is climbing to as high as 13. If the Ravens win they are in and from this writer’s vantage point, the hometown team will easily cover what might appear to be a rather generous spread. But keep this in mind if you choose to roll the dice on John Harbaugh’s troops. If the Patriots lose to the Bills in Buffalo (and I wouldn’t consider that a far-fetched notion), the Ravens will automatically become the conference’s sixth seed and they’ll visit the winner of the Dolphins @ Jets. The Patriots’ game is a 1 PM start so we’ll know by kickoff on Sunday (rescheduled for 4:15) if the Ravens need to beat Jacksonville. Either way, I say the Ravens cover.

All of you who might worry about the way that the Jags played the Colts and nearly pulled off the upset – RELAX! The Jags simply match up well against Indy and they have for years. Maurice Jones Drew is the team’s featured back and he didn’t practice earlier this week, nursing a bruised knee. Who is going to run the ball if Jones Drew can’t go, Chauncey Washington? Think David Garrard can get it done for the Jags? Please. Garrard is a guy who prior to ’08 had been praised for his ability to protect the football. This year he’s coughed it up 14 times. With a banged up offensive line and next to nothing in terms of quality receivers (Dennis Northcutt…are you kidding me?) look for him to cough it up a few more times in what will absolutely be a hostile environment for the spotted kitty cats. They have about as much chance of winning as Britney Spears has of ringing the Salvation Army bells outside of your friendly neighborhood Walmart. Ravens 27, Jaguars 6.

If you are looking for a little warm weather getaway to take off the chill, you may want to consider some reasonable airfares still available with Southwest and possibly take in a NFL wild card game while you’re at it. If the Ravens win or Patriots lose and the Dolphins win, the local birds will be heading south for the winter and play the Fins in Miami during the first weekend of the New Year. Get in now and the tariff is a tolerable $208 roundtrip. Chances are also pretty good that you will score a ticket at a reasonable price. Those aren't people you see dressed as orange seats at Dolphins' Stadium. Hey and just a reminder, the last time the Ravens won a playoff game was in January of 2002 when Elvis Grbac and the Ravens beat the Dolphins in Miami in impressive fashion by the score of 20-3.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

On Saturday night it was the Ravens v. The World...and The World lost

The odds were stacked heavily against the Baltimore Ravens. The mountain of bad karma stood before them like an ice covered Mt. Everest.

The Cowboys were 6-1 at home on the season entering last night’s game. They were winners of four of their last five. They had just dismantled the defending Super Bowl Champions, a team that just a couple of weeks ago most “experts” deemed the land’s best. They regularly ravage opposing quarterbacks with an intimidating pass rush led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate DeMarcus Ware. They attack with two of the league’s most physical presences at wide receiver – Terrell Owens and Roy Williams while the Ravens top cover guys were anything but healthy.

And did I mention that this was the Cowboys’ last game ever in Texas Stadium, a shrine to fans in Dallas and home to some of the NFL’s most exciting and memorable moments. Oh and were you aware that teams closing one stadium and moving on to the next new state of the art mega million, b-zillion dollar ball yard were 11-2 when hosting finales?

Of course you were – we’ve been beaten over the head this entire week with that irrelevant statistic.

Seldom if ever has a team faced an “us against the world” football game like the Ravens did last night. They were seemingly hand-picked by the league and Jerry Jones to be the Cowboys’ sacrificial lamb – a non-conference opponent coming off a 5-11 season with issues at quarterback. There are even allegations that Jerry Jones requested that the Ravens be scheduled as the opponent for the Texas Stadium finale instead of one of the “tougher” teams.

Yes this was supposed to be a Texas-sized party and the Ravens were suppose to lay down and not be party poopers while Jerry Jones and all the Cowboys’ dignitaries like Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, etc, etc walked the promenade and soaked up the Hollywood-like lights in pageantry that was meant for winners.

But apparently no one shared the script with the Ravens for the closing ceremonies and the Cowboys serenaded by a cascade of boos, left Texas Stadium as losers.

It wasn’t supposed to end like that…

Signs, signs everywhere there were signs suggesting a Ravens loss. The NFL Network certainly provided a few of their own signs and their game analysts behaved like card carrying members of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders Fan Club. Marshall Faulk “sounded” like a deer in headlights and I wish Deion Sanders was one. And the network’s production was pathetically substandard.

But not even the obsolete and heavily biased production could take the euphoric feeling away from Ravens fans watching on TV and the many who attended in person. In the end, it may have even helped to make the victory that much sweeter.

Last night it was us against the world. It was Baltimore against the nation, against the assistant coach and diva wide receiver who turned their little snooty noses up at us and an owner who viewed us as pawns in his well orchestrated party. We were the hired help that was supposed to be obedient subordinates and bow to the whims of the high society blue bloods. Instead, we ate their food, drank their wine and took home their women.

That mountain of bad karma proved to be nothing more than a speed bump on the road to the playoffs for the Ravens.

One stop to go.

And that’s something the Cowboys’ owner WISHES he could say.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ravens need to step up or step out of way

There has been a ton of debate over the decision by referee Walt Coleman to overturn the call on the field during the final minute of the Ravens v. Steelers game on Sunday evening. Clearly a case could be made that the Steelers’ Santonio Holmes broke the plane of the goal line during his catch at the 0:50 mark of the fourth quarter. Yet just as easily you could make a case that he didn’t break the plane.

The point is if the call is that close, then there’s no irrefutable evidence and if such evidence does not exist, the play on the field should stand as called. This isn’t any new revelation. It is simply how the replay system works.

Er, make that it’s how the replay system is supposed to work.

In the legal system, criminal cases are tried and the accused is convicted when there’s evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of said crime. If there is reasonable doubt, the defendant is set free.

On Sunday reasonable doubt existed on the field and in the replay booth and the choice by Coleman to ignore the rules – ignore the NFL laws, was a crime. He shouldn’t be allowed to be judge, jury and lawmaker.

The bad news for the Ravens is that the “crime” in question could potentially sentence the team’s post season aspirations to death by lethal injection.

But since Coleman’s call and the game’s demoralizing ending, John Harbaugh’s team has collectively taken the high road. To a man, they all say that if they had done what they were supposed to do during the preceding 59 minutes, the blurred observation by a part-time NFL employee (Coleman) would not have impacted the game’s outcome.

And you know what – they are right!

The most disturbing thing that happened in the Steelers’ game (and it could be argued that this is a trend because it’s happened before), is the Ravens’ inability to put a good team away. It has happened twice against the Steelers and it also happened against the Tennessee Titans. Each of those games was a winnable game for the Ravens and the truth is, they blew them – each and every one and THAT is not irrefutable evidence.

The team’s failure to finish games against better teams is interesting in that the Ravens do just the opposite against weaker teams. Offensively against inferior teams, the Ravens aren’t bashful at all about throwing gadgetry at their opponents and they boldly stick in the proverbial daggers to kill any hopes for a comeback. Defensively, when the Ravens smell blood against less inferior competitors, those teams have survival rates – particularly at M&T, on par with seal pups trying to navigate shark infested waters.

Yet go up against a tough opponent and both Cam Cameron and Rex Ryan seem to get a little skittish with their play calling, particularly against the Steelers when they held a huge field position advantage for most of the contest.

Admittedly the Ravens did go up against the league’s No. 1 defense and yes the Steelers are the league’s stingiest bullies. But if you want to beat a bully, sometimes you have to punch him in the mouth before he gains confidence. Cameron opted to go conservative, to orchestrate a physical running game and attempt to beat the Steelers at their own game. He stole a page from Brian Billick’s formula for success – win the game of field position, protect the football, eat up the clock and hope the defense bails you out.

Well I’ve got news for you Cam, that formula is a poison pill when you face Super Bowl caliber teams like the Steelers.

Why not throw more on first down and give your rookie quarterback a chance to get a rhythm going? Why not pass early to set up the run and place the team in more manageable third down situations, thus opening the playbook more? Why not throw out some gadgets and get the Steelers extremely capable defense to play a bit on their heels and slow down their reaction time? The reason that you implement these gadget plays isn’t to beat bad teams. Those teams can be beaten without the slight of hand.

The gadgets are supposed to catch the good teams off guard. In baseball, you don’t throw a change up to a hitter with slow bat speed. You do it to the good hitters to keep them off balance.

On the other side of the football, Rex Ryan attacked on defense until Fabian Washington went down. After that, the Ravens went with the tender touch approach as Ryan morphed into Mr. Softee calling in defensive formations and sub packages that I assume were intended to protect the flank being manned by Frank Walker.

How many times have we heard, “Next man up”?

Like it or not, it was Walker’s turn and it was time for him to step up and for the rest of the team to continue to execute their assignments in a game plan that was working. Why change it before given a reason to change it? When they threw Walker’s way, he reminded no one of Deion Sanders in his prime yet he wasn’t exactly Willie Gaston. If anything the conservative protect- against- the-deep-ball approach seemed to shake Samari Rolle’s confidence a bit.

If you want to play with the big boys, you’ve got to act like one. In every chance they’ve had to do just that this season, the Ravens have failed.

What they do against the favored Cowboys (-4.5) this week will tell us once and for all if the Ravens are genuinely a playoff caliber team or simply just a pleasant surprise in ’08.

It’s time that they step up and attack for four quarters against a good team.

Otherwise it’s time they step out of the way and let the big boys play.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ravens let one get away but could clinch playoff berth on Sunday

The Ravens produce linebackers the way the Atlanta Braves once produced pitchers. No names until they don the purple and black, linebackers forgotten or dismissed on draft day have become Pro Bowlers and/or gone on to fame and fortune albeit at times temporarily once they’ve been part of the Ravens’ nest.

Bart Scott comes immediately to mind, then Adalius Thomas and even Ed Hartwell. Today, players like Jameel McClain and Antwan Barnes are shaping into potentially productive pros. Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta, the scouts and the coaches seem to have mastered the formula for developing linebackers.

And that makes it extremely interesting and unfortunate that they let one linebacker, a possible Defensive Player of the Year selection this season, slip through their fingers and into the hands of the team’s most bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Last year Steelers’ LB James Harrison was a Pro Bowler and the Steelers’ MVP, just 3 years removed from a summer stint in Westminster with the Ravens. Today he is third in the league with 15 sacks and he’s had a total of 6 sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception in the last two games he’s faced the Ravens at Heinz Field.

So what roster spot was so important to the Ravens that they passed on Harrison? According to the 5th year player out of Kent State it was a backup tight end.

"The tight end they picked up was Daniel Wilcox. We played NFL Europe together, and [Wilcox] is still there. They obviously needed a tight end. I don't point fault at anybody, but that's just part of the game. Just like the Steelers cut me three times, and here I am now."

So not only did the Ravens commit a rare miss on linebackers, the overlooked investment continues to pay dividends for the club’s perennial threat for the AFC North division title.

According to Ben Roethlisberger, Sunday’s game against the Steelers may not be suitable for young children.

"I think a lot of guys are going to be limping out of there on both sides. I'm just hoping we're up on the scoreboard when we're limping out."

The Ravens could actually clinch a playoff berth THIS WEEKEND. Obviously they will need help. First the Ravens have to beat the Steelers. Then if any of the following combinations hit, John Harbaugh’s gang is in:

* Patriots loss plus Jets loss or tie
* Patriots loss plus Dolphins loss or tie
* Dolphins loss plus Jets loss plus Colts loss or tie
* Dolphins loss plus Jets loss plus Colts clinch strength of victory tiebreaker over Dolphins

To aid your rooting interest here is the schedule for those teams along with the appropriate point spread:

* Lions @ Colts (-17)
* Bills @ Jets (-7.5)
* 49ers @ Dolphins (-6.5)
* Patriots @ Raiders (-7)

All are 1PM games except for the Patriots, a 4:15 start.

Let’s go RAI-DUZ, Let’s go!

Ravens, NFL sticking it to their customers

You don’t need me to tell you that these are difficult economic times. Costs for most necessities continue to climb outpacing the bump if any in salaries. Many families have even lost incomes. Yet despite it all, 70,000 plus strong make their way to M&T Bank Stadium for every Ravens home game.

The team has far surpassed expectations outside of the Ravens’ locker room. Today they are knocking on the door of a playoff berth and as a result, the NFL’s ivory tower in New York has given the Ravens the green light to issue playoff tickets.

If you are a season ticket holder, the Ravens want your cake by close of business TODAY! Despite the fact that there are no guarantees that the team will make the playoffs, they want your money right now. To make matters worse, they want your money for two playoff game tickets even though there is a very remote chance that the team will host even one playoff game, much less two.

Now when you take this non-negotiable demand into consideration in the midst of the financial strife that affects many season ticket holders, I have to say that the NFL has no compassion for the plight of the average American citizen. They have some really big stones!

Why can’t they wait until Monday for season ticket holders to commit? Then the playoff picture might not be so hazy and the Ravens’ customers who have supported the team faithfully with their PSL money and season ticket shekels can make a more informed decision.

Now the team and the league will tell you that today’s deadline is a requirement in order to get you your playoff tickets in a timely and orderly fashion. And if you believe that, I have some waterfront property around Lake Montebello that my friend Skip would like to sell you.


How much difference is 4 days going to make – or to put it in more appropriate terms, 2 business days? They are delivering via FedEx not the Pony Express AND it’s a bill YOU are paying for. So what’s the big deal? Why can’t they wait 2 more business days?

And don’t tell me they need the time to print the tickets. Look if I want to buy a plane ticket to California today, I can do so online and print it out on my computer. Southwest will accept it at the gate.

Look, even if the commemorative aspect of the ticket is sacred and it needs to look decorative and shiny, so what? There are tons of printers out there that would love to have the Baltimore Ravens and/or the NFL as a client and they would do back flips to meet the deadline.

Who are they kidding?

And by the way, there are no specifics on these playoff tickets because right now, no one knows if and when the Ravens will play. Will it be January 3rd or 4th? Day or night? We don’t know. So if the tickets will show only general information, why not start printing those tickets upon notification from the NFL?

Instead the Ravens and the league will make the customer responsible for the uncertainty. They will force the customer in these difficult times to fork over the dough even though they are paying in advance for something that may never even happen.

Yet the customers will pay by credit card and pay interest on the outstanding amount while the Ravens and Steve Bisciotti get an interest free loan from their far less affluent customers.

I love this Q&A from the Ravens’ official web site…

Q: Why do I have to pay for two games now?

A: Playoff tickets are sold as a two game package, representing the maximum number of potential home playoff games. Due to time constraints for the distribution of tickets, we must collect for both games now, even if it seems unlikely that two playoff games would be played at M & T Bank Stadium.

I hope you are wearing your boots!

And to add insult to injury, the ticket prices are significantly higher than what the regular season prices are. Now there’s nothing new about that and I can understand the economics of it. But if they are to be consistent with the argument of supply and demand, then tell me why preseason tickets are the same as the regular season tickets? Why do they stick it to the customers for those barely watchable preseason games?

Let’s face it folks, this NFL playoff ticketing gamesmanship is nothing more than a ransom. They don’t want to give you until Monday. They want to appeal to your passion as a fan. They want to prey on your emotions. They want you to put that proverbial gun to your head and force you into a decision today before the picture clears.

Because on Monday when it becomes clearer, you just might conclude that there’s little chance of the Ravens hosting a game in the post season.

And then there goes that $17,000,000 interest free loan for the Ravens and Steve Bisciotti.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Ravens buying into the Harbaugh Way? Signs say, "YES!"

Don’t know if you noticed the jubilant exchange between Samari Rolle and John Harbaugh just after the Todd Heap 24 yard reception on a gutsy fourth and one call during the third quarter. Apparently Harbaugh informed the defense that he had decided to go for the first down from the Redskins 43 and that they should be prepared to defend well if the play failed. Harbaugh added that the defense would love the call Cam Cameron was about to send in to his rookie QB Joe Flacco. The defense looked on with heightened interest.

After the play was successful, Rolle and Harbaugh embraced each other as Ed Reed looked on smiling from ear to ear. So much for that list of players not buying in to the Harbaugh Way.

ODDS & ENDS: This past Sunday Night while attending the game against the Redskins, a few avid DC fans sat behind me and expressed their disgust with the Redskins rather regularly throughout the contest. Just after the Ravens had taken a 17-0 lead and were prepared to kickoff, these Skins fans noticed punter Ryan Plackemeier warming up, hitting balls into the net. One from the gang exclaimed, “Now there’s confidence. The Ravens haven’t even kicked off yet and our punter is getting loose!”…

I must admit that I’m digging 105.7 The Fan. The debate between Scott Garceau and Anita Marks is rather entertaining as is an occasional visit to the Bruce Cunningham Show. Now keep in mind, I don’t listen to Cunningham expecting some groundbreaking revelation or Ravens-related epiphany. It’s sort of like reading the Enquirer headlines in the express lane at the supermarket. Somehow my curiosity and the bizarreness and corniness of it occasionally lure me in…

IN-DUCT ART! All of that talk last week from WNST and all of those signs that eventually did little other than annoy the city’s clean-up crew and I heard not so much as a whisper of the planned chant IN-DUCT ART. And really it’s unfortunate that the effort failed to garnish much support. But would it have made a difference anyway? Just prior to the Ravens v. Redskins I asked HOF Committee member Scott Garceau if the WNST effort would make a difference.

“Many of the voters have likely already submitted their latest selection [prior to IN-DUCT ART], but any awareness for Art's cause is a good thing and I'm sure it'll warm his heart to see how Baltimore fans feel about what he did for this city and the NFL in general.”

I agree.

Ravens v. Steelers: The early line has the Ravens listed anywhere from a 1 to 2 point favorite in this nationally televised game brought to you by CBS, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms. Some seem surprised by the line. Don’t count me among them. The Ravens have beaten the Steelers 5 consecutive games at M&T Bank Stadium, including 2 in overtime (2005 and 2003) and in the 2007 season finale (27-21) after Pittsburgh had already clinched the AFC North. During those 5 consecutive losses the Steelers have averaged 11.4 points per game while the Ravens have averaged 22.6 points. Both teams are on a roll but I like the Ravens in this one. Two things have changed since the teams last met on Monday Night Football back in September. First there’s the venue – M&T Bank Stadium. That’s a far cry from MNF in Pittsburgh. Secondly, there’s Joe Flacco. He is hardly the same quarterback as he was on September 29. While his performance in Pittsburgh wasn’t all that bad considering it was his first NFL road start, (16 for 31, 192 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, QB Rating 81.7) he’s grown markedly since. Ravens 20, Steelers 13

Ravens' RB by committee running on empty?

The running back by committee has been a big topic around town as it relates to the Ravens. Le’Ron McClain continues to get the tough yards and Ray Rice is a developing change of pace back. Yet the third committee member, Willis McGahee is struggling mightily and there are no signs that he will snap out of his funk any time this year.

Many have pointed to his conditioning and to his injuries as the culprits in a disappointing season for McGahee, one that most observers felt could be a breakout season for the ’07 Pro Bowler given Cam Cameron’s style and utilization of a featured back. It could be however, that McGahee’s failures are the result of more than just his physical deficiencies.

Cameron’s offense isn’t a one night study. You can’t do an all-nighter and cram his playbook. Even those who have practiced faithfully from OTA’s right on through to today, will tell you that the system and the terminology take time to master. McGahee has been well behind the curve and that leads to hesitation, too much thinking and sluggish response time once the ball is snapped.

Dialing back to the Ravens’ second offensive play of the game against the Redskins, there was an unusually high amount of pre-snap conversation between McGahee and FB Lorenzo Neal (which in my opinion tipped the play). The succeeding McGahee run resulted in no gain. Later on he and Joe Flacco were out of synch on a couple other occasions.

If McGahee’s season were compared to a college semester, he would have to ace his next test and his final in order to have a shot at passing. I’m not holding my breath.

But make no mistake about it, the Ravens will need McGahee. During McClain’s busiest season as a runner while a member of Alabama’s Crimson Tide, he carried the ball 17 times. In fact, he carried it only 37 times during his entire collegiate career. This season already, McClain has carried the rock 162 times.

Ray Rice carried the football 380 times during his final season at Rutgers and he was the quintessential workhorse during the dog days of August at McDaniel College. Remember the rookie wall folks. If it hasn’t hit Rice yet, it is probably about to.

Doubts about Ed Reed disappear while concerns over special teams linger

Earlier this season I had my doubts about Ed Reed. I watched him closely during training camp. I locked in on not only what he was saying but how he was saying it. The clear and present message the Ravens’ All Pro safety delivered suggested to me that he was hurt and he was frustrated over the neck and shoulder nerve impingement that forced him to the sidelines during the Westminster summer days.

And he seemed very concerned so much so, that I wondered if this could be Reed’s last season as a professional football player. I even wondered if he would make it through the season.

Today those thoughts seem like such a distant memory as the Ed Reed we’ve grown accustomed to, the one who has spoiled us for years, has nearly returned.

Clearly his ball hawking prowess remains intact and he has shown signs of returning to the physical style of play we’ve come to expect from Reed. Yet he’s not quite there. For good and obvious reasons, his tackling is suspect at times. That said, as Reed continues to make game changing plays, it’s easy to overlook a missed tackle here and there.

Speaking of missed tackles, the Ravens’ kick coverage continues to struggle. Some have criticized Jerry Rosburg and question the schematic changes he’s made. But here are a few things to chew on if you too are pointing the finger of blame Rosburg’s way…

First, you need to keep mind that the Ravens have 16 players on injured reserve. That depletes depth and depth is normally employed by special teams. Among the injured who were big contributors on special teams are Dawan Landry and Derrick Martin.

Secondly, the team lost other key special teamers as a result of attrition – guys like Musa Smith, Gerome Sapp, Gary Stills and Justin Green.

Finally, much like a new offensive or defensive system, it takes time for players to become familiar with the schemes and even the other personnel. When that personnel changes regularly as a result of injury, that prolongs the learning curve and the productivity suffers.

But that doesn’t necessarily free Rosburg from all accountability. One former Raven who once played special teams under Rosburg didn’t necessarily describe the former Falcons’ and Browns’ Special Teams Coach in glowing terms. And that player I would describe as a class act and one who chooses his words carefully.

Another problem on special teams is the relatively sheepish approach taken by Yamon Figurs in the return game. Last year after a stern pep talk from Ray Lewis, Figurs seemed to recapture his missing mojo and finished the season strong. He appeared to be growing into the explosive player that Eric DeCosta envisioned when the Ravens selected Figurs in the third round in 2007.

But clearly Figurs has regressed. He is hesitant and he can hardly be described as explosive and he appears lost following his blockers. In defense of Figurs, the blocking seems to be out of synch and dependent upon one-on-one blocks instead of a well planned schematic approach. That said, it hardly helps to explain why Jim Leonhard is more productive behind the same collection of blockers. Figurs days in Baltimore beyond 2008 could very well be numbered.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Ok, I admit it…I am on Facebook. I’ve been asked, “And you are how old?” in the past but I remain steadfast in my conviction that the medium is a great tool for keeping in touch with friends even family that you don’t see or speak to regularly. Plus I like the networking features.

Apparently WNST’s Nestor Aparicio agrees.

As part of a Facebook group known as Put Art Modell in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I received this message from Aparicio:

First, thanks for being a part of a righteous group of folks who want to see Art Modell rightfully chosen to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As many of you know, I write a blog and own WNST.net along with Brian Billick. We are trying to create awareness on Sunday night on national TV in the middle of the game for Art Modell's candidacy in Canton.

We are simply trying to do one thing: STAND UP 4 ART in the second quarter.

At the beginning of the play when the TV cameras come back from their break, we are trying to get the stadium to erupt in a chant of "INDUCT ART."

If we're loud enough, we might stop the game or force John Madden and Al Michaels to discuss Art Modell and what he's meant to our city, our community and the game of football and the NFL since 1961. BTW: Art is at every game and will available to be put on camera by the NBC crew.

We think Art Modell should be in the Hall of Fame and that he should be inducted while he's alive.

Any help, any friending or viral messaging you can help us set forth here on Facebook or in the "real" world is appreciated.We think it's the right thing to do and no one in Cleveland is going to help Art so it's up to us!



Sometimes Aparicio just can’t help himself with his shameless plugs and his insatiable desire to remind us all of his importance in our world. And while I believe this is a noble cause, certainly more so than the laughable Free the Birds campaign, will it really matter what we do on Sunday? It isn’t the national audience that we collectively need to sway to elect Art into Canton but instead the voting members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Committee.

But maybe this could work. We’ll never know until we try and even if it doesn’t work, it represents another opportunity for us all to acknowledge our support of and affirm our love for Art Modell. For without him, there’s a ton in this town that we now take for granted that might never have come to fruition.

So not only will I cast my extreme personal differences aside and throw my support behind Aparicio’s cause, we will also create a banner ad linking you to a petition supporting Art’s induction. PUT ART IN THE HALL

This Sunday, let’s unite and STAND UP 4 ART!

Without question it is the right thing to do.

And thank you Nestor for reminding us of the same.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Over the next four weeks there will be a ton of playoff scenarios for us all to regurgitate. Yet for me there is one lingering thought that I have as it relates to playoff positioning. As fans of the Ravens we have to hope that the Tennessee Titans lose one of their next two games to either the Browns or the Texans.

Now as far as I see it (and I’m sure you as well) the Browns have next to no chance of beating the Titans in Tennessee. However, the Texans might have a chance against the Titans in Houston the following week.

So why is a Titans’ loss so important?

Well in Week 16 the Titans host the Steelers and if they go into that game with a 13-1 mark, it would be naïve to think that Jeff Fisher will go all out to win that game. Let’s dial it back for a moment…

Let’s assume the Ravens beat the Redskins, the Steelers beat the Cowboys and the Ravens beat the Steelers here next week. That would leave both the Ravens and the Steelers at 10-4. If the Titans are at 13-1 at that point, they will have locked up home field throughout the playoffs. But if the Titans lose and enter that game at 12-2 record, they will have motivation to win that game against the Steelers. If they lose and fall to 12-3 and the Steelers sit at 11-4, the Titans will then have to go into Indianapolis to face a Colts’ team vying for playoff positioning as well.

If the Ravens hope to win the AFC North, they will need help because their tiebreakers against the Steelers are not favorable. Consider this analysis by my colleague Ken McKusick: RAVENS V. STEELERS TIEBREAKER.

So as you sit around prior to the Sunday night game at M&T this week, root for the Cowboys to beat the Steelers and pray for the Browns to pull off the upset against the Titans.

And regardless of what happens, be prepared to bring it on Sunday night at The Vault!

What a difference a year makes...

Life is hardly static – it’s anything but, even more so if you are part of the NFL. I was thinking this morning what a difference a year can make…

At this time last year, I’m sure there are probably many of you who never even heard of Joe Flacco. On Sunday night you may be wearing his jersey to the game and if not chances are you believe with strong conviction that in Flacco the Ravens have finally found their franchise quarterback.

And in the grand scheme of things, the changes can happen so quickly and a year can seem so long. Off the top of my head, consider all that has happened to the Ravens over the last 365 days:

· Brian Billick received a vote of confidence from Steve Bisciotti but was ultimately fired
· A relative unknown was hired to replace him
· Rex Ryan, thought to be long gone two years ago stays on as defensive coordinator
· Cam Cameron ushers in a new offensive philosophy
· Steve McNair retires surprisingly
· Jonathan Ogden retires as expected
· Jared Gaither steps up to soften the blow of no J.O.
· The injury bug continues to bite with 16 players on injured reserve
· Willis McGahee runs like a beast in ’07 and like a beauty queen in ‘08
· Le’Ron McClain leads the team in rushing in ‘08
· Father Time finally catches up to Matt Stover
· Chris McAlister seemingly on his way out the door at 1 Winning Drive
· Ernest Byner’s name removed from Ravens’ Ring of Honor (ok wishful thinking on my part)
· Kyle Boller sails off quietly into the sunset, hardly seen and never heard from again

I’m sure that there are several that I’ve forgotten but the one that resonates with me the most, the one difference about this ’08 edition of the Baltimore Ravens that is most bittersweet is the absence of Kyle Boller.

Boller is all you want in a player. Well let me rephrase that – he is all you want in a teammate.

He brings a great work ethic, dedication, humility, class, toughness, a team-first approach and outstanding athleticism. What he doesn’t offer is a processor designed for the quarterback position and the processor he did bring was damaged from user error. And that user was Brian Billick.

Billick’s offense was like a jail sentence for skill position players. That’s not to say that Boller would have ever fulfilled the promise of a first round pick but we’ll never know how he may have performed under the tutelage of a more competent quarterbacks coach like Cam Cameron. Nor will we ever know how Boller may have performed had he been selected in the third or fourth round, where he was initially projected to go before he got on his knees and lofted a pass through the uprights from midfield.

Part of me hopes that Boller and his agent will realize that he could have a long career in the NFL as a backup quarterback. And part of me hopes that such a position would be available for him here in Baltimore. But in the end, that might never be the fairest thing for him. After all, this is the city that cheered his injury on opening night of the 2005 season.

Let me be the first to say goodbye and thank you Kyle. You will be remembered by all here in B’more, unfortunately not in the way you hoped. But I will remember your efforts and willingness to take bullet after bullet for a team and a coach that placed you in a situation doomed for failure. Yes a lot of it was your fault and you willingly accepted the blame but things could have been different. Here’s to your future success in the NFL.

May you find happiness in another uniform and do yourself a favor – avoid the team that hires Brian Billick.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Joe Flacco, a star in the making

Developing quarterbacks in the NFL is a process. Rarely does a rookie quarterback get it right away. Sure, when you look back in time, you will find a few exceptions, the most notable in my opinion being Dan Marino.

The development process usually isn’t visible. It is more like a shaping, a grooming, a maturation process that over time becomes apparent when you see the quarterback today and look back at where he once was and how far he’s come. Drew Brees is a perfect example.

But rarely do you see the process shape before the naked eye. With Joe Flacco, we are witnessing exactly that!

Each week, Flacco does something that clearly suggests that he’s learned from a mistake. He corrects it and then reveals something new about himself that belies his age and experience.

Yesterday while watching the game against the Bengals there were two plays that stood out most in my mind while taking in No. 5’s performance. The first play probably flew under the radar screen of most observers. Facing a third and 8 from his own 45 yard line with 3:47 to go in the first quarter and the Ravens holding a 3-0 lead, Flacco was flushed out of the pocket to his right. He studied the field in front of him trying to find a window of opportunity to move the chains. Not until he exhausted every downfield option and determined that none would work did he tuck the ball and run down the sideline.

You could tell that Flacco knew that he could make a play with his legs but waited to see if he could milk something more meaningful out of the play before opting for that ace in the hole. Eleven yards later, Flacco’s run gave the Ravens a first down at the Bengals’ 44.

Fast forward to the 6:04 mark of the third quarter for the second play…

The Ravens held a seemingly insurmountable lead of 20-3. Flacco dropped back to throw on second and 7 from his own 30 yard line. Despite a clean blitz off the edge and knowing that he would take a hit, the Ravens’ “rookie QB” hung in there and delivered a strike down field where Mark Clayton made an acrobatic one handed catch and took it to the house for a 70 yard score.

“Five” is building each week before our very eyes. The positive strides aren’t part of an osmosis process, they are right there for all of us to see, observe and appreciate after years of incompetency at the quarterback position.

And the scary thing is for Ravens’ opponents, he has a long way to go.

Even scarier, with his work ethic, humble demeanor and dedication to his craft he’s going to get better and better.

The rest of the NFL is officially on notice.

Friday, November 28, 2008

NFL serves up turkeys on Thanksgiving

  • The human body breaks down essential amino acids from food. One such amino acid is tryptophan which enables the body to produce B-vitamin niacin which in turn helps to produce serotonin, a chemical that acts as a calming agent in the brain and plays a vital role in sleep.

    On Thanksgiving the traditional meal includes turkey, a big source of tryptophan which explains in part, the lazy, relaxed state that we all feel on Thanksgiving inspiring a nap or two in between servings.

    That said, I don’t know which is more responsible for my Turkey Day napping, the tryptophan or the NFL. Every one of those games yesterday was a snoozer. On average each of the winners won by a 30 point margin and each game was pretty much over at halftime. The birds weren’t the only turkeys in abundance yesterday. And by the way, isn’t it time the NFL implements a flex turkey schedule for Thanksgiving football?

    A few observations in between naps…

    Jeff Fisher, are you freakin’ kidding me?!? Up by the score of 47-10 with 3:38 to play, Fisher challenged a catch by the Lions’ Calvin Johnson at the Detroit 41 yard line. Nice to see you in the Holiday spirit there Jeff. May snot freeze on your mustache once again this winter and may a 2 x 4 haunt you this offseason…oh and here’s hoping that your offseason comes sooner than later. I’ve officially taken the Titans down from my teams to root for in the event the Ravens end up at home prior to or during the playoffs. Oh and one more thing…Fisher’s challenged failed...he gets a turkey for being one!

    The Jonas Brothers as halftime entertainment? Who does the NFL think is its audience, the demographic tuned in to Hannah Montana? I felt somewhat emasculated watching that! By the way, are female turkeys called "hens?"

    I guess all is right in Philly now as it relates to Donovan McNabb. But just wait until that next interception is "gobbled" up by an opponent. Eagles fans will suggest McNabb again for the carving station.

    Oh and by the way, the Cardinals really could use Terrell Suggs.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ravens need to dial up Cardinals to fill hole at No. 1 WR

During our radio program The X Factor this past Saturday, we discussed the hypothetical offseason tag and trade of Terrell Suggs to the Arizona Cardinals for Anquan Boldin. For many reasons, I think the trade makes sense.

The Ravens impressive scouting department seems to have an innate ability to discover raw talent, particularly at linebacker that fits the Ravens’ style of play and the defensive coaching staff is equally as impressive in developing that talent. They have turned a 6th round pick (Adalius Thomas) and an undrafted free agent (Bart Scott) into Pro Bowlers. Yet at the position of receiver, the Ravens turn first round picks into future disappointments that never approach the scouting department’s originally projected performance levels.

So why not then use the organization’s strength to help fortify one of its weaknesses? Why not bet on their ability to find the next Thomas or Scott instead of the next receiver wearing No. 89 that can’t consistently create separation at the NFL level?

Anquan Boldin will draw attention. He can make the big play and deliver the yards after catch. He is tough and well rounded and can make a play in traffic in addition to being an effective blocker in the running game. Speaking of which, Ravens’ opponents will no longer be able to dedicate so much attention to play inside the box. Boldin spreads the field. He provides options and not only could he make Joe Flacco effective, he also helps Todd Heap and Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton because opponents could no longer commitment the resources to double team these players.

It makes too much sense not to pursue this deal – at least that’s how I see it. But some Ravens’ insiders aren’t as convinced. They think that Boldin benefits from lining up opposite Larry Fitzgerald and from an offense featuring the quick deliveries of Kurt Warner. And while these insiders make a strong argument, how do you then explain away Boldin’s rookie accomplishments?

During his rookie season, Boldin had 101 catches for 1,377 yards and 8 scores while Fitzgerald was a sophomore and Heisman runner-up at Pitt. Throwing the ball to Boldin in 2003 were the not so dynamic pair of Jeff Blake and Josh McCown.

Boldin might not have breakaway speed but he can certainly break away driven by an insatiable desire to compete and a work ethic second to none.

Ozzie, collect call from Mr. Whisenhunt in Arizona, will you accept?

Reed, Ravens' secondary stand out

Without question the standout performance in the Ravens v. Eagles game was that of Ed Reed. He is a gambler and he is a playmaker and sometimes when you put those two together, great things can happen. And on Sunday they did.

Everyone will remember the 108 yard interception return for a back breaking TD to put the Ravens up 29-7. At the time the game was still winnable for the Eagles – an unlikely win but nonetheless, winnable.

Facing a second and goal from the one foot line, I would have bet the house on Andy Reid calling a quarterback sneak in that situation. A touchdown and a potential two point conversion could have brought the Eagles to within seven at 22-15 with over 7 minutes left in the game. We all know now that he didn’t do that and the chalk bet every day of the week and on Sundays is Ed Reed over Kevin Kolb.

But that play aside, Reed’s other interception was just as impressive had he not capped his return off with a boneheaded play that could have been very costly. That said had the struggling Donovan McNabb taken over at his own 3 yard line, the Quintin Demps kickoff return probably never happens.

But Reed’s play on Sunday was about more than just those interceptions. He made a play on a blitz in Eagles territory when he tipped a McNabb pass that was nearly intercepted by Samari Rolle. Later, his inside penetration on a Sav Rocca punt forced a double team that cleared the way for Jameel McClain’s blocked punt.

Maybe Ed Reed is healing. Maybe he’s coping with the pain better. Maybe he’s figured out how to manage the discomfort and pick his spots. Whatever the case, if Ed Reed returns to form on a consistent basis, it bodes well for the Ravens’ ailing secondary.

Besides Reed and a standout performance from Jarret Johnson, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the Ravens’ win was the improved play of the secondary. Samari Rolle and Fabian Washington were very good in coverage and even when the Eagles were able to make a catch, the two were in position to minimize the damage and help their team get off the field on third down. If they can continue that kind of play, it allows Corey Ivy and Frank Walker to do what they do best (be effective nickel and dime backs) and it also may boost Rex Ryan’s confidence to crank up the heat level on opposing QB’s with his exotic blitz packages.

The Ravens offense, especially the running game hit the wall a bit on Sunday against a tough Eagles’ defense. It seems that each week Cam Cameron has done a pretty decent job determining which of his backs is best equipped to exploit the weaknesses of opposing defenses. Willis McGahee, Ray Rice and Le’Ron McClain have all had their fair share of success. It was apparent early on Sunday that the flavor of the day should have been McClain with battering mate Lorenzo Neal yet Cameron didn’t seem to pick up on it.

The Ravens ran often on first down and looking back you have to wonder why. On 21 first down plays the Ravens totaled 33 net yards. That is not going to get it done when facing a team like the Eagles who blitz regularly and get to the quarterback as well as any team in the league, particularly on second and third and long. With the running game not on all cylinders, maybe the approach should be to set up the run with the pass. I’m sure they can manage more than 33 yards total on all first down plays doing so.

I noticed that the Ravens were not as quick to the line of scrimmage this week and it could be argued that against a shifty, moving and aggressive Eagles defense, a premium should be placed on giving Joe Flacco more time to survey the field and get comfortable with his pre-snap reads. This game almost begged for the no-huddle Flacco is comfortable with to mitigate defensive coordinator Jim Johnson’s sub packages and unorthodox schemes designed to confuse the rookie.

This win was about as unattractive as a 36-7 win could be. But that said, we’ll take it.

On to Cincinnati…

Ravens atop Eagles' Christmas List

Years from now, perhaps even later this year folks might look back at the score of the Ravens v. Eagles game played on Sunday at The Vault and consider it a blow out. It was hardly that. A better description might be an early Christmas present from Andy Reid to his protégé John Harbaugh.

The 29 point scoring differential in this 36-7 Ravens win was the widest margin of victory for any win during Week 12 of the NFL season. Yet at the half it was 10-7 where it remained until 6:05 of the third quarter when Jameel McClain blocked a punt through the end zone for a safety and a 12-7 lead.

With 14:57 left in the game, Matt Stover’s 42 yard field goal made it 15-7. Not until Joe Flacco connected with Mark Clayton on a 53 scoring strike with 11:39 left did you get the sense that the Ravens had this game under control.

Up to that point, the Eagles never really threatened offensively. But then again the Ravens weren’t exactly a model of offensive efficiency. The feeling throughout M&T prior to Clayton’s TD was that the game could be decided by one big play.

The Ravens had far more opportunities for the big play. Nearing the season of giving, the Eagles gave and gave. There were the 5 turnovers, the decision to replace Donovan McNabb with an inexperienced QB in Kevin Kolb who was forced to take on one of the game’s best defenses on the road and with only one running back healthy enough to stay in the game – the ailing Brian Westbrook.

The Eagles were all like little green-clad elves and their skipper, sans the big white beard, looked and acted like ole St. Nick.

And it twasn’t even the night before Christmas.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Ravens Roundup: Team leaves NY with more than just wounded pride

The Ravens sure can talk a tough game about how they would match the physicality of the Giants running game but unfortunately the only tough thing the Ravens brought was their talk. The Ravens defensive front did not get the push they normally get and that prevented their linebackers from getting clean shots at ball carriers.

The holes were gaping and the Ravens inside backers Ray Lewis and Bart Scott had to shed blockers often while in pursuit of Messrs. Jacobs, Ward and Bradshaw. The Ravens looked tired and sloppy defensively and abandoned gap assignments regularly. Jacobs’ big first quarter run and Bradshaw’s fourth quarter gallop were made possible in large part by over pursuing LB’s Jarret Johnson and Lewis.

John Harbaugh made an interesting statement after the game. When asked about his team’s defensive performance the rookie head coach said, "The Giants had three big runs [Jacobs, 36; Bradshaw, 77; Ward, 22]. You can take away anybody's run and say it would've been a tight football game."

Gee, that’s like saying Jeremy Guthrie could have won a game for the Orioles if you take away those three big home runs.

Speaking of Harbaugh, he’s done a great job so far this season yet he continues to be hesitant to use the red flag and he’s made some questionable decisions to punt when a fourth down attempt in an opponent’s territory was the more logical choice.

During the fourth quarter with the Ravens down by the score of 27-10, Harbaugh opted to punt from the Giants’ 39 yard line instead of attempting to convert on fourth and 10 with 14:42 left in the game. The punt landed inside the Giants’ 20 but bounced forward. The Ravens ultimately downed it at the 21 for an 18 yard net punt. The punt looked like it hit the ankle of one of the Giants’ players before Brendan Ayanbadejo downed it. The officials stopped play during the change of possession for a TV time out and given the game situation, the Ravens should have challenged the ruling on the field that the Giants player did not inadvertently touch the ball. They did not.

Among the Ravens' inactives were Antwan Barnes and Marcus Smith. The coaching staff is apparently losing confidence in the once promising Barnes. As for Smith one has to wonder if he’ll ever be active again this season. The receiving corps seems very thin yet Smith still can’t sniff the field.

The Ravens left Giants Stadium with more than just their pride wounded. The team’s offensive line took a few nicks. Adam Terry tweaked his recovering left ankle while Jared Gaither hurt his shoulder and is questionable for the upcoming game against the Eagles. Insiders were impressed with Gaither’s gutty performance, playing most of the game with the injured wing against a tough Giants’ defensive front.

Gaither’s focus and determination have been questioned often but his efforts Sunday left observers hopeful that the former Terp’s maturation process has begun to accelerate.

Terrell Suggs was MIA for most of the day. Suggs has had a very good season to date and has certainly made a strong case for a lucrative contract extension. That said, Suggs will be a very interesting offseason topic. Clearly the Ravens could use a No. 1 receiver and the Arizona Cardinals have two of them in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Plus they have a developing speedster on the outside in second year receiver Steve Breaston who has 48 catches for 642 yards and a score.

The Cardinals could use a defensive stud like Suggs and the two-time Pro Bowler would probably welcome a tag and trade scenario that would return him home to the Phoenix area provided he could reach agreement on a new contract. Given the probable contract squabbles that lie ahead for Boldin particularly when considering the team’s investment in Fitzgerald, there could be some very strong synergies between these clubs to make a Suggs for Boldin deal.

The Ravens have been reluctant to part with their home grown players yet they will have to do some serious off season soul searching if the Cards will entertain such a trade. The Ravens will have to ask themselves if accepting a lesser player than Suggs on the outside of the Ravens defensive front seven is worth improving the offense dramatically with the addition of Boldin. Boldin could make Derrick Mason more effective and eventually he could pave the way for Mark Clayton to eventually pay dividends on the Ravens’ investment in him. And without a doubt, Boldin would make Joe Flacco far more dangerous in the passing game.

As much as I like Suggs, I’d drive him to the airport if the Ravens could pull off that deal.

This week the Ravens host Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles. In the Eagles’ 13-13 tie against Cincinnati this past Sunday, McNabb was unaware that the game was over when the Bengals failed to kick the field goal as time expired in overtime.

"I didn't know that," said Philly signal caller. "I've never been part of a tie. I never even knew it was in the rule book. I was looking forward to getting the opportunity to get out there and try to drive to win the game. But unfortunately with the rules, we settled with a tie."

Let’s hope that McNabb masters the Ravens defense the way he has the rule book.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

How far have the Ravens come?

Today’s game against the Giants is a great barometer for the Ravens. Playing against the world champions on their home field in less than ideal conditions will indicate both how far they’ve come and how far they have to go.

Dialing back to the preseason, no one expected what the Ravens have delivered – not after watching an offensive line that seemed in tatters, a very unsettled quarterback situation, a questionable secondary with a plethora of injuries and a rookie head coach. To their individual and collective credit so far, they have delivered.

Now many of us have postseason expectations and today we will see if they have what it takes in ’08 or are they simply a steady and climbing work in progress that could be a postseason participant in ’09?

On the surface the Giants have few weaknesses. If they have an Achilles’ Heel, it is their secondary which at the moment is a bit banged up. Plus their vulnerabilities have been masked by an outstanding front seven and a creative defensive coordinator in Steve Spagnuolo. This will be Joe Flacco’s biggest challenge of the season, particularly if his go to guy Derrick Mason isn’t very effective due to his separate left shoulder.

While the Ravens are on defense, this is a clear and present case of strength against strength. The Giants’ 3 headed monster of Jacobs, Ward and Bradshaw in the backfield have averaged 5 ½ yards per carry. When asked about these backs, Ray Lewis had more to say about the gaping holes created by the Giants’ offensive front than he said about the proficiencies of the trio.

It’s an overused cliché but this game more so than any other the Ravens have played will be won and lost in the trenches. How the Ravens handle the offensive and defensive lines of the Giants will weigh heavily in the game’s outcome. This should be a classic heavyweight battle.

From my recliner, the keys to a Ravens victory are as follows:

1. Win first down on both sides of the ball. Offensively that means throwing on first down to set up the run and to open the playbook. Defensively, it means taking away the Giants strength – managing the clock and the game on the ground.

2. Keep Todd Heap involved. That will command attention for the linebackers and safeties and it will help to open up opportunities in the running game and outside the hash marks.

3. Bracket Plaxico Burress. This guy has to be ready to explode mentally. Think about this – Kareem McKenzie gets to play today despite his DUI on Thursday while Burress lost two paychecks for showing up late to a meeting after taking his kids to school. He could be taken out of this game mentally so it might be time to get physical with the spindly receiver.

4. Chris Chester and Ben Grubbs – Chester has played better this season but today he faces a formidable 4-3 defense. He needs to be physical. Grubbs has struggled in pass protection. If the Giants get pressure up the middle, this game could be over early.

5. K Steve Houschka: He made a difference last week and he’ll need to do the same this week. The Giants have a solid special teams unit and the Ravens will have to match their efficiency on the road. Field position will be critical as both teams battle the crosswinds of the Meadowlands.

Can the Ravens get it done? Yes. Will they? I don’t see it. I just think that there are too many things weighing against the Ravens: three consecutive road games; world champs; terrific front four taking on a nicked up offensive line; vulnerable secondary. I’m calling it 27-17 and you all know that I hope I’m dead wrong.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ravens @ Giants: Blogging behind enemy lines Part II

In Part II of Blogging Behind Enemy Lines, Giants' blogger Dan Benton tackles my questions for him...

1. Knowing what you know about the Giants if Ravens’ defensive coordinator Rex Ryan called you and asked how the Ravens should attack their offense in order to win and you were paid handsomely on the down low, what would you tell him?

Well, that depends. Would I be paid before or after I offer up the information? If paid before hand, I'd just make up some random nonsense, cash a check and enjoy a Giants victory. However, if I was to be paid afterward, I wouldn't tell him anything. I am a Giants addict through and through; there is no price-tag on a Giants win orloss. I live and die by Big Blue and would prefer a victory over nearly anything else in our known universe.

2. What about Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron? Who is the weak link on the Giants’ defense?

If you're asking me what I'd tell him, the answer is the same. He would get nothing ... NOTHING! Ha ha. But seriously, there is no real weak link on the Giants defense. I'm sure some "experts" would claim it's their secondary, and to some extent, that may be somewhat true, but New York is as well-rounded as any team in the league. They havevery few weaknesses at all and no one person can be referred to as their weakest link.That said, there are a few things some players don't do as well as others. For instance, Antonio Pierce is a bit suspect in coverage, and the inexperience at the safety position is a tad concerning at times.

3. Has Tom Coughlin ever had a penalty called against the Giants that he agreed with?

Of course not ... and why would he? The Giants are regularly on the end of poor calls or no-calls, so when the flag is thrown on them, the immediate response is "why us and not them"?That and the fact that such a disciplined team cannot possibly be guilty of committing a legitimate penalty. I mean, come on, we're not the New England Patriots here.

4. Now that the dust has settled, if you could have your choice of the top three QB’s drafted in 2004 (Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger) which would you choose?

Eli Manning, without a doubt! I was a fan of him then and I'm more a fan of him now.I've said time and time again that Big Ben is overrated, and now that the Steelers are aging and falling apart, you're getting to see exactly what he's made of. Meanwhile, Rivers has been solid, but unable to get the job done with one of the most talented teams in the NFL.Then you look at Eli and all he does is win. And in a league that lives by the motto "what have you done for me lately," you could not ask for a better asset than Eli.Statistics aside, he's as clutch as they come. And I would rather have a "W" than a 300 yards, four touchdown loss any day.

5. History tells us that the Giants generally don’t fare well against Baltimore teams in meaningful football games. How will the Giants do this time against the team representing Charm City?

If this were the 2006 Giants, I would probably concede to a loss this Sunday. But things have changed and although I remain cautiously optimistic each week, it's still optimism ... something many Giants fans aren't use to.A lot of people are overlooking the Ravens, claiming their last four games have been against Junior Varsity teams. And while that may be the case, a solid running game and a dominating defense are all it takes to win in this league.This game will be a knock-down, drag-out fight right until the very end. But after nearly having several strokes, I think the Giants will walk away with a narrow three-point win.

Ravens @ Giants: Blogging behind enemy lines

New York Giants' blogger Dan Benton for MSG.com (no not the Chinese food ingredient) reached out this week to engage in what he referred to as "blogging behind enemy lines." Dan threw out 5 questions about this week's Ravens @ Giants contest and I returned the favor. First Dan's questions and my answers...

1) Although you're a fan of an AFC team, I'm sure you get a healthy dose of the NFC. Are you one of the few who actually believe the Giants are for real, or do you think they've lucked out since December of last year?

When a team plays well in the trenches as the Giants do and they can run the football like they do particularly on the road, that team is for real. I will say that I’m not as impressed with Eli Manning as many of the national media folk are. I think he’s been good but I hardly think he was deserving of the SB MVP. In my opinion that should have gone to Justin Tuck. Manning can be rattled and when he is he will force throws and make big mistakes. The Ravens are counting on that Sunday.

2) Looking ahead to Sunday, what concerns you most about the New York Giants?

The defensive front is very strong and I think they will force Ravens rookie QB Joe Flacco to make mistakes. The Ravens aren’t the picture of health on the offensive line and as a result, I see this as a bit of a mismatch.

Also, the Ravens’ secondary is very banged up and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan has preferred to drop LB’s into coverage to help versus blitzing the quarterback. It worked against the Texans and Sage Rosenfels but I don’t see it working against the Giants.

Finally, this is the Ravens third consecutive road game and their fifth in their last six games. That will take a toll even though it’s a short train ride to the Meadowlands.

3) In what area, if any, do you think Baltimore can expose New York?

Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has had a hot hand lately. He’ll try to keep the Giants off balance with play action, some deep strikes downfield and with some gadgetry courtesy of his version of the wildcat featuring Troy Smith.

That said I don’t see many weaknesses with the Giants. I think the only way to beat them is to outslug them in the trenches, out execute them or force Manning into mistakes like the Browns did.

4) What happens when Brandon "The Beast" Jacobs meets Ray Lewis in the hole?

You better hold your ears and make sure the children turn their heads away.

5) Prediction time! How many points will the Giants win by this Sunday?

Oh you are a confident one there Dan aren’t you? As you should be… I think the Ravens will compete particularly if Joe Flacco doesn’t morph into a turnover machine against the onslaught of the Giants’ pass rush. In the end, I think a balanced Giants team will prevail, 27-17.

For my questions and Dan's answers go HERE

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Sipping the purple Kool-Aid

Today during The X Factor on Fox 1370 Sports Radio the conversation between me and my co-host Shan Shariff eventually touched down on the Ravens and their playoff aspirations. Shan adamantly stated that the Ravens will not be among the post season participants while explaining his belief that the Ravens need to build towards the future.

I stopped Shan during his explanation because I just as adamantly believe it is far too premature to count the Ravens out. First of all, the NFL is a very watered down product, particularly the AFC. It’s almost mind boggling how quickly the AFC has fallen behind the NFC after several years of dominance. So with such an unstable conference and given the Ravens position among the top 6 seeds in the AFC at present, why should the Ravens be counted out?

Just about that time we were up against a commercial break so we decided to revisit the topic after the break and go through the balance of the Ravens schedule. Shan had the Ravens winning this week against the Texans but he has them losing against the Giants, Eagles, Redskins, Steelers and Cowboys and settling on an 8-8 finish.

I on the other hand have them losing only to the Giants and the Cowboys the rest of the way and walking away from their final regular season contest against the Jaguars with a record of 11-5.

Wow, 11-5. Now that’s optimism and after reaching that conclusion I realized the bar at the purple Kool-Aid stand was open a bit too long and I was over served.

Shan and I both agreed that the swing games that proved to be the difference in our respective forecasts are the Eagles, Redskins and Steelers. I have the Ravens sweeping those games while Shan has the Ravens dropping each of them.

At this point in the season who knows which of us is right – probably neither of us but that said, I’m ok with the purple libations. Line ‘em up bartender! What the hell! I believe that John Harbaugh and the Ravens are building something here – this year! And I believe that they are slowly rounding into a complete team. And I’m banking on Jerry Rosburg whipping his special teams into shape and that Rex Ryan will somehow come up with a formula to mask the team’s inadequacies in the secondary. Hey what’s Ty Law up to these days? Hopefully not 250 pounds.

Bartender, RavenBomb for my friend Shan – that’s Blueberry Van Gogh vodka with a Red Bull.

You can get those at The Manhattan Grill you know…where I’ll be guest bartending on November 17 during Monday Night Football.

Anybody else want one?

Friday, November 07, 2008

Might DeAngelo Hall end up in Baltimore after all?

It seems that whenever another NFL team jettisons a well known player, that player becomes the topic of talk radio and message board threads. Usually Ravens fans will debate the ways in which Ozzie Newsome should pursue such players and how the proposed acquisition might strengthen the team. Today’s flavor of the week is DeAngelo Hall.

Earlier in the week I suggested that Hall would not be a fit for the Ravens. He has struggled with the Raiders in press coverage and his experience suggests that he is better suited to a Cover 2 style of defense.

But the topic of Hall just won’t go away and will likely linger as long as Hall remains a free agent. So I decided to explore the idea a bit more with sources close to the team and the responses were interesting.

First, Hall was referred to as MeAngelo Hall because of his pattern of selfishness. His history suggests that he’s more interested in stats and he’s had some run-ins with assistant coaches as well. And although he isn’t really a thug off the field in the mold of Chris Henry or Pacman Jones, he’s not exactly a choir boy.

When I asked how Rob Ryan (Rex’s brother) felt about Hall, let’s just say the response wasn’t very flattering. I also remembered that Ravens’ special teams coach Jerry Rosburg had some exposure to Hall in Atlanta. I was told his feelings somewhat mirror those of Rob Ryan.

But that aside, the Ravens do believe that Hall can cover well despite his recent struggles in Oakland. Hall has been targeted by Raiders’ opponents not because he is a slumping corner. He is simply a more inviting target than Nnamdi Asomugha who is playing lights out.

The Ravens believe that playing with Ray Lewis humbles younger players like Hall who will turn 25 later this month. They believe that he would toe the line and contribute to a secondary that could use some help. They also believe that Hall would be nothing more than a short-term fix for the balance of the year with no commitment at this time beyond 2008 – much like a Manny Ramirez acquisition by the Dodgers. Hall would be viewed as a hired gun of sorts.

The team wants to be careful not to take on additional long-term expenses with Hall because the Ravens are much more interested in re-signing their home grown talent. The big question is, will Hall be willing to accept a contract for the balance of ’08 with no promises? Given the number of teams that will likely line-up to inquire about Hall’s services, the answer is probably no.

Don’t expect the Ravens to be aggressive in the Hall sweepstakes. They will not set the market but rather lurk in the bushes and wait to see if Hall slips to them. They might then sell Hall on the values of playing in the Ravens’ system and even if he doesn’t stay with the team beyond ’08, the experience could position him for another big pay day down the road.

Hall in Ravens’ purple could happen, but it will have to happen on the Ravens terms and that isn’t very likely.

Just remember Ozzie’s credo, “right player right price.”

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Just say no to Ed Reed

Given his neck and shoulder nerve impingement that has really put a cramp on his playing style and effectiveness in 2008, I was somewhat shocked to see Ed Reed on the field set to return a punt against the Browns this past Sunday.

I get that Reed is a playmaker and has shown in the past that he can break a game open with his ability to navigate through the ensuing chaos of punt coverage teams. But from my vantage point it looked to me like Yamon Figurs was getting a little rhythm going and he needs to do that. He needs to recapture the mojo he found in the back half of the 2007 season and bring it back to life in ‘08. That makes the Ravens a better football team.

Reed, particularly with the plethora of secondary injuries the Ravens have, has to stay on the sidelines during punt returns. Not John Harbaugh, not Rex Ryan nor Jerry Rosburg can cave in to the requests, begging and pleas of Reed to get in the game to return a punt. It’s just not worth it and to do so shows weakness from the coaching staff and serves as a reminder of the later stages of the Billick era when the inmates ran the asylum – you know, in a figurative sense.

That said, inserting Reed in key return situations could weaken the resolve and confidence of Figurs. The Ravens can’t afford the reincarnation of Lamont Brightful. A Ravens’ team with an injured Reed and a shaky Figurs is far less productive than one with Reed in the secondary (despite his conservative play) and a more confident Figurs.

Harbs, next time just say no to Reed!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Ravens should take a Hall pass

Clearly the Ravens have needs in their defensive backfield and some believe that DeAngelo Hall could help. What isn’t so clear is if the Ravens will be players for Hall’s services now that he has been released by the Raiders as reported today by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Any team can now put a waiver claim in for Hall. The team with the worst record placing a claim will be awarded the Pro Bowl corner. If no team places a claim on Hall and he clears waivers, he becomes a free agent and then any team can negotiate with him.

Yet there are risks associated with a claim for Hall. While he could be perceived as a relative bargain given that the acquiring team is really only liable for the remainder of his $1 million 2008 base salary, acquiring Hall through waivers carries an injury guarantee. Hall has option bonus money due to him to the tune of $16.5 million and that money is guaranteed even if he suffers a career threatening injury. This is the motivating factor behind his release by the Raiders. Oakland’s 2-6 start and Al Davis’ failed on the field investments certainly are contributing factors as well.

As a result of this $16.5 million risk, the guess here is that Hall will clear waivers and if he does clear, Ozzie Newsome could make the call to Hall.

That said Hall won’t come cheaply. Hall has a decent resume and he is young, celebrating his 25th birthday later this month. The Ravens two most pressing needs in the offseason will be corner and wide receiver. If the Ravens believe that there is not a corner of Hall’s ilk when they expect to make their first pick (probably a mid to late first round selection) then they could make a play for the former Raider/Falcon.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath if you are hoping to see Hall in purple and black. Hall has struggled in the traditional Raiders’ press coverage. He was more successful in Atlanta’s Cover 2 scheme. Like his brother Rob, Rex Ryan demands solid man cover skills from his corners. The Ravens interest in Hall will likely last about as long as a phone call between the Ryan brothers if that.

If the Ravens want to look at a Raiders’ corner, they should wait to see what the market will bear for pending free agent Nnamdi Asomugha. Shedding Samari Rolle’s and Chris McAlister’s 2009 salary could pave the way for some Aso consideration.

I say take a Hall pass for now...