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.

PUH-LEASE!

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

STAND UP 4 ART MODELL


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!

Thanks,

Nestor

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

LET'S GO TEXANS!!!


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 na├»ve 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.