Boston is known as Beantown. New York is The Big Apple. Philadelphia is The City of Brotherly Love. Baltimore, for the longest time, didn't have an official nickname. By their neighbors on the East Coast, they were derisively called "Washington's Brooklyn", and referred to not as a city of gold, of silver, or even bronze, copper, or tin: Nickel Town was their moniker.
To be fair, they didn't have a lot going for them outside of great crabs, the 1970's Orioles baseball teams, the Preakness, and being the birthplace of Babe Ruth. A few ad agencies and the mayor of the city rebranded Baltimore as "Charm City" in 1975, citing its hidden charms and appeal to rival even their largest neighbors, if only you'd travel there and search for them.
Now I know not all of Baltimore is like what I've seen on "The Wire", but I'd wager there was less hidden charm in this Baltimore Ravens' 2013 season than there were five-cent performances by players making a lot more than a nickel to do their jobs. Baltimore's native son, satirist and journalist H.L. Mencken, wrote a very fitting epitaph to lead us into our breakdown of the Ravens' season: "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." The complex problem that GM Ozzie Newsome faced? How to sustain a championship-winning team while five defensive starters and two offensive starters were eligible for free agency, a Hall of Fame linebacker retired and a wideout looking to be traded. The answer he came up with? It wasn't pretty.
Not to sound like gloomy ol' Edgar Allan Poe in the intro, there actually was a lot of good that happened in Baltimore last year, mostly on the defensive side of the ball. Entering the season, the team saw Ray Lewis retire, and Bernard Pollard, Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe, Cary Williams, and Paul Kruger all walk to free agency. It seemed like the vaunted Baltimore defense would be crippled. If these big names could only put up a 13th-ranked performance in against the pass and a 22nd-ranked one against the run in 2012, how much worse was it going to get?
Surprisingly, it got better. To put in perspective how savvy of a move it was to let the most feared safety duo in the league walk, let's first look at the contracts they signed: Reed went to the Houston Texans for $5 million per year for three years, Pollard to the Tennessee Titans for $2.5 million over one. Reed performed so poorly this year that he was benched by the Texans and New York Jets. Pollard started all season, but was lacking in coverage ability and was clearly more limited compared to his earlier days, nearly copying his tackle count from 2012 (98, 99 in 2013), but in three more games played.
If they had paid the (at the time, likely more than) $7.5 million annually to retain both players, they would have had a horrendous inefficiency on their hands at the safety position. Instead, they cut bait and took the opportunity to draft strong safety of the future Matt Elam and promoted veteran backup James Ihedigbo at the cost of only $1.412 million total for this year. The team's Adjusted Passing Defensive Net Expected Points (read more about Net Expected Points, or NEP, here) stayed steady at 13th place in the league, for at least $6 million less; Baltimore found a great bargain there.
Similarly, with the departures of Lewis, Ellerbe, and Kruger, the team lost three starters from the linebacker position. The latter two were signed at a combined cost of $13 million to their new teams in 2013. To solve this "complex problem", they brought in linebacker Daryl Smith and vultured Elvis Dumervil from the Broncos for a total of $1.84 million in 2013.
While Dumervil's statistical production dropped this season, his pass rush wreaked havoc on opposing lines and drew much attention away from his teammates. Smith was one to take advantage of this, as he posted career highs in tackles, sacks, passes defensed, and interceptions. These two players contributed greatly to the Ravens' defensive resurgence, and the unit as a whole pulled up from a 22nd place finish in Adj. Defensive Rushing NEP in 2012 to a top-10 mark in 2013.
Like night and day were the Ravens' two major phases of play in 2013. The defense was much-improved and much cheaper. The offense? Well, it was the opposite.
If they were spending nickels on the defense and finding charms, they were dropping C-notes on the offense and getting those junky plastic rings from the coin-operated toy vendors at the grocery store. In 2012, this team ranked a respectable 18th in Adj. Passing NEP and 12th in Adj. Rushing NEP, which led them to their second Super Bowl title. In 2013, they struggled their way to 25th in passing offense and 32nd, dead last, in rushing offense when fixed for strength of schedule. What happened?
Feel free to reference my article on Jim Caldwell in Detroit in order to fully understand the effect he had on the Baltimore offense. In short: No one could have been worse than Cam Cameron was in 2012, so of course he was an instant improvement. In 2013, he wrecked Joe Flacco and ran Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce into the ground. Fortunately, Caldwell is out the door and ruining another quarterback (sorry, Lions fans).
As the numbers show, the big culprits for the team's offensive faltering can be found in the backfield: Rice and Pierce. This tandem brought in a 33.90 and -4.22 Total NEP in 2012, good for 4th and 30th among backs with more than 100 carries, respectively. In 2013, Rice's Total NEP dropped to -35.47 and Pierce's to -31.39, finishing as the 47th and 46th running backs in the league. Much of this was tied to the ongoing injury problems the two suffered during the year (Rice's hip injury and Pierce's shoulder and thigh). They never seemed to be running "hard"; they appeared to just be getting by.
However, another good portion of the blame must be placed on the offensive line as well. With the retirement of center and longtime mainstay Matt Birk and the re-signing of well-below-average left tackle Bryant McKinnie, the Ravens line became a sieve. Add to injury and insulting line play the fact that Joe Flacco's Total NEP dropped from 25.13 in 2012 to 0.99 in 2013, and you have stacked boxes against a bad line, wrecking hurt running backs: a recipe for disaster.
What Should They Do?
My first recommendation is to keep letting Ozzie Newsome do what he does with the defense. If anyone knows how to spot talent at a value on that side of the ball, it is this front office. Many observers were certain that with all the roster turnover and loss of leadership and experience on the defense, the unit would suffer greatly in 2013. In fact, it thrived and actually improved. With safety James Ihedigbo, cornerback Corey Graham, and linebacker Daryl Smith all set to hit free agency, should the Ravens not be able to resign them at fairly cheap deals, they should look elsewhere to fill their defensive holes.
Second, please find someone to handle offense, both in the front office and on the field. I know defense is the hallmark of Baltimore teams, but spending that much money on a fringe-average quarterback like Flacco and an atrocious offensive tackle like McKinnie shows that the "Wizard of Ozz" could use a helping hand in assembling his attacking team.
The hiring of Gary Kubiak as the team's offensive coordinator after Jim Caldwell's departure is a brilliant move, and should take care of the play on the field. Kubiak is a great game planner when he has the talent to work with, and he has arrived in a situation that does have its share of talent. I genuinely believe that by coaching up the offensive line and getting the running backs healthy, the Ravens will be able to do a lot more in every phase of the offense, including maximizing Flacco's throws to his safety blanket, tight end Dennis Pitta
Third, keep churning that "Charm City" nickname out. I's true. While there may not be many hidden gems on the roster currently, I have faith that Ozzie will find some in this offseason and get them on his squad. That's what he's best at, finding diamonds in the rough, and his franchise needs that quality now more than ever.