The Ravens’ Week 3 win over the Denver Broncos had just ended when safety Eric Weddle stepped to the interview podium and shouted, “It ain’t the same Ravens!”
Meant as a compliment, his declaration has inadvertently provided a constant measuring stick against which to gauge the 2018 Ravens through a roller-coaster season.
When they led the AFC North with a 3-1 record after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in late September, they certainly didn’t look like the “same” team that has sat out the playoffs recently. But they did resemble that team during a three-game losing streak that pushed them to the fringes of the playoff picture in November.
A quarterback change and three-game winning streak renewed optimism, but after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, the Ravens find themselves with a 7-6 record for the third straight year and fourth time in the past six years – a pattern that certainly limits their ability to argue they’re different in 2018.
They didn’t end up in the postseason in any of those other recent seasons when they were 7-6, a sobering thought.
But while they’re indisputably the “same” Ravens at least for now from a win-loss perspective, the notion carries another meaning that’s more positive about what might lie ahead.
In Sunday’s classic contest, the Ravens unfurled what, for them, is a throwback playing style, one their franchise’s reputation was built on. Defensively, they attacked. Offensively, they pounded.
It’s straightforward stuff and they’ve rolled with it for an entire month now, actually. Win or lose, the other side knows it has been in a tough contest.
That, too, is the “same” Ravens, only circa their earlier years, when they routinely made the playoffs – nine times in 13 years in one stretch. They hit hard, attacked, ran the ball and went places. No one said they were fancy, but no one wanted to play them. Sports Illustrated called them the Baltimore Bullies after they won their first Super Bowl.
Weddle wasn’t here for what I’ll call the glory years, so he shouldn’t be expected to fathom that “same” Ravens can also refer to those happier times. Yet their reputation for attacking and pounding is so ingrained that it still echoes today.
In fact, as they went toe-to-toe with the Chiefs Sunday, I found myself thinking this was a pretty excellent distillation of who the Ravens have always been in the eyes of the rest of the football world. And in my eyes, who they should be.
They were leading the league in passing attempts earlier this season, reprising an airborne mentality that has crept into their offensive mindset for several years. It has engineered some successes, but nettlesome issues with efficiency and consistency arose a little too often for anyone’s tastes.
They have flipped their offensive philosophy, however, since rookie Lamar Jackson became the quarterback a month ago. A simpler, run-oriented approach is in effect, and it is working. Controlling the ball for long stretches, the Ravens won three straight games and took the Chiefs to overtime.
Sunday’s frustrating defeat illuminated various shortcomings, starting with the need for more game-changing playmakers on both sides of the ball. The inability to finish games is a haunting problem that simply won’t go away. Jackson played well in difficult conditions Sunday, but it was just his fourth pro start and his inexperience showed at times.
So there’s work to be done. But big picture, the Ravens are on to something. I certainly think they are. Jackson is one of those dynamic playmakers they’ve lacked. He exhibits great potential. The defense seemingly has found its mojo with its complex attacking style. “No one else is doing this stuff,” CBS’ Tony Romo gushed during Sunday’s broadcast.
I don’t know how far it can take the Ravens, but they’ve become more consistent with their new approach. It’s still a relatively small sample size, but they haven’t given one performance I would toss back. No clunkers. You know what you’re getting. You know their identity. That’s big for a team that has battled inconsistency.
It’s throwback football, yes, but remember, being the “same” Ravens isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just the opposite, in fact.