Typically, the Baltimore Ravens’ season-ending news conference is an opportunity to start pushing things forward, to focus on the key decisions the team needs to make over the next five months and direct the attention toward upcoming free agency and the draft.
Yet, after Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh settled into their seats late Friday morning, the first four questions concerned something that happened five days earlier in the team’s season-ending 17-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
Ravens fall short of Super Bowl after wilting on big stage in loss to Chiefs: ‘It sucks’
More specifically, how does the NFL’s No. 1 rushing team decide that 16 total running attempts, only six belonging to running backs, is an appropriate recipe with a Super Bowl berth on the line?
“That’s not the number you want to have,” Harbaugh acknowledged Friday in a news conference that lasted just over 40 minutes. “When it’s all said and done, you look back on it, that’s not really going to win us an AFC Championship Game, for sure.”
Harbaugh was predictably prepared for the questions about the offensive approach against a Chiefs team that struggles to stop the run. The game plan, put together by offensive coordinator Todd Monken and his staff and backed by Harbaugh, has been thoroughly scrutinized and panned by analysts and pundits since Sunday.
Harbaugh, who described himself as “heartbroken” about the loss and his team’s failure to advance to the Super Bowl, said he understood the reaction and the criticism.
“When you look at the way the game played out, you can understand it from a football perspective, but once you get through all that, you come back, you want to run the ball against the Chiefs. There’s no doubt about it,” Harbaugh said. “We did want to run the ball against the Chiefs and we weren’t able to get to it.”
And why was that?
Harbaugh pointed to several reasons. Because the Chiefs started the game with 10- and 16-play drives, the Ravens had the ball for little more than nine minutes in the entire first half, preventing them from getting to a significant part of their game plan. They were in their two-minute offense, which limits the run, for one of their five full first-half drives and the entire fourth quarter, as they trailed by 10 points and needed to score quickly.
The Ravens went three-and-out on three of their 10 official drives, and that prevented them from developing any offensive rhythm and getting more into their run game. According to Harbaugh, the Ravens also had numerous run-pass options, and quarterback Lamar Jackson felt throwing the ball was the better option on certain plays.
“A lot of what we were doing was directed at the line of scrimmage by what the defense gave us, and the defense was lined up to take away the run,” Harbaugh said. “So the next thing would be to bring it in tight and just run the ball out of heavy formations and wide receivers blocking the edge and protecting the edge that way. We could have done that, but we were down, so we wanted to keep the formations open and give ourselves the best chance to try to move the ball and score points.”
Harbaugh said he had discussions with Monken throughout the game about running the ball more. He did confirm that Kansas City’s quick start offensively probably factored into why the team was never able to fully commit to the run.
“We still wanted to stay with our game plan. We still wanted to run the ball. I mean, believe it or not, it was a big part of our game plan to run the ball,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not so much about, ‘Hey, how many runs do we have right now? I think we need to get more so I can answer for it in the press conference.’ It’s more about what’s going to give us the best chance to win the game right now in real time. And that’s what we were looking at.”
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The frustration for Ravens supporters is this was not the first time the team had gotten away from its strength on the playoff stage. The team set league rushing records during the 2019 regular season when it went 14-2 and finished with the AFC’s top seed.
However, in a divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens fell behind by two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter and offensive coordinator Greg Roman quickly got away from the record-setting run game. The team’s top backs, Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards, finished with nine total carries.
Since the 2019 season, the Ravens are 2-4 in the playoffs. In most of those losses, they’ve shown little resemblance to the team they were in the regular season. Harbaugh said that’s “definitely a fair criticism.”
“That’s what you see. You look at it, and it’s not the same,” Harbaugh said. “It wasn’t a 30-point win over a division leader, obviously, and that’s the result of it. It was the same team, it’s the same guys. It was the game plan that was devised against that particular team that day, but we didn’t play better than the team we played. They played better than us. They had a better game plan. They executed their game plan better. They made plays. … That’s really the difference. So, in that sense, it’s not the same.
“Every single team in the league is going to have that feeling after losing in the playoffs. I get it, I feel the same way. I’m telling you, I’m heartbroken. I’m heartbroken. The fact that we didn’t win that game at home in front of our crowd for the first time in all these years and get a chance to play in the Super Bowl.”
Still, Harbaugh and DeCosta said they’re not going to let how things ended mar some of the positives from a season in which the Ravens went 13-4 to take the AFC North, beat the upstart Houston Texans in the AFC divisional round and host the first conference championship game in team history.
“I think it was a great season,” DeCosta said. “Very rewarding. I love the team, the players, the chemistry, the culture, the camaraderie — every single day, these guys came to work. The coaches, the effort they put into it. The job the scouts did. It was a great season. Disappointing at the end, of course. It always is for most teams. I don’t have the luxury of really dwelling on a season. We go to the Senior Bowl the next day. I literally woke up the next day, said goodbye to the kids and went to the Senior Bowl. We’ve moved on. I know I’ve moved on.”
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• At this time last year, there was lingering uncertainty about Jackson’s future with the Ravens. He had just missed the final part of Baltimore’s season and its playoff loss in Cincinnati because of a knee injury, and his rookie contract was up. Jackson had little contact with the team from the end of the season until late April when he signed his contract extension. Harbaugh, however, said this offseason will be different. He already met with Jackson this week to go over ideas for the continued evolution of the offense, and he expects that process to resume.
“You say Lamar has the keys to the offense. Now you build the offense,” Harbaugh said. “It’s like setting up a car. We have to build a car. We have to set the car up. If Lamar’s the driver, he has to be involved in the setup of the car even more. Last year, that wasn’t even possible. This year, he’s going to be involved, and we’ve talked about it. He’s already involved by what we talked about yesterday in setting up that car.”
• DeCosta said he learned from the Jackson contract situation last year that the less he says publicly about the negotiations, the better. So he didn’t want to talk much about the team’s offseason player decisions, such as whether it’ll use the franchise tag on defensive lineman Justin Madubuike (which is expected if an extension isn’t reached), pick up the fifth-year options on Odafe Oweh and Rashod Bateman, or re-sign pending free agents, like guard Kevin Zeitler or inside linebacker Patrick Queen. However, his answer to a question about Queen was pretty telling.
“Patrick had an amazing season. I love Patrick. He’s one of my favorite guys on the team,” DeCosta said. “He’s put himself in a great position, potentially, to hit the market and see what his value is. You never know.” With the team having limited salary-cap flexibility and already paying Roquan Smith at the top of the middle linebacker market, it’s always been unlikely the Ravens commit the type of money that will probably be awaiting Queen on the open market.
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• A day after naming Zach Orr as Mike Macdonald’s replacement at the defensive coordinator position, Harbaugh said the team is still hoping to retain assistant head coach/defensive line coach Anthony Weaver. Weaver was a finalist for the Washington Commanders’ head-coaching job that ultimately went to Dan Quinn, and he also is in the running for the Miami Dolphins’ defensive coordinator job. Harbaugh said he’s still working through other changes on both the offensive and special teams staffs.
(Photo: Perry Knotts / Associated Press)