Imagine if the Baltimore Ravens hadn't won the Super Bowl after the 2000 season. Would we be talking about Ray Lewis as the greatest player ever not to win a ring?
The decade following the Lombardi Trophy has been filled with success for Lewis, the defense and the team at large – six playoff berths, seven seasons ranking in the top six in defensive scoring and eight Pro Bowl selections for Lewis.
But the Ravens have also squandered the best defensive player of his generation, surrounding him with mundane offenses. In 2010, it was supposed to be different, thanks to the addition of big free-agent wideouts and the return to health of Todd Heap.
It wasn't different. The Ravens were good, but ultimately not great, and Lewis looked to be finally experiencing the falloff that all great veterans do in their 30s. Is there a chance for one more ring in 2011?
The 2010 storyline: The Ravens were kind of the AFC version of Atlanta this year. They moved the ball efficiently with a cool-as-ice quarterback, they were in every game (not a single loss by more than a touchdown), and they took care of business against the league's lesser lights.
Unlike Atlanta, they showed spunk in the postseason, dusting the Chiefs and coming very close to a come-from-behind road win at Pittsburgh. Baltimore boasts two likely Hall of Famers on defense (Lewis, Ed Reed), another defender with HOF potential (Haloti Ngata) and the most experienced group of receivers this side of Radio Shack. So there was a lot to appreciate. There was also a lot to be concerned about, with one of the oldest lineups in the league.
The Vital Signs
2010 record: 12-4 (22.3 PPG – 16.9 PPG)
Last five seasons overall: 50-30 (.625)
Best Quality Stat in 2010: Bendability (3rd)
Worst Quality Stat in 2010: Offensive Hog Index (22nd)
All Quality Stats
Defensive Passing YPA: 7th (new Quality Stat for 2011)
Quarterback Rating: 12th (new Quality Stat for 2011)
Defensive Quarterback Rating: 6th (new Quality Stat for 2011)
Relativity Index: 6th (once-proud Quality Stat being reintroduced for 2011)
Statistical curiosity of 2010
Despite a 12-4 record and a point differential of +87, the Ravens generated just 5,166 yards of offense to their opponents' 5,102.
Best game of 2010
30-7 win at Kansas City (divisional round). The Packers' demolition of Atlanta was the biggest ass-whipping of the playoffs, but this one was a close second. The Chiefs were extremely lucky to be down just three at the half, and proceeded to get blanked 20-0 in the second. A 26-8 edge in first downs helped the Ravens just a tad.
Worst game of 2010
15-10 loss at Cincinnati (Week 2). Baltimore didn't have any really bad games, but this one at Cincinnati was close. The defense played its tail off, but four offensive turnovers were too much to overcome ... although the Ravens had a chance for the go-ahead points late.
Bendability. The aforementioned Hall of Fame talent on defense helped, but the best player on the unit last year might have been Terrell Suggs. He had 11 sacks and played great run defense, and keyed one of the best red-zone defenses in the league.
But Reed's big plays were, well, big – it's tough for other teams to score when Reed ends eight drives with interceptions in only 10 games.
The Ravens allowed as many field goals as they did touchdowns (27), well above the league ratio of about 1.6 touchdowns to every field goal. Punter Sam Koch deserves a lot of credit as well – he's the perfect punter for this team, ranking second with 39 punts inside the 20 while being charged with only four touchbacks. And Billy Cundiff's kickoffs were the stuff of legend – Ravens opponents started a lot of drives at the 20.
Offensive Hogs. Michael Oher is an inspiring story, and was a swell player on the right side of the line as a rookie, but Ravens fans can tell you that he didn't protect Joe Flacco's (wait for it) "Blindside" very well when moved to LT in 2010. He allowed seven sacks and was whistled for 10 penalties – not good numbers for your top tackle. The absence of Jared Gaither was felt, although the solid play of Marshall Yanda on the right side minimized the impact.
Overall, though, Baltimore's line wasn't a complete liability – as we said before, this was a team with few flaws and played like it. One thing they did seem to lack was explosiveness in the running game. Willis McGahee and Ray Rice were dynamic in 2009, but their averages took a big step back in 2010: the Ravens were 27th in runs of 10+ yards and 28th in average per attempt
, despite ranking sixth in carries (487).
General off-season strategy/overview
Seems like standing pat is the best move here, but the Ravens have a bunch of contributors on the free agent list depending on how the labor deal shakes out. Ozzie Newsome has always found a way to keep the team stacked with talent, and with key guys like Reed, Ngata, Suggs, Lewis, Flacco, Rice, Anquan Boldin and Matt Birk all locked up, another season of good drafting and open-market wizardry will do the trick.
Totally premature 2011 diagnosis
Unless Joe Flacco piles a lifetime of Roethlisberger-like behavior into his offseason and winds up needing reconstructive facial surgery and a lawyer, the Ravens are going to be in the mix. Flacco is the key here. His passer ratings have gone from 80.3 to 88.9 to 93.6, which is great, until you see his 61.6 career postseason rating. Taking another step forward seems like the only thing that's going to launch an already solid team, and quarterback, into new NFL air.