Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Why the 2013 Ravens Will Miss the Playoffs
Since realignment, four out of 10 Super Bowl winners have missed the playoffs the following season. The 2012 champion Ravens appear to be headed down the same path.
Baltimore did not have a dominant regular season, finishing 10-6, which tied for the worst record of any playoff team. According to the Simple Rating System used at Pro Football Reference, the Ravens were the 12th-best team in the regular season (+2.9). A more dominant champion might inspire more confidence, but pessimism about Baltimore's 2013 campaign is less about the regular season last year than about the offseason this year.
Since winning the Super Bowl, the Baltimore Ravens have lost nearly half of their starting defense. Ray Lewis retired. Dannell Ellerbe signed with Miami. Paul Kruger went to Cleveland. Bernard Pollard was cut in a salary cap move. Ed Reed may sign elsewhere. The offense has taken hits, too, losing veteran center Matt Birk and leading receiver Anquan Boldin. I watched 11 Ravens games last season, and I believe Boldin was their best offensive player. In the playoffs, Boldin had twice as many receptions and receiving touchdowns as Torrey Smith, with almost as many yards (380) as Smith and third-leading receiver Dennis Pitta combined (396). Whenever the Ravens needed a big play on third down or in the red zone, Joe Flacco looked for Boldin.
The Ravens will begin next season without their leading sacker and, if Reed leaves, four of their top six tacklers. They'll miss both starting safeties, both inside linebackers, their three most experienced veterans, and one of their best players on offense. The team is also at greatly elevated injury risk after a 20-game season that ended a month after most teams were done playing. Add the wear and tear to the lost recovery time, and you have to assume Baltimore will have some injury issues in 2013.
All Super Bowl teams face a longer season, and most lose some key players after a title run, but seldom to the extent Baltimore faces, with key losses like Ellerbe and Boldin and the exodus of veteran leadership like Lewis. Even without so many key players leaving, many Super Bowl teams struggle to defend their championships. Since realignment:
Out of the previous 10 champions, four missed the playoffs and four lost their first playoff game. Only the 2004-05 New England Patriots, the greatest dynasty of the free agency era, advanced in the postseason. The record is no better for Super Bowl losers: five missed the playoffs the following season, and none reached the Super Bowl.
That long season — playing 20 games is like an extra ¼-season — puts teams at a significant disadvantage with regard to injuries. Their players have more exposure to damage and less time to recover. The Ravens have also lost key players from last season, mostly for salary cap reasons. They'll choose last in the NFL draft and they'll face a tough schedule.
There are some points working in Baltimore's favor. Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb return from injuries that sidelined them for most of last season. If both play at the level they did in 2011, and Reed returns, the defense might actually be better than last season. The team might sign another pass rusher in free agency, which should compensate for the loss of Kruger. Offensively, if Torrey Smith continues to develop and Joe Flacco plays the way he did in the postseason (rather than the other 16 games), the Ravens might be okay without Boldin. If opponents like the Steelers struggle with age and offseason losses, the schedule might be easier than expected.
But that's a lot of ifs to overcome, and Baltimore faces even more challenges than most defending champions, so it's unlikely we'll see the 2013 Ravens in the playoffs next January.