Monday, February 4, 2013

The Composition of the Ravens: Flacco Flies Upon a Midnight Dreary

The Baltimore Ravens winning Super Bowl 47 feels a bit like a Mighty Ducks movie. The only problem is how appropriate the bird change is. The 2012-2013 Ravens just aren't that likable. They opened the season with unimpressive performances against the Eagles (a loss), the Patriots (a replacement-refs-aided win), the Browns (a 23-16 win with little second half offense), and the Chiefs (a 9-6 win). They won their division with a 10-6 record by means of a tiebreaker and limped into the playoffs by losing four of their last five games. Even their Wild Card playoff victory was an uninspired offensive quagmire that seemed like more of a result of the Colts inability to get off the block than a demonstration of defensive dominance.

Then there's the personnel. Somehow the Ravens always seems to walk the tightrope between respectable toughness and unnecessary roughness. They hold their opponents just a second longer than is legal, but not long enough to be flagged for it. They get in an extra hit after the play is blown dead...only when the referees aren't looking. It's a mentality that spearheaded by Ray Lewis, a former murder conspirator that is still haunted by the many unanswered questions about that night, who leveraged his retirement to emotionally motivate his team to play. Worse yet, the more likable players disappeared as of late. Ray Rice's production trailed off as rookie Bernard Pierce looked far more impressive in the playoffs. Certain Hall-of-Famer Ed Reed seemed to have one foot out the door as he made asides about playing for Bill Belchick the week leading up to the big game. Then there's the non-intriguing enigma known as Joe Flacco.

I want to be clear that my purpose isn't to belittle the Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl Championship. It'd be near impossible to do so. They swooped into Denver and New England and silenced Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Bill Belichick. They sauntered into New Orleans and slaughtered Colin Kaepernick's gold-rushing Niners before a power outage necessitated they dig in and refuse to surrender to the growing momentum of a comeback that looked more and more likely as the scoreboard clock approached zero. Yet for some unknown reason down by five with two minutes and two timeouts left, the 49ers and their dominant rushing attack chose to throw the ball on three of their last four downs. Even then, their last throw featured what looked like obvious holding by the Ravens that went uncalled. Following some obligatory theatrics the Baltimore Ravens were improbably holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Did the 49ers comeback really fall short because they wouldn't run the ball with Kaepernick or Frank Gore? Was Ray Lewis really retiring the way every athlete dreamed? Was Joe Flacco really Super Bowl MVP?

Joe Flacco is the new Eli Manning, except he doesn't have his brother's shadow to live under so it's easier to hype him. In 16 regular season games, he threw 22 touchdown passes. In four postseason games, he threw half of that number, 11, with no interceptions. That number is astonishing considering he only threw for over 300+ yards once in the playoffs and for more yards than the opposing quarterback once in the playoffs, both against Denver in the AFC Divisional round. It's even more astonishing if you witnessed every one of the 11 TD passes. More often than not, Flacco seemed to be lost and just chucking the ball up only for them to be improbably caught (you know, what everyone criticized Tim Tebow for doing last year). The most notable of these plays were to Jacoby Jones, at the end of the game against Denver into double coverage for 70 yards and a TD to send the game into OT and under two minutes in the second quarter of the Super Bowl for 56 yards and a TD where Jones had to fall backwards to catch it. They were the kind of plays that made you jump up in simultaneous excitement and confusion. They were that improbable.

Except they weren't that improbable at all. A certain amount is certainly explainable as a player and a team getting hot and staying hot, an important factor in any Super Bowl run. The rest, however, is easily understandable by looking at how the league has been trending for years and why. Ever since the Illegal Contact rule was instituted, the passing game has grown in importance. Flags for defensive backs came more furiously. Scoring rose. Passing records fell. Finally, we saw the logical result in these playoffs. It's nearly impossible to play in defensive coverage in the modern NFL. You are completely at the mercy of the officials. Sometimes a play such as the 49ers final fourth and goal gasp is called as holding, sometimes it isn't. After every incompletion receivers look to the officials for a call and people on the teams' sidelines gesture for a flag to be thrown. Often balls that look like they have long odds to be caught turn into 30+ yards Pass Interference penalties. So, knowing all this information, if you're a quarterback wouldn't you hurl the ball long if you found yourself in a tight spot, especially if your team features speedy receivers like Jones and Torrey Smith? If you're saying no it's either because it's not in your gameplan or you don't have the arm strength.

I don't begrudge Flacco or the Ravens for what they accomplished, but it is interesting that they are the fourth wildcard team since the 2004-2005 season and the fourth team since the 2007-2008 with six or more losses in the regular season to win the Super Bowl. Yes, that means four out of the last six Super Bowl Championships have been won by six to seven regular season loss teams. Many people, the NFL front office members included, might celebrate this as an era of parity and unpredictability. It's the outcome NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and others have been trying to socially engineer through changes such as the Illegal Contact rule that give every team a strong chance to win. It's best for business. If anyone can win it all, because all you really need to do is keep games close and sneak into the playoffs, then every fan will have a reason to cheer during the season, if not the next. It's really easy to market and for the media to cover too. Every team has a storyline. All the media has to do is pick up all 32+ strands all season and discard the other 31 as they're eliminated. If it wasn't Lewis, Flacco, and the Harbaugh Bowl it was Peyton Manning proving his greatness with the greatest comeback season ever or Tom Brady beating his boyhood team to tie his boyhood icon for most Super Bowl titles or Matt Ryan finally realizing his potential or Russell Wilson completing the greatest rookie season ever or...well, you understand what I mean.

I'm not saying football is no longer enjoyable or there's a giant conspiracy to make sure the best possible outcome to market the league happens every season. Rather, it's all set up so whatever the result is can be easily sold as the best possible outcome and then quickly turned over into the next season when the draft rolls around. It's booking Vince McMahon surely envies. It's marketing that the producers of Days of Our Lives and General Hospital have to admire. It's a series without a script and there's no need to look any further than this season to remind us of that. The deeper their team went into the playoffs, the more legendary instead of lackluster Flacco and Lewis least if what was said off the field is to be believed. It's  a composition even Edgar Allan Poe would admire.


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