In our new sports column, “The Charm City Birdwatcher,” Karuga Koinange will share insights into the Baltimore sports scene, its players and personalities, and the games’ significance to Charm City.
When Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh predicted his offense would be a “revolution” with quarterback Lamar Jackson taking the reins in 2019, he was only partially correct.
Jackson took the NFL by storm, putting together an unforgettable regular season performance that earned him unanimous MVP honors — becoming the youngest quarterback to do so and only the second player to receive every vote since Tom Brady in 2010.
But as NFL defenses adapted to former offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s run-heavy style, Baltimore’s offense stagnated every year following Jackson’s MVP season.
Health played a key role in this downtrend as the Ravens consistently finished among the league’s most injury-riddled teams over the last three years, but that wasn’t the driving force of Baltimore’s offensive decline.
The truth is, Roman’s inability to develop a passing scheme that could pair with his versatile rushing attack limited Baltimore’s potential — no matter who was playing. That’s why the Ravens hired offensive coordinator Todd Monken this offseason to diversify their approach.
Monken brings a completely different skill set than his predecessor. He served as the Georgia Bulldogs’ offensive play caller during their consecutive national championship victories in 2021 and 2022, demonstrating a keen ability to vary his plan of attack depending on the weaknesses of the opposing defense.
No longer will the Ravens heavily rely on Jackson’s legs to punish defenses. Now, he’s receiving the keys to the offense and must showcase his command over the unit. Monken’s system grants Jackson full control for the first time in his pro career, giving him the opportunity to change plays, make adjustments to routes and protection schemes, and most importantly throw the football.
Many NFL pundits and analysts have questioned whether Jackson has the “processing ability” to operate this traditional style of offense, but the evidence against this case is overwhelming.
Not only did Jackson win the 2016 Heisman Trophy in a pro-style offense at Louisville under head coach Bobby Petrino, but he’s shown the ability to be lethal in his limited opportunities running the offense at the NFL level.
Jackson has only run 32 no-huddle plays — an up-tempo style that allows him to make changes at the line of scrimmage — throughout four seasons as a starter. Despite not doing so often, he completed 70.5% of his passes on those plays.
So if Jackson had a proven history of executing a modernized offense at an elite level, why did the Ravens wait until 2023 for this philosophical shift?
It can’t be forgotten that the NFL is a business, first and foremost. And the Ravens prefer to build their roster through the drafter rather than handing out huge contracts for free agents.
Plugging Jackson into Roman’s system allowed Baltimore to allocate its funds toward retaining core players and depth pieces rather than surround Jackson with top-end receiving talent, leaving the Ravens with the least expensive offense over the last four years.
But money wasn’t the only factor in this equation. Baltimore’s reluctance to stray from its run-heavy, defense-first philosophy contributed to its offensive ineptitude.
Prior to the 2018 NFL Draft, many NFL experts questioned whether Jackson would have to switch positions in order to sustain a long NFL career. The root of these doubts stem from a longstanding bias against dual-threat quarterbacks that clouds the thought process of talent evaluators.
The prevailing thought among many NFL executives is that mobile quarterbacks are too reliant on their athleticism — which wanes over the course of their careers — and struggle to consistently read opposing defenses.
The Ravens didn’t buy into that notion, instead orchestrating a last-minute trade with the Philadelphia Eagles to select Jackson with the final pick of the first round that year.
A quarterback’s rookie contract offers the best chance for a team to maximize their championship window by building around their young (and inexpensive) signal caller before they must pay him a king’s ransom.
But the Ravens were determined to maintain their run-first approach throughout Jackson’s rookie contract. This style proved effective in the regular season as Jackson boasts a 45-16 record as a starter, but it never materialized in a deep playoff run.
The Ravens can certainly defeat their AFC North foes by keeping games nip and tuck with their defense and settling for field goals, but it’s borderline impossible to win a championship that way in today’s NFL.
No matter how much Baltimore clings to the model that “defense wins championships,” recent history proves we’re in an era where offense is king. The last six Super Bowl champions had an offense that ranked higher than their defense, and that gap has increased in each of the last three years.
Baltimore is in no way abandoning the marriage to its defensive tradition, but it’s finally embracing the offensive explosion that’s shaping the current NFL.
With the chance to play in a revamped offense alongside tight end Mark Andrews, wide receivers Rashod Bateman, Odell Beckham Jr., and Zay Flowers, Jackson could silence many of his critics in 2024 by making good on his promise to bring a Super Bowl to Baltimore.
It’s not as if the Ravens aren’t well-positioned defensively, too. With inside linebacker Roqaun Smith taking charge of the unit since joining the team midseason last year, Baltimore gave up the second-fewest points and third-fewest yards throughout the end of 2023.
The Ravens could build upon that impressive showing this season, but uncertainty remains prevalent about the progression of young outside linebackers Odafe Oweh and David Ojabo — along with the secondary’s dependence on the presence of cornerback Marlon Humphrey.
For one of the few times in franchise history, there are more questions about Baltimore’s defense than its offense.
Before Jackson’s MVP season, Harbaugh said Baltimore’s offense would be unlike anything we’ve seen before. He might not have vocalized it this offseason, but that could be the case in 2024 as well. It remains to be seen whether this new offense will be good enough to bring Baltimore back to the Super Bowl, but there’s no doubt it will be worth watching.
The Baltimore Ravens will begin their NFL season Sunday with their home opener against the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium.