OWINGS MILLS, MD. — It’s not as though these birds were living on feeder droppings during the regular season. The Ravens scored 44 points in the opener against the Bengals, 31 on both the Patriots and Cowboys, and hung 55 on the Raiders. But now that it’s January and Baltimore has piled up 62 in two playoff games comes the question: All this because of one coaching change?
Cam Cameron, who’d been the offensive coordinator for five seasons, is fired after last month’s overtime loss to the Redskins. Jim Caldwell, the quarterbacks coach, takes over and the Ravens become playoff raptors, setting franchise postseason records for total offense against both the Colts and Broncos. Did somebody rewrite the playbook?
“Schematically we are very similar,” said head coach John Harbaugh, whose soaring flock takes on the Patriots in an AFC Championship rematch on Sunday in Foxborough. “We haven’t changed a lot. It’s still the same system that we had in place. We call things the same way. Everybody puts their imprint on it and Jim’s done a great job with that.
“Jim was here all year so he was a part of the process. We built the offense throughout the course of the offseason, training camp. All the coaches who are involved with that have been a part of that from the beginning.”
What is different, the coaches and players say, is that the execution has improved, which is what the Ravens customarily expect as the season progresses.
“Coaches call the plays and all that stuff but we as players decided that we have to execute at a high level,” said running back Ray Rice, whose 131 yards on 30 carries at Denver was his best day of the season. “It’s our responsibility. One thing that Coach Caldwell has done for us is that he lets us go out there and we have a game plan and regardless of the situation we have been sticking with it.”
The execution has been showing up in the stat sheet. In the 24-9 triumph over Indianapolis in the wild-card game, the Ravens set a club playoff mark with 439 yards, with eight plays going for 20 or more. Against Denver, they rolled up 479 en route to a franchise postseason-record 38 points. But the offense, which scored a franchise-record 398 points during the regular season, hasn’t suddenly acquired a turbocharger.
“I’m not certain that we have changed that much,” said Caldwell. “Obviously when we started about a month ago we had certainly been well into the season and even to think about going in and making any major adjustments would be difficult. But we maybe have done a wrinkle here and there.”
What provoked the coaching change was the team’s December tumble, which began with a home loss to the Steelers. The offense had sputtered in victories at Pittsburgh and San Diego, managing only one touchdown. The loss at Washington appeared to confirm two concerns — the offense was inconsistent and quarterback Joe Flacco wasn’t progressing as hoped. So Harbaugh dismissed Cameron in what he called “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a coach” and elevated Caldwell, who’d been the Colts head coach before he came to Baltimore.
Though Baltimore was thumped, 34-17, at home by the Broncos in the next game, much of that had to do with a defense that still was without Ray Lewis, which had Terrell Suggs dealing with a biceps tear, and had lost Bernard Pollard with a rib injury. The subsequent 33-14 triumph over the Giants, which clinched the AFC North title, was a better yardstick.
“You try to get better at what you do,” observed Harbaugh. “And when we were struggling in terms of win-loss we were getting better, we were improving. Anybody that studies football closely knows that. That’s what you do as a football team — you either get better or you get worse.”
At its best, the Baltimore offense traditionally has been a handful because of its balance. “The running backs are going to get their carries,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “They’re going to throw the ball to complement the running game and then, of course, they can throw it as part of their third-down, two-minute spread-offense package. I think they really make you defend the entire field. They make you defend it from sideline to sideline, from the line of scrimmage to the end line, the inside running game, the outside running game, deep passing game, short passing game. They get the ball to the receivers, tight ends, the backs. You’ve got to defend everything.”
But Caldwell’s fingerprints on the offense are visible. “There are a few subtle things, a few things that have a little bit of an Indianapolis look to them, more so than earlier,” Belichick has noticed. “I’d say it’s basically the same offense. There are a lot of things that look the same. Again, I don’t think you can change your offensive system in a week or two. That would be a lot to ask and I don’t think they need to. But they modified it.”
The most noteworthy aspect of the change of coordinators may well be Caldwell’s relationship with Flacco, whom his teammates have taken to calling “The General.”
“What I see is, I see two guys who really work well together,” said Harbaugh. “They’ve got temperaments that are very similar. Jim is a great football coach. He is a no-nonsense coach. He gets right to it. Joe appreciates that. Joe is kind of thinking ‘Tell it to me straight and let’s move.’ Those guys both think alike, so I think that works well.”
Flacco wasn’t exactly shackled before the change — he threw for 382 yards and three touchdowns against the Patriots in their September meeting and was well on the way to a career yardage year (3,817) when Caldwell took over. But their comfortable familiarity has put him at ease.
“Our relationship has been great all year,” Flacco said. “It was awesome to have him in the room as a quarterbacks coach and have the talks and being around each other a lot so you can have some honest conversations and grow your relationship.”
Though he’s been playing behind an offensive line that was rearranged for the postseason around ironman center Matt Birk, Flacco has been on fire in the playoffs, throwing for 282 yards and two touchdowns against the Colts and 331 and three against the Broncos, including the 70-yarder to Jacoby Jones that saved the season. “I think Joe is able to make any throw on the field,” reckoned receiver Anquan Boldin. “Talk about making big-time throws. The deep ball, he does it all.”
With Rice averaging just under 100 yards in the last two games, that makes for a balance that could tip the scales in Baltimore’s direction after last year’s deflating disappointment. “Who knows what it’s going to take to win on Sunday?” The General mused. “But our mind-set is, it’s going to take our best — and we’re ready to go give it.”