OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As John Harbaugh met with the media at his season-ending news conference Jan. 17, he tried mightily to put the sting of last week’s playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans in the past and pointed optimistically toward a future featuring a franchise quarterback in Lamar Jackson, a slew of returning Pro Bowl players and strong positions with the draft and salary cap.
Still, the questions predictably lingered after the top-seeded Ravens, who had assembled a franchise-best 14-2 regular season and secured the AFC’s No. 1 overall seed for the first time ever, were soundly beaten by the Titans, 28-12, in a divisional round playoff game. It marked the second straight season the Ravens lost their postseason opener at home.
“It’s been a tough week,” Harbaugh said. “It’s been a rough, emotional week for all of us.”
“We weren’t at our best in the playoff game, and that was disappointing,” Harbaugh added. “That hurts a little bit to say the least. But I will say that the Titans deserve a little credit for that.”
“Our guys played hard, they played tough,” he said. “But [the Titans] got points. They made the most of their yards. They made some spectacular plays and we had a few plays that we’d like to have back. In the end, that’s what it boiled down to: The critical downs, they made the plays and we didn’t. We made the mistakes, they didn’t. Those two things combined for the outcome that we had.”
Harbaugh pushed back against any criticism of offensive coordinator Greg Roman and the Ravens’ offensive play-calling, which seemed to skew heavily toward the passing game despite an offense that became the most prolific running team in NFL history this year.
“I’m responsible for everything,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the goal. That’s always the head coach. That’s where it belongs. I’ll take responsibility for our team 100 percent and what we chose to do. Everything that we do is with one thing in mind: to win the game. To move the ball and to score points.
“So much goes into that game plan and so much goes into the play-calling and execution. We do our best.”
Jackson threw 22 passes in the first half, while the Ravens ran the ball 16 times — nine by Jackson and seven by the running backs. The numbers grew more dramatic after the Titans built a 28-6 lead, and Jackson finished with a career-high 59 passing attempts.
Although he acknowledged that running back Gus Edwards probably merited more than just the three carries he had in that game — he had just one after the opening drive — especially with starter Mark Ingram clearly hobbled by a calf injury, Harbaugh maintained that the offense was “balanced up until the end of the third quarter.”
For the second straight year, Harbaugh was left to face questions about whether their playoff opponent, which seemed to take the Ravens out of their game offensively, had provided the blueprint to stop this system led by Jackson. And for the second straight year, Harbaugh debunked that notion.
“It wasn’t like they reinvented football,” Harbaugh said. “Give them credit. They executed it very well. And that’s it. … It’s football. It’s Xs and Os. If we’re really good at what we do, then we’re going to score points and win games. And if we’re not good and what we do, we won’t. The same goes for our opponents.”
“If you think anybody’s got the answer in football,” he added, “just wait until the next week and you’ll find out. How many times has that been proven? I think we proved a lot of it this year.”
Future Is Bright
Harbaugh, though, was eager to look toward the future, and why not? His team will return virtually all key players of its record-setting offense, led by Jackson, a franchise quarterback on his first contract who is expected to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player.
The Ravens also will return most of their record 12 Pro Bowl selections, and although free agency is likely to claim a couple of key players – linebacker Matthew Judon, cornerback Jimmy Smith and defensive lineman Michael Pierce are the most notable of their 17 free-agents-to-be – the roster is well-stocked, and the Ravens are in a good position to add to it.
“We have a few more resources in front of us right now” than in previous years,” Harbaugh said. “We have good draft resources. We have great cap resources that we haven’t had in the past. So we’ve got a chance to build our roster in a way we haven’t been able to [in] maybe the last large number of years.”
The front seven on defense is probably the area of greatest concern. The Ravens need an additional edge rusher even if Judon stays, and Pierce is one of several defensive linemen who could be gone. The Ravens also need to bolster the inside linebacker position with Patrick Onwuasor and Josh Bynes both set to be free agents.
Harbaugh didn’t offer any specifics about roster needs, though he said, “It’s pretty straightforward were we want to go roster-wise. Anybody in this room can name those spots. I think most of our fans could name those spots. As a matter of fact, I read some things and they do name them. And that’s good. We see it the same way.”
Harbaugh noted that the Ravens have already re-signed several players to contract extensions throughout the past several months, and he said Judon, who led the Ravens with 9.5 sacks this year, is the top priority now. He recognized the difficulties inherent in signing free-agents-to-be, but Judon would be a strong candidate for the franchise tag.
Regardless, any talk of the Ravens’ future begins with Jackson, the transcendent talent who became the first player in NFL history with 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in the same season. Jackson led the league with 36 touchdown passes and broke Michael Vick’s single-season NFL record for rushing yardage by a quarterback with 1,206.
Jackson, though, is 0-2 in the playoffs, and that record will be an underlying part of his narrative until he wins a playoff game.
Still, Harbaugh said Jackson isn’t doubting himself and isn’t lacking for confidence despite the two quick playoff exits.
“He doesn’t lack for any confidence, I can tell you that,” Harbaugh said. “I think he understands what it is to take responsibility. And he also has a great sense of urgency to be successful and what it takes to be successful.”
“Everybody’s different,” Harbaugh added, “but I’m really confident in Lamar and him understanding the things he needs to do to get better. And he’s going to work really hard to keep building himself up as a player.”
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