As a talk show host in Baltimore for more than a decade, I have spent countless hours answering phone calls that said something along the lines of “THEY NEED TO RUN THE DAMN BAWL!” in relation to the Ravens.

At times breathless, my responses to such complaints have ranged from, “Every game situation is different, Ron — on which play did you want them to run?” to “Well Bob, I’m not sure this particular defense is good enough to win the low-scoring game — they need to get more points,” to “Maybe it’s time for me to look into a different line of work.”

So when I started getting similar tweets, comments, emails and messages this season, I knew there was only one way to respond.

“You know what? You’re absolutely right.”

So yes, the Ravens are 4-1. And yes, they CRUISED to victory against the Bengals to get there. And yes, in their four wins this season the Ravens haven’t been remotely threatened while their one loss came to a team that until recently, we genuinely thought might go undefeated.

But there is something truly bizarre happening offensively this season that cannot be ignored. After being the greatest rush offense in NFL history in 2019, the Ravens have decided … they are best suited doing something totally different apparently. They’ve decided they want to … cook.

The Athletic’s Mike Sando compiles a “Cook Index” each week, looking at how often teams throw the ball on first or second down in the first 28 minutes of the game. The concept is sound. He’s attempting to determine how much teams run and throw in circumstances where game situations don’t “force” them to go one way or another. On third and long, a team would “have” to throw. In a three-score game in a second half, a team might have to throw in order to come back. In the final two minutes of a half, a team might have to throw because the clock is working against them in a two-minute drill.

But for the first 28 minutes, game situations shouldn’t force what you have to do on first and second down.

In 2019, the Ravens had the lowest “Cook Index” score in the NFL, throwing just 40 percent of the time in these situations. (For the record, a Lamar Jackson run might have come on a pass play call but it still counts as a run in these circumstances. Reason suggests the Ravens may have called even less than 40 percent pass plays but their MVP quarterback’s improvising led to that number being slightly higher.) With that Cook Index score (again, DEAD LAST in the NFL) the Ravens posted the most team rushing yards in the history of the league, a franchise best 14-2 record and Jackson’s unanimous MVP season.

Coming into Week 5, however, the Ravens had moved up from 32nd to 19th in the league with a 49 percent Cook Index score. And that number will be going up. Despite the fact that they never trailed, the Ravens threw on 12 of 23 (52.1 percent) of their first- and second-down plays in the first 28 minutes of the win against the Bengals.

It gets even more puzzling from there. Despite opening up a 17-0 advantage and weather starting to become a factor, the Ravens threw the ball on four of their first six such plays in the SECOND half of the game as well.

So the question is … why? Why in the world are the Ravens choosing to run the ball roughly 10 percent less than they did a season ago? It’s more confusing than the changes the NFL had to make to the schedule because the Patriots couldn’t play this week. The Ravens don’t necessarily “owe” an explanation (they’re 4-1 after all), which is good, because John Harbaugh was uninterested in providing one after the Bengals game.

“I don’t have anything to attribute that to right now,” Harbaugh said. “It’s just the way we played. It’s just the way the game played out. It’s just the way it was called. We’ll talk about it later in the week, maybe.”

I’d prefer to talk about it now because I’m in the middle of writing a column. Let’s run through some theories. The first theory would be that the Ravens CAN’T run the ball as much because their offensive line won’t allow for it. Not only did they lose an all-world guard (Marshal Yanda), but center Matt Skura was coming off a significant injury to start the season, left tackle Ronnie Stanley missed time due to injury and even Yanda’s replacement (rookie Tyre Phillips) missed the Bengals game.

This theory doesn’t hold up, however. When Ravens running backs have run the ball this year, they’ve been about as good as they were a year ago. In 2019, the Ravens’ top three running backs (Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill) ran the ball 367 times for 1,954 yards — an average of 5.3 yards per attempt. This year’s top three backs (Ingram, Edwards and rookie J.K. Dobbins) have rushed 95 times for 523 yards, averaging an even better 5.5 yards per rush!

So … that ain’t it. What else could it possibly be?

Those numbers, of course, didn’t take into consideration Jackson’s own rushing. We’ve heard him mention more than a few times that he didn’t necessarily want to be a running quarterback and that he thinks of himself as a passer. With just two rushes against the Bengals (perhaps in part due to his knee injury), Jackson is averaging just eight carries per game, down from his nearly 12 per game in 2019. He’s averaging a little more than a yard less per carry on those rushing attempts to boot.

Committing to running the ball clearly involved a commitment to Jackson running the ball for the 2019 Ravens. Have they purposely gone away from it a bit out of deference to Jackson’s spoken desire not to be a runner or out of fear of injury? No matter how many talking heads suggested Jackson would need to stop running so much, data dives continued to tell us that rushing quarterbacks were at no greater risk of getting hurt than pocket passers (and already this season Jackson’s hardest hits have come in the pocket).

Or could we put our tin foil hats on and go full conspiracy theory? It’s a popular thought process in our country, after all.

My “Project Gameday” co-host Syreeta Hubbard wondered out loud whether the possibility of a looming contract for Jackson (he’s eligible for an extension starting after this, his third NFL season) has played a role in the team’s decision making. The theory is something along the lines of the team saying, “You want a Patrick Mahomes contract? Go prove you can be a Patrick Mahomes-type quarterback.” It’s tough to fathom a team so successful choosing to prioritize future negotiations over doing what’s best to win.

But could you consider a mesh of the factors? Is it plausible that the Ravens believe throwing the ball more is merely part of Jackson’s evolution as a quarterback and they’ve decided no matter what that they needed to put it in the air more frequently this season? One particular take that popped up a few times after the loss to the Titans is the need to see the Ravens improve while playing from behind, situations where they’re forced to throw the ball a bit more than they might typically like. Is it possible the Ravens are trying to artificially create “throw more” situations in lieu of actually falling behind more?

Perhaps there’s an argument for this theory not just being valid, but being smart. The Ravens could use the early portion of the season to try to better their passing game while their defense and slightly limited run games would be enough to help them overcome any growing pains in the process.

But we need to be honest about what this team is capable of being. They didn’t build a roster in the offseason to be a particularly strong throwing team. They have two true downfield threats on the roster (receiver Hollywood Brown and tight end Mark Andrews) and lost more in tight end Hayden Hurst and receiver Seth Roberts than they’ve made up for (at least so far) in rookie receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche, their only offseason additions.

As a passing team, the Ravens can be … good. Jackson is talented. The defense is quite good. They’re probably one of the best teams in the AFC even if they continue to “cook” this much.

As a dominant, will-forcing rush offense, they’re … a legitimate threat to win the Super Bowl and as good as any team in the NFL.

After the Bengals win, Jackson said that “we need to get back to how we were last year.” He was referencing the success of the offense as a whole. But there’s no better way to get back there then to return the methodology that allowed for it.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Glenn Clark

See all posts by Glenn Clark. Follow Glenn Clark on Twitter at @glennclarkradio