Typically when I write a column, my purpose is to either present an opinion and attempt to defend it or to actually show my work, to present a problem and consider a number of options before reaching a conclusion.
I’m not so certain that I’m going to be able to get there with this one.
I’ve wrestled with this particular topic for a couple of days and I’m not sure I’m capable of defining it. So I’m going to present this all to you in hopes that somehow, together, we can come up with an answer to this question:
“Why wouldn’t the guy just feed his daughter and THEN go back and teach her how to open the can of beans?”
OK. Not that question. This one: “What would determine if the 2020 season was a success for the Baltimore Ravens?”
It’s a doozy, right? The Baltimore Ravens are on to the playoffs for a third consecutive season after missing them in all of the three previous seasons. That’s good! And we’re all aware of how bizarre this season has been. There was no offseason, nor was there a preseason. Players had to try to avoid each other in the season. There were no fans in stands. The Ravens experienced a COVID-19 outbreak that upended everything. They lost an All-Pro left tackle and one of the best blocking tight ends in recent NFL history for the season and found themselves having to win out for five games down the stretch just to get in, including one of the most miraculous moments in franchise history against the Cleveland Browns.
Despite having all of that working against them, they made it. That’s remarkable. So should we declare this season a success right now and simply end this exercise after just 294 words?
I didn’t think so. As we move forward, we should begin by doing what I believe the kids call “checking your privilege.” That we’re having this conversation at all is a reflection of how good things have been here. Your favorite football team just made the playoffs for the ninth time in the last 13 years, and we’re not quite at a point where we can comfortably deem the season a “success.” The worst teams in the NFL — like the Jaguars, Jets and playoff-bound* Washington Football Team — would literally relive the year 2020 for the opportunity to be in this position.
(*I guess that’s not necessary, but it really feels like it should be.)
Of course, the single biggest reason why we can’t immediately accept this season as a “success” and move on is because of the 10-ton gorilla that sits specifically on Lamar Jackson’s back. If the Ravens lose their first playoff game for a third consecutive season (and even more so if Jackson again struggles in the process), the impact of the failures could begin to feel crippling.
There is a limit to the idea that the team’s 0-2 postseason record with Jackson under center represents a “small sample size.” For now, to be certain, it does. But it won’t forever. At some point, it becomes part of a quarterback’s DNA. That is, of course, merely an intangible issue but cannot be dismissed in the context of what has to happen to judge this season as successful — a concept that is, of course, equally intangible.
Let’s keep spitballing. If the Ravens go to Nashville, defeat the Titans, avenge their playoff loss a season ago and erase Lamar Jackson’s playoff “ofer,” can we now deem the season a success? My first inclination is to say, yes, that matters significantly and would be a true accomplishment after a trying campaign.
BUT … would we feel the same way if the Ravens turned around and got their asses handed to them a week later against the Chiefs in Kansas City? Would we comfortably call the season a “success” if it ended after one playoff victory and a now 0-4 record in the Jackson era against KC — the last three of which were all non-competitive? Would that feel like a “success?”
And sure, we can keep moving forward. Let’s even say that the Ravens somehow get past the Chiefs and now, amazingly, a disappointing Steelers team awaits them in the AFC championship game because they beat the Browns and somehow survived the Bills in fluky circumstances. If the Ravens FINALLY conquer the Chiefs only to turn around and lay an egg against a Steelers team that every Ravens fan believes the team should have defeated twice this season — particularly if Jackson plays poorly against Pittsburgh for the third time in as many tries in his career — will we possibly feel like the season is a success?
Coming into the year, this was a franchise with Super Bowl aspirations. While the team’s core is relatively young, the common belief has been that their most likely window for Super Bowl glory is while Jackson is on his rookie contract. We don’t know much about that situation, but we know that Jackson — much like Patrick Mahomes a year ago — could pursue a long-term deal as early as this offseason. If he plays well in playoff wins against the Titans and Chiefs, even if they were to lose in the AFC championship game, wouldn’t we expect the former unanimous MVP to command a massive contract?
So … are we back to the idea of “Super Bowl or bust” in terms of defining success for this team?
I told you that I would present this topic and might not be able to work it through to a conclusion. I’m only comfortable in saying that the season cannot be a success if the Ravens don’t beat the Titans this week. There’s just no way. After that, it will probably be based on the circumstances by which the season ended. Losing a thriller to the Bills in the divisional round might not feel as empty as other potential outcomes.
Of course, if they just go win the Super Bowl we won’t have much to debate at all. So maybe they just go do that.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox