Several Ravens lingered on benches at M&T Bank Stadium, oblivious to the cold rain, holding on to the final moments of the season in which they wrestled and fought to a dismal end.
The placard above them told the story: Steelers 16, Ravens 13 – their sixth consecutive loss, five by close. Again, they didn’t come up with an accurate end zone pass or well-timed defensive stance that could make a difference.
“It’s painful for me to realize you have everything at your fingertips,” said midfielder Patrick Queen, one of the starting players left behind at the end of an 18-week exhaustion march.
After the Crows beat the Cleveland Browns on November 28, their record was 8-3, they took first place in the AFC and had roughly a 90% chance of making the playoffs, according to analyst website FiveThirtyEight.
Their performance was in line with the rosy preseason forecasts that made them Super Bowl contenders.
They fell apart over the next six weeks, surviving John Harbaugh’s longest losing streak in 14 years as head coach and for the first time not making the playoffs since Lamar Jackson became their starting quarterback in 2018. Their 8-9 record marked their first losing season from 5-11 in 2015 and only their second under Harbaugh, whose tenure as head coach is the fourth longest in the NFL.
Several factors – star player injuries, a severe coronavirus outbreak, stagnant offense, risky coaching decisions that did not materialize – contributed to their collapse. They vowed to keep fighting when one painfully close loss was superimposed on another, but they could not get out of this tailspin.
Looking at the wreckage of a once promising season, players and coaches seemed confused and upset about what they had to endure.
Defense Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale compared the trauma-induced carnage to the death toll on Netflix’s The Squid Game.
“We could probably write a book about it,” said offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who suggested that a string of team failures could have sprung into the mind of Curb Your Enthusiasm creator Larry David.
“It’s so rare – just when you put yourself in a position, and then literally go through so many difficulties and different things that [makes it] it’s just hard to win the match, ”said 14-year-old defensive line veteran Calais Campbell. “You are doing the best you can. We prepared in exactly the same way in those first games when we took position and we were seed # 1 and [had] the best result in football ”.
Fans who attended the season finale on a gray damp day gave a balanced assessment of the franchise’s health. They were disappointed and hoped to see a younger lineup and more creative play next fall. But many said the Ravens had squeezed as much as possible out of the injured year.
“We didn’t do what was expected of us,” said Darrin Cox, a 26-year-old Rising Sun season ticket holder in Cecil County. “We all expected to make the playoffs, even get a chance at the Super Bowl.”
Although he said he saw “a lot of bad games” from the team, he added, “I don’t want to blame one thing; the injuries caused us the most. ”
Rosedale’s Pat Philip, who has had season tickets since 2003, said he was hearing a lot of negativity about the team, but now is not the time given everything the Crows have been through.
“These are injuries; the coaches have done a hell of a job with what we have on the pitch, ”he said. “I think if we had all our players, it would be pretty difficult to stop us.”
“We’ve lost four games by five points,” Pikesville’s Allen Schiff said as he scooped hamburgers and hot dogs from his grill outside M&T Bank Stadium before losing to the Steelers. “How is the team recovering from the retired Marcus Peters, the retired Marlon Humphrey, the retired JK Dobbins, the retired Lamar Jackson? It goes on and on. ”
Schiff, a season ticket holder since 1996, said “significant changes will be required.” But he trusts the top decision makers – Harbaugh, CEO Eric DeCosta and owner Steve Bisciotti.
The Ravens’ descent was unusual.
They had a 91% chance of making the playoffs after beating the Browns, said Aaron Schatz, founder of the Football Outsiders think tank.
“It is not common for a team with 91% to miss the playoffs; it is also not customary for the 8-3 team to go on [six-game] a losing streak, ”Schatz said. “What you saw with the Ravens was that they hit the back of each range of possibilities. They just got to the point where they ran out of boys. ”
Under the team’s impressive start, there were signs of danger.
They lost some of their most important players before the losing streak began, including Peters full-back, Dobbins and Gus Edwards running backs, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and defender DeShawn Elliott.
And the Crows didn’t win most of their games in a team fashion. They needed a 66-yard field goal from Justin Tucker to beat the lowly Detroit Lions, and nervous comebacks led by Jackson to knock down the Vikings and the Indianapolis Colts. Jackson’s backup, Tyler Huntley, stepped in to get them out of the fire, playing late at night against the mediocre Chicago Bears.
Amid all these intense games, the Crows lost steam on the offense. They scored just 10 points against the Dolphins and 16 points each against the Bears and the Browns.
Their problems accelerated from there.
They lost by one point in Pittsburgh on December 5 after Harbo decided to go for a 2-point conversion in the final seconds and Jackson’s pass trickled out of the outstretched hands of tight end Mark Andrews. Corner-back Marlon Humphrey tore his pectoralis muscle in a loss, ending the season.
They then lost by two points at Cleveland and watched Jackson stumble off the field with an ankle injury that ended up leaving him off the field for the rest of the season.
They fought bravely with Huntley as quarterback against NFC leaders Green Bay Packers, but lost one point after Harbo called again for a two-point attempt that failed at the last minute.
Then COVID-19 stripped them of their remaining depth of composition. They played in Cincinnati on December 26 with third-back Josh Johnson and a hastily assembled defense. Bengals spanked them 41-21.
The Ravens once again tried to recoup, taking the lead in the last minute against their beloved Los Angeles Rams. But they failed to make a defensive stop on the fourth down and lost one point for the third time in five games.
Each of these missed opportunities lingered in their stomachs as they contemplated the end of the trip.
“It happened because we didn’t finish; maybe we ended the game wrong, didn’t tackle at the right time, and the other team played another game, ”said midfielder Josh Bynes, an 11-year veteran. “It definitely worries you because the level of expectations is huge here.”
Looking forward to the 2022 season, Harbaugh, DeCosta and Bisciotti will have to decide if this crash was a deviation from the norm or a sign that they need to make significant changes to their roster and coaching staff. While players like Stanley, Humphrey and Andrews are locked in as building blocks, the Ravens will need to brush up on their defenses and find a more sustainable combination in their offensive line. How aggressively will they push for a contract renewal with Jackson, whose game has been uneven since his 2019 Most Valuable Player season? Will Harbo be looking for new helpers to kickstart the offensive that died out in the second half of this season?
The head coach never ceased to be proud of his team’s resilience. After losing to the Steelers, he talked to the players about how to learn from this difficult time. “There will come a point in your life when your children are going through tough times … and they will ask you why, what is happening and how to deal with it,” he said. “You can tell them this story.
Jackson, the most important player in the organization, echoed Harbo’s thoughts, even as he described the agony of missing the last four games.
“We still managed to hope for a fight at the end of the season,” he said. “We didn’t blink an eye, we didn’t shy away from anyone, no matter what the record was. We lost close games. This says a lot about our guys, that we are moving forward here. Hopefully this offseason we will get better and our guys will come back and we will have the season we were supposed to have. ”