The Ravens Arrive At a Critical Crossroad

The Ravens are a team on the verge of becoming one of the truly dominant teams in the NFL. For the first time in team history, the offense is evolving into a powerful compliment to the already formidable defense. And yet, in many ways, the Ravens are a paradoxical enigma.

They are a team whose offense has begun to emerge only after letting their offensive coordinator go. They are, in some ways, both a veteran squad, and also one of the youngest teams in the league, with 7 starting rookies. They are a team that can clinch their division title by winning their next two games, yet it remains to be seen if they can win as the favorite, rather than the underdog. In essence, the Ravens are a team with as many questions as answers.
The game against the Falcons provides some good examples. Jamal Lewis had probably his best, most productive game of the season. But it raised as many questions as it answered. Can he continue to run that way for the remainder of the season? Was his production a result of some sort of mental change, physical change, blocking from the offensive line, or some combination thereof? How much should one game be allowed to offset the previous 8? Are there plans to keep Jamal at the end of the season, and/or how do Mike Anderson, Musa Smith, and P. J. Daniels fit into the plan?
Similarly, Ray Lewis, a veteran middle linebacker, missed his second start due to a bruised back. And yet the "makeshift" defense held Warrick Dunn to 52 yards rushing and Michael Vick to 54 yards rushing, respectively. Does this signal a "changing of the guard" for the Ravens? And considering the contributions Ray Lewis has provided this team – physically and emotionally – is it ever as clear as it needs to be when the changing of the guard actually arrives?
And when one looks at the quarterback situation, it's both stable, enviable, and yet loaded with questions as well. Steve McNair seems to have adjusted well to his "new" team, and also to the newest part – Brian Billick, the head coach, calling the plays. And Kyle Boller has been supportive in the backup role, which is as it should be. Yet, it raises questions with regard to next year, since Steve McNair signed for a hefty one year only contract. So while it doesn't create any problems directly pertaining to this year, it looms there, just beyond the horizon.
And since Brian Billick's future here has already been addressed out in the open, it's no secret that he was given an ultimatum to either perform better than past years or else seek employment elsewhere. And yet here again, the ironies abound. For example, yes, the offense has clearly improved since the firing of Jim Fassell. But the underlying question remains: "What took so long to figure that out?" And whose primary responsibility was it in the first place? And if a decision is made to extend Brian's contract, for how long should it be extended?
Granted, these are questions that are generally considered to be inappropriate to discuss in the middle of a season, but whether they're discussed openly or not, they remain on people's minds regardless, and, as such, end up being factors that further impact the crossroads at which the Ravens currently find themselves.
Even when one looks at the blossoming group of wide receivers, the picture is anything but clear. We seem to be blessed with so many young guns that it raises the question of how important a veteran such as Derrick Mason is to the team's future. Arguably, every team should have such dilemmas, where there is so much talent it's hard to sort it all out. But even though it's a problem of more, rather than less talent, it is still a problem that needs to be addressed, especially when factoring in that all-important intangible: team chemistry.
It's one thing to have a team laden with veteran and youthful talent on offense, defense, and special teams; it's quite another to blend all that together to form a championship team. And it's even harder in this day and age to form a championship dynasty. It's been quite a while since a team has been able to stake such a claim. The team that has come the closest in recent years would have to be the New England Patriots. And there are certain parallels that can be drawn between the Ravens and the Patriots.
And the next couple of weeks should give some indication as to whether or not the Ravens have what it takes to ascend to that lofty perch. But from what they have achieved so far this season, there's every reason to believe that they can claim for themselves the just rewards of what they have truly earned, and anchor an identity as one of football's greatest franchises.

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