With just five games remaining in the NFL season, there may not be a team with more on the line than the Baltimore Ravens.
There is a standard of excellence in Owing Mills, Md., bred through two Super Bowl titles, 11 winning seasons and 10 postseason berths in the past 16 years. You can feel it walking on the campus of the Under Armour Performance Center, and the people within the organization, many of whom have been there since the move from Cleveland, live with that knowledge every day.
In 2008, after Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick was dismissed following a 5-11 record in ’07, the front office personnel and their wives had their normal preseason dinner before scattering to scout players across colleges and the NFL. General manager Ozzie Newsome wasn’t in the mood for laughs or reminiscing, so he got up to speak while everyone was biting into their steaks.
"Guys," Newsome said. "My friend Brian Billick has taken the blame for last season. One of the great coaches, someone I really respect. He’s taken a lot of blame for this team. But I have to tell you guys, the blame is on me. The blame is on me, and some of the blame is on you. We’ve gotten slow and we’ve gotten small. I can’t believe this has happened to us. We’re a small and slow football team. We went 5-11. 5-11. You’re 5-11."
If the 2016 Ravens don’t finish the season strong, John Harbaugh could suffer the same fate as Billick, who went 80-64 in the regular season and 5-3 in the playoffs with the Ravens, but finished 33-31 in his final four seasons. It’s also not out of the realm of possibility that a new start could extend to the front office and Newsome, with Eric DeCosta the GM-in-waiting around as a viable alternative.
Harbaugh had his own 5-11 season last year. After winning the Super Bowl in the 2012 season, he’s now 29-30 over the past three-plus years, although he does have a playoff victory against the Le’Veon Bell-less Steelers after the ’14 season.
The 6-5 Ravens are tied with the Steelers for first place in the AFC North but Baltimore, who’s 4-0 in the division, holds the lead because it has won the only head-to-head meeting so far this season. It appears that only one team from the AFC North is going to make the playoffs, so that puts the onus on the final five games.
Down the stretch, the Ravens play four straight games against teams that are at least in the postseason race: the Dolphins (7-4), at the Patriots (9-2), Eagles (5-6) and at the Steelers before finishing the season at Cincinnati. According to FootballOutsiders.com, Baltimore has the toughest remaining schedule in the league, while Steelers have the 23rd-most difficult.
To succeed down the stretch, the Ravens are going to need their offense to come through. But like with Billick, that side of the ball has been vexing to Harbaugh. Billick went through four offensive coordinators in his final four seasons. After losing to Washington earlier this season, Harbaugh made Marty Mornhinweg his fifth coordinator in five years when Marc Trestman was fired.
Baltimore was 3-2 and averaged 18.6 points per game when Trestman was dismissed. Since the change was made, the Ravens are 3-3 and have averaged 20.7 points per game (a season-high 28 points were scored against the winless Browns). But according to FootballOutsiders.com’s efficiency rating, the offense is still mired at 30th — Baltimore has been buoyed by its league-leading defense while winning three of its past four games.
If the offense, with Harbaugh’s close friend in command, doesn’t play well down the stretch and the Ravens fail to grab a postseason berth for the third time in the past four seasons, Harbaugh’s future with the team likely would be a hot topic.
Some close to the organization think that Harbaugh is safe no matter what happens, because 5-11 was a season-from-hell aberration due to injuries, and the Ravens figure to be on the upswing next season. The defense, though aging in some spots, should be intact, and QB Joe Flacco and a young surrounding cast on offense should improve because Flacco will be better with more time since his ACL surgery. Harbaugh also is viewed as one of the league’s better coaches, and he certainly has enjoyed a lot of success compared to his peers. But if the Ravens stumble down the stretch, and especially if they finish at 8-8 or worse, Harbaugh’s future could be in doubt. The Ravens have a standard of excellence, and the past four seasons would not match it.
Read the rest of Greg Bedard’s Blanket Coverage at SI.com.