John Harbaugh has never been in this spot before.
Standing in front of the media wearing a suit to look back on a completed season while the calendar remains in December, if only for a day, is something he hasn’t had to do. For his first five years coaching the Ravens, they have been in the playoffs.
This year, 8-8 didn’t do the trick and Harbaugh doesn’t like it.
“I guess I apologize for the fact that we’re even having this press conference, that we have to talk about wrapping up the season and the playoffs haven’t even started yet. That’s not territory that we’re very comfortable with or very familiar with or that we’re very happy about around here,” Harbaugh said.
“We understand that we didn’t get the job done, and we understand that we’ve got to go to work to improve in every single way that we possibly can. We’ll approach it with enthusiasm unknown to mankind, we will work like crazy to improve and become better. But it’s going to be sticking in our craw for quite a long time, I can tell you that. ...
“We’re going to need to run the ball better, we’re going to need to protect Joe (Flacco) better. Those things will make us better offensively. We’ve got to make more big plays down the field. We’ve got to be better defensively in some ways, too. We need to be better in the fourth quarter, we’ve got to be better protecting leads late in the game. Those are things that probably would have made a difference in games that probably would have gotten us into the playoffs. Coaches are working on this.”
The running game is the area that bothered Harbaugh, and the rest of the Ravens, the most. The team finished with just 1,328 yards on the ground to rank 30th in the league.
It was the lowest rushing total in Ravens history and came after running the ball had been a point of pride for the offense in Harbaugh’s first five seasons in Baltimore.
Here’s where the Ravens ranked in rushing under Harbaugh before 2013:
* 2012 - 11th
* 2011 - 10th
* 2010 - 14th
* 2009 - fifth
* 2008 - fourth
The team expected far better from the ground attack this season.
“That’s probably our biggest disappointment because really we’re built - we philosophically believe in being a rough, tough, physical offense that can run the football,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what we started. That hasn’t changed, and no matter where you go with the passing game, that’s got to be a staple of what we’re going to do and it wasn’t this year because of a lot of things. I know you said what are some of the things that stick out. Well, the things that stick out are the fact that it all kind of goes together that complements the running game.
“You’ve got to be able to throw the ball well to protect your running game. ... OK, that’s one thing. We didn’t always do that. You’ve got to be able to block people and move people and knock people around to be able to run the ball. You’ve got to be able to create some angles to create some situations where you have some mismatches. Then you’ve got to be able to make some plays out there when plays aren’t there and try to create some yards. So I think across the board, coaches and players, those are all things that we just weren’t able to put together. We tried like crazy, but we weren’t able to put it together this year.”
Harbaugh explained that it took a lot for the Ravens to struggle so badly to run the ball. But how much of the blame should fall to running game coordinator Juan Castillo, who was in his first full year with the club?
“Like I just said, it’s a lot of things and that’s part of them. I guarantee one thing if you talk to any of our coaches, and Juan Castillo is a very accountable guy - Juan Castillo will be the first guy to say, put it all on his shoulders,” Harbaugh said. “There’s probably a lot of people out there willing to do that. I say put it all on my shoulders. People will be more than happy to say, ‘Fine, you’ve got it. It’s all your fault.’ And that’s where we should all start. That’s where it should all start for all of us.
“I know that, from being in those meetings every single day and being a part of that thing every single day, I know that, every one of our players knows that and every one of our coaches knows that there were a lot of things that went into that. So I have complete confidence and belief in all of our coaches. I believe in our coaches. That goes for Juan Castillo, it goes for all of our guys. I think he’s a great coach, but I think all of our guys are great coaches. But we’ve got to coach better. We’ve got to find a way to use our personnel better. We’ve got to get better.”
Ray Rice finished the year with 660 rushing yards and 981 yards from scrimmage for his worst numbers since his rookie year.
Rice was bothered by a hip injury for the majority of the season after getting hurt in Week 2, and that contributed to what transpired.
So with a full offseason to recover and get in shape, Harbaugh expects the 26-year-old Rice to look more like his old self going forward.
“My expectation is for Ray Rice to be one of the very best running backs in the National Football League,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the standard for Ray and the great thing about Ray, and I just had this conversation with him this morning, is that’s his standard for himself. And the thing I love about it talking to him is he has a plan to make sure as his career extends here that he is that guy for a long period of time. So nobody works harder than Ray.
“The numbers weren’t there this year, like we’ve talked about. There’s different reasons for that. Ray Rice fought through some things. There’s probably some issues he had with his legs that other players wouldn’t have even played with, just would’ve said, ‘Hey, I’m out.’ That’s not who Ray is. Ray fought through that early on. Right away he wanted to come back, the first week after the Cleveland game and we had to hold him back. So I think he fought through it and did the best he could with where he was at. And I’m very confident that if he says he’s going to come back in the best shape of his life and be better than ever, I’m confident that he’ll do exactly that.”
After looking at Rice, eyes understandably turn to the Ravens offensive line. The unit replaced stabilizing veteran center Matt Birk to retirement after the Super Bowl and replaced him with second-year lineman Gino Gradkowski.
Bryant McKinnie started the year at left tackle, but couldn’t replicate the high level of performance that earned him a two-year contract after the Super Bowl. So the Ravens traded for Eugene Monroe and then dealt McKinnie to the Dolphins. The unit also had to play most of the year without versatile second-year lineman Kelechi Osemele, who was limited to seven games because of back surgery.
So what will the Ravens have to do to address the O-line going forward?
“Everything’s going to be on the table that way,” Harbaugh said. “Every one of our guys, all of us understand in this league that it’s a production business - coaches and players. So we all have to be accountable for producing and winning. That’s why there’s six, seven, eight, nine (coaching) changes every single year. And the same thing goes for players. Players are getting changed out every single week in the National Football League, let alone every single year.
“So what we will do is we will find a way to be the best possible offense, offensive line, defense, defensive line, special teams that we can possibly be, and personnel is a big part of that. The best guys deserve to play and the guys who are the best guys are the guys who play the best. I mean, we’ve got to find those guys. They know that. That’s what players appreciate because they respect, they like the opportunity that they’re looking for.”
Going forward, Harbaugh expects open competition for almost every spot on the line with Marshal Yanda and Osemele the safest.
“I think there will be a competitive situation pretty much at every spot on the offensive line except right guard,” Harbaugh said. “I’ll be looking forward to getting K.O. back whether he plays left guard or right tackle. We’ll have to make a determination on that. He can play either one of those spots. We assume that he’ll be in that lineup somewhere because he’s kind of that kind of player. But he’s got to come back and do it. He of course knows that. After that, help me out. (Michael Oher’s) contract is up. Eugene’s contract is up. And we’ll just have to see how some of that offseason stuff works out.”
The offensive line could be the Ravens’ primary offseason focus, but there will be plenty to address in terms of scheme, personnel, the coaching staff and more.
And although Harbaugh wishes the Ravens were still playing, he seemed enthusiastic for future planning.
“The other part of it is the excitement that you have for the next phase,” Harbaugh said. “In all honestly, I cannot wait - and I know our coaches feel the same way - to dig into building our systems going forward, what we anticipate our personnel being and what’s the best way to put together a defense, offense and special teams that will give the guys that we know are going to be back, the best chance to be really good. Let’s do a great job of that. Let’s make it a heck of a lot better than it was last year.
“Where we have to look, what we have to look at, what decisions we have to make as far as philosophical decisions about how we want to attack people - I can’t wait to get started on that. That’s No. 1. And No. 2 is the draft, free agency, the personnel part of it - working with Ozzie (Newsome) and his group. As coaches, we work with those guys to put the best group of players together that we possibly can. This is when you build a team, this is when you build the foundation of your team. The better job that we do right now, scheme-wise and personnel-wise, the better that we’ll do next year. It’s like a sense of urgency right now to get to work.”
Note: Harbaugh also addressed Rice being held out for much of the first half of Sunday’s loss to the Bengals. On Sunday, the coach told reporters it was for situational reasons.
On Tuesday, he seemed less sure.
“I really can’t explain that adequately right now, in all honesty,” Harbaugh said. “That was something that happened during the game that, when I looked over and saw it, I put him back in the game. So I don’t have an answer for you right now. He should have been out there.”