As almost anyone who knows me knows, I'm a huge Baltimore Ravens fan. I remember well the Baltimore Colts being spirited away in the dead of the night in March of 1984 and how it seemed like another major league professional football franchise would never come to Baltimore. Then the Cleveland Browns took the deal that the Maryland Stadium Authority had on the table in November of 1995 and a few short months later, the Baltimore Ravens were born. Not feeling too sorry for Cleveland, as that city was granted another franchise, and its team nickname, colors, history and records were returned to that city. Courtesies that were not granted Baltimore 11 years prior.
And I am no fair weather fan. I have been to at least one home game each season the Ravens have played since 1996, have had season tickets since 2003 and have dealt with some nasty, poor seasons of football. On and off the field. I have been thrilled by two Super Bowl Championships (only the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos have more since the Ravens came to be) and numerous playoff runs. I have been frustrated through some 4-12 and 5-11 seasons. I have been a steadfast fan and supporter of the team through many an off field controversy; be it players going through legal trouble to the organization not fully recognizing the loyalty of its fans to a number of fans being upset over the national anthem protests across the NFL during the 2017 season.
And it is this 2017 season that brings me nearest ever to my breaking point with my favorite football team. The below is a first world problem to be sure, but it bears comment and relevant to me as I believe a professional sports franchise is a reflection of its city and community. And as I reflect upon the 2017 Ravens, I don't find that it is very "Baltimore".
Baltimore is a tough city. It is currently down. It is resilient. It is a city that has been counted out before and has always, always come roaring back. Since the beginning of the 20th century, through a great fire and wars and depression and more wars and urban growth and riots and white flight and downtown blight and urban renewal and recessions and tech growth and more wars and another huge recession and more unrest. Even though the light at the end of the tunnel sometimes is dim, it is there. Baltimore does its best. It works hard. It endures.
And, there are tens of thousands of people who pay their well-earned money to attend professional football in Baltimore. And it's a harder and harder sell. There are a lot of reasons why not to attend professional sports events. The time commitment. The idolizing of millionaire players and billionaire owners. Stupid fan behavior. CTE. Other enjoyable activities. Television. The Internet. Overall, professional sports has to convince its fans that coming to a game is more of an event and experience than watching it at home or following it on a device. And for many reasons, that's becoming harder.
Now, the Ravens do do a lot of work to connect with its community. And one of those ways is a video it shows at every home game, which describes what fans should expect from attending a game, and what the team expects fans to do in return in order to make attending the game enjoyable for others. One of those former things-- the team's responsibilities-- is to "give our best effort on and off the field".
Really? Because to look at the on field product this year, this was a team that picked the pocket of tens of thousands of people this year. Including me. This is a team that has forgotten its roots and what-- who-- it's playing for.
Baltimore is about passion. We had that here on the Ravens in the great defensive players Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Although outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is a character and possible Hall of Fame caliber player, he has just finished his 15th season and remains the vocal face of the Ravens. The second Raven with the most personality? Probably the kicker, Justin Tucker. Not exactly the type of guy who's going to run up and down the bench imploring his team to keep pressing on. The Ravens need young, vocal, passionate leaders to stir the team on the field and to be its voice off of it. The team lacks that.
Baltimore is about being authentic. The Baltimore Ravens have a reputation for outstanding defense. However, as of yesterday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, I can think of at least 5 times over the past two seasons where our "vaunted" defense failed to prevent a game winning score. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers twice, Bengals, Bears, Raiders, Redskins, Tennessee Titans-- oops, that's 7. Seven out of 15 Ravens losses over the last two seasons. I don't call that an outstanding defense.
Baltimore is about being relatable. This year's team began to not be relatable to its community. The onfield performance certainly matters; I don't expect the team's play calling to be beholden to the likes of "Butchie from Pasadena" who calls in to some radio show, but I do expect that when the Ravens have a third down and 6 yards to go situation, that a play is called and executed that is designed to gain at least seven yards.
And as to the off field performance. Despite what some may tell you, the Ravens have had attendance problems all season. The national anthem protests were certainly a factor in declining attendance over the season, but not the only one. Far from it. In fact I know a few "boycotters" from September who were back on the Ravens bandwagon well before Thanksgiving. I list above all the other levels of competition off the field that prevent people from going to football games. And this thing is not native to the Ravens, either; leaguewide, stadium attendance has decreased.
So what's the fix locally? What's it going to take to make 70,000, rather than the 35 or 40 thousand who did, show up on a frigid New Years Eve to cheer this team on?
Return of passion on the field. Bring in players who are leaders and don't have the locker room so tightly controlled by the coaches. A team has more fire and passion when leading players and coaches work together and share belief. See "New England Patriots" for a good example. Bringing in new offensive and defensive coordinators would help. And owner Steve Biscotti needs to have a serious one on one with Head Coach John Harbaugh. If he's not 100% convinced that Harbaugh can be part of the solution, then make a change. He is 10 years into the job and 10 years at the same thing makes a lot of good people stagnant.
Develop a killer instinct on offense. The defense can't score points (much) so stop depending on it to win games. Offensively the Ravens need an infusion from talent at every position except maybe running back. New linemen and receivers are needed and a young quarterback needs to come into Baltimore to challenge and eventually take over from Joe Flacco. I am not a "Flacco hater" but I do believe he has used up his goodwill accumulated from the success of his early career.
Become closer to the community. Training camp should be moved back to a local college community. McDaniel College and Westminster would be great, but how about UMBC in Catonsville? UMBC has no football team, but a large investment by the Ravens there could maybe make that happen? Or even Stevenson University just north of Baltimore. And put coaches and prominent players more into the community, not just at the weekly "press opportunities" during the season.
Are the above a cure-all? Hell no. At the end of the day, coaches coach, players play, injuries happen, and all that. But these things would help at least this fan feel the Ravens were back on the right track. And that they were indeed representing the community they call home.
Let's be careful out there. And Happy New Year!
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