There's no sugar-coating it. The Ravens have gone from a "state of emergency" to an exercise in futility over the past three weeks and find themselves flirting with the first non-playoff season of the John Harbaugh era.
What a colossal disappointment that would be, coming right on the heels of the franchise's second Super Bowl championship, but it wouldn't be the end of the world and it certainly wouldn't be vindication for all the sports talk goofs who have been saying for the last five years that Joe Flacco is just an average quarterback…or the ones who decided over the past month that Harbaugh isn't the right man for the job.
A few months ago, Harbaugh was the best coach in the NFL and Flacco was the Super Bowl MVP who just signed one of the biggest contracts in the history of the league. They certainly don't look any different in street clothes, but it's obviously true — especially in professional sports — that it only takes 24 hours for the world to roll over on you after you've reached the top of it.
Understood. It's pretty hard for fans to keep their expectations in check with that shiny new Lombardi Trophy making its home in Owings Mills, but a little perspective never hurt anybody.
The Ravens are having a crappy year. Everybody can see that and nobody is absolving Harbaugh, Flacco or the front office of their responsibility for the dismal way the season has developed so far. It's just important for impatient fans to avoid letting their short-term frustration obscure the panoramic view of the Harbaugh/Flacco partnership.
It's also important to recognize the fine line that exists between success and failure in a league that has several mechanisms in place to encourage parity. When you combine the salary cap with the standings-based schedule and draft, it really is true that any team can beat any other team on any given Sunday, Monday or Thursday.
The Ravens have played quite poorly. They have no appreciable running game. They need a full half to get into any kind of rhythm. Flacco has been missing way too many receivers and the defense has been unable get off the field in some big late-game situations. That said, it's still fair to point out that the difference between their current 3-5 record and a 6-2 mark that would put them in front of the first-place Bengals is 11 points.
Just to oversimplify a complicated situation, that's three losses by a combined TD, two-point conversion and field goal.
In other words, the Ravens were essentially one play away from winning all three games. Harbaugh didn't waste any time during his Monday news conference rationalizing it that way, because he's a loss-is-a-loss guy, but everybody would be looking forward to closing in on the Bengals this week if Tandon Doss could have fallen on that muffed punt against the Browns.
Harbaugh does see the entire horizon, though seeing it and getting there are two very different things. He has been answering the same questions for three weeks and nothing has really changed. His perspective remains fairly basic: Every player has to dig down a little deeper and be ready to make that key play when the next opportunity arrives.
"If we all do that and we get a little bit better — all the way across the board — then we've got a chance to get over the hump, win the next game, and then build momentum from there,'' Harbaugh said. "That's what we've got to do. The biggest thing about those kinds of situations – three game losing streaks – is to stay out of them. We're not looking to be in these kinds of situations. We fought like crazy to not be in them, but we haven't been good enough the last three weeks to win."
Everyone knows that something has to change in a hurry. The Bengals present a very difficult challenge at a very difficult time for a team that enters the second half of its season with little margin for error. Trouble is, the Ravens just played their "must-win" card in Cleveland and it filled the wrong kind of straight.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.
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