PRESTON: Smith's back injury not a death sentence for Ravens


The recent back injury to Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. is not a death sentence for the Ravens.

If the injury were to Joe Flacco, then it would be different, because the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. If Flacco was out for the season, break out the tissues and start making vacation plans for the first week in January.

But Smith is just a receiver. He is a great one and his loss will be significant, but the NFL has become so watered down in talent that every player except the starting quarterback is expendable to some degree.

The San Diego Chargers was missing three starting offensive linemen against the Cleveland Browns Sunday, and quarterback Phillip Rivers still completed 23 of 38 passes for 358 yards in a 30-27 win.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't win without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Dallas Cowboys couldn't win without Tony Romo. The Indianapolis Colts won without quarterback Andrew Luck, but that's because they were playing the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Good timing: The Ravens can be competitive and win without Smith, whose status has been declared week-to-week by coach John Harbaugh. They probably couldn't win if they had a divisional round or conference championship game against the Denver Broncos or New England Patriots, but that's not the case.

In fact, if there was a time for the star receiver to be out, this is perfect because the Ravens play Cleveland (1-3) Sunday and then travel to play the San Francisco 49ers (1-3) the following week. Again, we're not talking the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons or Arizona Cardinals here.

It's not like the Ravens (1-3) are dominating opponents either, but that's the point. There are only four teams in the AFC with winning records. And if you have a good quarterback, then there is always a realistic chance to win.

So as long as Flacco stays upright, the Ravens can win. He has lost his big-play receiver in Smith, but still has a solid offensive line and a decent running back in Justin Forsett. There are also three good, young players at tight end in Crockett Gillmore, Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams.

Smith and his 29 receptions for 373 yards and two touchdowns can't be replaced, and neither can his competitive spirit. The Ravens will also probably be without rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman (knee) for the Cleveland game, and they put second-year receiver Michael Campanaro on the injured reserve with a back injury over the weekend.

It's not a good situation. Opposing teams are going to crowd the line of scrimmage and dare Flacco to beat them downfield with a bunch of possession receivers. But maybe No. 2 receiver Kamar Aiken and No. 3 receiver Marlon Brown step up their game. Wide receiver Chris Givens, whom the Ravens acquired in a trade with the St. Louis Rams over the weekend, won't make much impact, but he's fast, a missing element from the Ravens passing attack.

Flacco needs to elevate his game: The hope here is that Flacco takes that final step, the one that has eluded him, into greatness — that this becomes his offense and he carries the team. Maybe he becomes better at spreading the ball around and becomes more demonstrative as a leader.

Wishful thinking? Maybe.

But this season isn't a loss just because Smith might be out for several games. Through the first three games, Smith, 36, was indestructible, but it seemed only a matter of time before he slowed down.

Now, he gets to heal his back and rest. The Ravens would prefer to have him on the field, but injuries are a part of the game. Every team has them. The Jaguars hit the free-agent market last week to field a team on Sunday, and Dallas has lost Romo and star receiver Dez Bryant for extended periods of time.

The coming schedule might help as much as the early schedule hurt the Ravens. Future opponents that looked good in the preseason, such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins, are struggling. Jacksonville is in its usual sorry state.

The NFL is all about parity. On any given Sunday, one team can be as bad as another. But if you have a good quarterback, you always have a chance to win.

Even if the star wide receiver is missing.