PRESTON: Ravens need swagger back, or risk losing fans
When owner Steve Bisciotti was asked recently about the vacant seats and high number of opposing fans at Baltimore Ravens home games last season, he showed some concern but not major alarm.
But Bisciotti and his front office staff need to pay more attention.
It's not as bad as the early 1980s when the Colts left town, but fans are tired of the same problems and lack of playmakers. The Ravens have lost their swag and fans have lost some excitement.
"If I am going to spend Sunday afternoon at the game, I want to have fun," said Adrian Sanchez, 56, a dentist and Catonsville resident. "Win or lose, I want to see great football. I want to see good hits, great plays, but give me something.
"I give credit to the Ravens for trying to improve the stadium and infrastructure, but the bottom line is on the field," added Sanchez, a permanent seat license holder. "Maybe we were spoiled as Ravens fans because we had the glory years right out of the gate and the Super Bowl. But the thinking now is that I have better things to do on Sunday, and I am not happy with that."
Excitement down: Dentists, barbers and doctors always have the pulse of a community. Their clients have opinions. Well, until this past season. A lot of the Ravens commentary faded.
"Excitement from the overall fan base is down," said Greg Small, 34 a Timonium doctor who lives near Sanchez in Catonsville. "In my office, fans used to come in every Monday talking Ravens football. They were up after the big win or down after the bad losses. On Friday, patients throughout the day were wearing purple jerseys in the spirit of things.
"This year, I didn't see it or feel it," said Small, whose father, Alan, shares a PSL with him. "There was very little chit chat or commentary from the same people who in years past had been pretty vocal about it."
The lull in fan excitement was evident in the first home game as Oakland Raiders fans jammed into the stadium. There were also high numbers of Washington, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia fans at M&T Bank Stadium.
Small was shocked.
"Regionally, you thought the Redskins would bring a following, but I never thought Raider fans traveled the way they did or had access to that many seats in our house. I saw more empty purple seats this year than ever before, especially if you looked into the upper deck. There were a few thousand seats open every game," Small said.
Star power is gone: It didn't used to be that way. M&T Bank Stadium was packed and buzzed from the moment star linebacker Ray Lewis did his pregame introductory dance. That's when the Ravens had star players such as Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Jamal Lewis and Ray Lewis.
With the exception of Suggs, all the star power is gone. The top draws are Joe Flacco and Brandon Williams. The team's star is kicker Justin Tucker.
"When you watch the promotions on TV, they say, 'Next week we will have Peyton Manning and the Broncos going against Tom Brady and the Patriots,' " said Sanchez's 22-year-old son, Alex, a student at UMBC. "There is no one you can really identify with for the Ravens."
Personalities are gone, too: It's just not about superstar talent. The Ravens used to develop a lot of "home grown" talent, and we're not just talking about the Lewises, Reed, Suggs and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. They had solid guys brought up in the system such as linebackers Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott, defensive linemen Kelly Gregg and Lional Dalton and guard Edwin Mulitalo.
They had personalities, too. Dalton, nicknamed "Jelly Roll," and Scott talked as much trash as Suggs. Mulitalo and linebacker Jarret Johnson have remained popular because of their blue-collar work ethics.
But the liveliness leadership left with the great alpha male purge of 2012.
"I don't listen to postgame interviews anymore because the players are only going to give you the standard company line," Small said. "You're not getting any real insight or passion."
"There are no personalities to latch onto anymore. I think fans cheered hard for Steve Smith, but it's not the same energy for him coming out of the tunnel as Ed or Ray. I think our organization needs to be more patient in developing draft picks because it not only gives them time to grow, but also allows fans to develop relationships and cheer on their favorites."
Who to blame? It's hard to tell whether it's the personnel department or the coaching staff that has caused this problem. When Brian Billick was the head coach, assistants such as Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Jack Del Rio, and Mike Smith became head coaches.
In the Harbaugh era, only Chuck Pagano has gotten a head coaching job, and Ted Monachino was promoted to defensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts. Rex Ryan and Gary Kubiak worked under Harbaugh but were already established before Harbaugh came to Baltimore.
As for the draft, the Ravens have failed with such players as safeties Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks, defensive lineman Terrence Cody and linebackers Sergio Kindle and Arthur Brown. Even cornerback Jimmy Smith, taken in 2011, hasn't played up to his first-round draft status, and neither has wide receiver Breshad Perriman, taken in the first round of 2015.
"Ozzie has proven himself. He is a known commodity," Small said. "You have to question a few of the first-round picks recently, but, as a fan, I just wonder, 'Do we have the right development plan in place as far as the position coaches?' "
Said Adrian Sanchez: "Anyone in sports knows you're not going to win all the time. I have confidence in Ozzie, but I just want to be entertained. Right now, it is too early to ask, 'Is it Harbaugh's fault or Ozzie's or Bisciotti's? But they have to find some answers."
Putting pressure on Flacco: Unfortunately, they can't find the answers to getting a shutdown cornerback, big-time receiver or a top pass rusher. The offense is boring and predictable and the secondary can't cover.
But at least the Ravens appear to be putting pressure on Flacco to step up his game. There can be no more excuses. They have brought in Greg Roman to fix the running game and maybe they'll go old school with a blocking fullback and two strong tight ends.
Maybe they can sign a No. 1 wide receiver in free agency such as Alshon Jefferey or Terrelle Pryor and hopefully draft a cornerback or outside linebacker who can make an immediate difference.
Facility renovation: Team officials have announced plans for $144 million in stadium renovations during the next three years, and the team has already torn down part of the Castle to expand the training facility and the parking lot.
That will allow more fans to attend training camp, which was another way the team disconnected with fans by moving from McDaniel in Westminster five years ago.
"We beat Philadelphia this year and patients were coming in telling me they were disgusted, and that we played lousy and the coaching was poor," Adrian Sanchez said. "They said it was going to take a long time to get past this win. They were saying that about a win."
Big season looms: The Ravens need to get the buzz going again around town. Harbaugh will be on the hot seat because the team hasn't been to the playoffs in three of the past four years, and Newsome needs another good draft to complement last year's.
It's a big year for Bisciotti, too. The fans want and deserve more.
"I think the Ravens need to ask themselves, 'Why didn't we feel that energy?' " said Small, who attends games with his 7-year-old son, Greg Jr. "Even though we were 2 inches away from winning the division, why did my patients not get excited about Purple Friday? Why didn't they have that passion?
"I think people understand that ticket prices will go up, but they just want to see progress on the field," Small said. "They want to get excited again."