The copycat nature of the NFL prompts executives and coaches to closely study the reigning Super Bowl champions each year for insight on how to claim future Lombardi Trophies. Following their 34-31 victory in Super Bowl XLVII, the Baltimore Ravens have emerged as the NFL's newest gold standard. The rest of the league will spend countless hours this offseason studying the personnel moves and tactical strategies of Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh, to see if there is a way to emulate Baltimore's recent success.
Now, it is nearly impossible to fully comprehend everything that goes into the decisions made behind closed doors, but the fact that the Ravens have consistently contended for the title over the past five seasons makes them worth examining closely. Although I've never spent any time working for the organization, I've been around the NFL long enough to know that their philosophy of identifying, developing and integrating young talent in the lineup has been the foundation of their sustained success.
When I look at the Ravens' season, it's clear to me that their Super Bowl run was powered by this philosophy, along with the development of emerging franchise quarterback Joe Flacco. The MVP of the title game was selected with the 18th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft to give the team a young franchise-caliber signal-caller, and the Ravens patiently developed Flacco while putting him in an environment to succeed from the outset. Initially, the conservative game plans they used earned Flacco the dreaded label of "game manager" from critics (including yours truly). Since then, however, the previously defense-first Ravens have seamlessly become a team fueled by an explosive offense and led by a fearless gunslinger in Flacco. Though this wasn't evident all the way through an uneven 2012 regular season, it certainly was during the Ravens' spectacular playoff run.
Led by Flacco, the Ravens scored 124 points in four playoff games while knocking off four marquee franchises (Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers) on the way to the title. Flacco was impressive, compiling a passer rating of 117.2 while tossing 11 touchdowns against zero interceptions. Those numbers would certainly be considered spectacular during any four-game stretch, but they were particularly so in the postseason, with pressure at an all-time high.
Given the correlation between quarterback performance and team success, several executives and coaches will undoubtedly steal a page from the Ravens' blueprint to get their respective teams into title contention.
Here are four suggestions I would pass on to the rest of the NFL:
1) Protect the quarterback with a solid offensive line.
After underperforming for most of the season, the Ravens' offense suddenly caught fire in the playoffs. One of the main factors behind this dramatic surge was the vastly improved performance of the offensive line. Fueled by a major reconstruction heading into the postseason, the Ravens' front line dominated the point of attack on the ground while providing Flacco with superb protection in the pocket.
Looking at the reshuffling of the lineup prior to the playoffs (Bryant McKinnie moved to left tackle, Michael Oher returned to right tackle and Kelechi Osemele shifted to left guard), I saw a unit that played with terrific chemistry and awareness. More importantly, I saw five players aligned in their natural positions, fostering better play at the point of attack. Most teams aim to put together an offensive line that features a collection of talent that meshes well on game day. It's hard to dispute the fact that the Ravens' front five played on a string throughout the playoffs. Their collective ability to own the line of scrimmage enabled Baltimore to run or pass effectively when it mattered most. The battle of the trenches routinely determines the winner of most contests, and the Ravens' collection of front-line talent ensured their success as Super Bowl champions.
2) Don't underestimate the importance of a strong running game.
For all of the conversation about the NFL becoming a passing league, the fact that both Super Bowl participants featured dominant running games suggests that the old-school formula of running and throwing deep remains the most effective way to win a title. This notion is certainly validated by the Ravens' success since Jim Caldwell took over as the team's offensive coordinator following a Week 14 loss to the Washington Redskins. In seven games under his direction, the Ravens averaged 35-plus rushing attempts, bludgeoning opponents with a hard-hitting attack between the tackles.
The results weren't consistently spectacular from a statistical standpoint, but the steady grinding allowed the Ravens to control the tempo of the game and keep the offense in manageable situations. Most importantly, it forced opponents to play eight-man fronts on early downs, leading to big-play opportunities in the passing game. Without the presence of a dominant running attack, the Ravens would have faced a variety of two-deep coverages that would have eliminated the deep ball and forced Flacco to patiently throw underneath to consistently move down the field.
Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce formed an effective 1-2 punch for the Ravens, with Rice, one of the most explosive runners in the NFL, handling the bulk of the workload. Pierce provided an effective complement as a rugged inside runner; his ability to simultaneously spell Rice and produce keyed a diversified Ravens' running game that caught fire down the stretch. With other teams looking to find ways to protect their franchise quarterbacks, the thought of building a strong running game should be a priority in meeting rooms across the NFL.
3) Surround the franchise quarterback with explosive playmakers.
Few teams surround their franchise quarterbacks with enough talent on the perimeter to fully maximize their talents. In Baltimore, Newsome has done a superb job of giving Flacco enough weapons to target in the passing game. The Ravens have upgraded the explosiveness and athleticism of the receiving corps through a number of moves, from trading for Anquan Boldin to drafting Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson.
In Boldin, the Ravens have the consummate No. 1-type receiver, with the size, strength and skill to dominate the game on the perimeter. Although he is certainly not a blazer, Boldin makes big plays at every level. His ability to snare the "50-50" ball has given Flacco a reliable weapon to turn to in any situation. Additionally, Boldin embodies toughness and physicality, encouraging the younger players to play with more aggressiveness when they have the ball in their hands.
Smith is the explosive vertical weapon that every quarterback needs on the perimeter. One of the fastest players in the NFL, Smith can blow past defenders on go routes, and he also has the running skills to transform short passes into long gains. Big plays are valued at a premium in the NFL. The ability to throw to a player who can produce game-changing plays provides the quarterback with a tremendous weapon, while also altering an opponent's defensive approach.
Finally, Pitta and Dickson provide Flacco with a pair of dynamic weapons to target over the middle of the field. Given the heavy utilization of two-deep coverages, the tight end becomes the most pivotal player in the passing game. The presence of two versatile tight ends allows an offense to use multiple formations to create mismatches all over the field, making the game easier for the quarterback in the pre-snap phase. (Based on the defensive reaction to multiple tight-end formations, the quarterback is able to quickly identify the coverage and front at the line of scrimmage.)
With so many weapons available to him, the quarterback can approach every game with the confidence of playing seven-on-seven against an overmatched defense on the perimeter.
4) Find a play caller willing to adapt to the talents of the quarterback.
Quarterbacks were once assimilated into rigid offensive systems, but the NFL has gradually become a league that encourages offensive coordinators to build around the unique talents of the signal-caller. Just look at the number of teams in the NFL that run variations of the spread offense to suit the needs of their athletic young quarterbacks. Similarly, the Ravens made a midseason change at offensive coordinator to maximize the talents of their franchise guy.
On NFL Network
"NFL Replay" will re-air the Baltimore Ravens' 34-31 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Wednesday, Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. ET.
Former coordinator Cam Cameron built an offense in Baltimore with Flacco's game in mind, but the Ravens weren't able to fully accentuate the quarterback's strength as a talented deep-ball thrower until Caldwell took over. Under Caldwell's direction, the Ravens' game plan featured the deep ball prominently, while incorporating a series of intermediate throws that capitalized on Flacco's superb arm strength and anticipation. Furthermore, Caldwell put the unit on Flacco's shoulders by employing a no-huddle offense that simplified the game, generating a better flow and tempo. With the quarterback becoming more comfortable as the leader of the offense, the Ravens took off.
As other teams look to make their respective franchise quarterbacks better, carefully constructing an offense that maximizes strengths should be a top priority.