Justin K. Aller
The Steelers’ recent draft woes and salary cap chickens have come home to roost, and now the Ravens have come of age. Will the Ravens forge new ground in the future, or will they follow the Steelers into the salary cap abyss?
Once upon a time, PaVaSteeler admired the Ravens as an honest facsimile of the Steelers; they played hard-nosed, smash mouth defense; their offense was vintage AFC North and not "dink n dunk" west coast fantasy football crap, and their front office developed and grew the team through the draft and didn't try to buy a championship like the Snyders and Jones of the league. PaVaSteeler often wrote that the Ravens quarterback, Joe Flacco, had "..one helluva arm" and was a quality quarterback, but it appeared he was doomed to live forever in Big Ben's shadow.
Yes, PaVaSteeler had great admiration for the Ravens, but still considered them a facsimile; they couldn't win "the big game". The Steelers eliminated them in the playoffs in 2001, 2008 and again in 2010. In those rare years that the Steelers didn't make the playoffs, the Ravens found ways to choke and fall short. While the Steelers went to three Super Bowls and won two since the last time the Ravens were even in the Super Bowl (2000), the Ravens were at risk of becoming the 1970's Houston Oilers to the Steelers Second Dynasty. They were always the "also rans" of the AFC North division, the little brother to the Steelers. Their quarterback Joe Flacco was earning the reputation of never being able to beat the Steelers when it counted most; he was the AFC North's "Jimmy Olsen" to the Steelers' QB Ben Roethlisberger's "Superman", and much like the warning in the Jim Croce song, whenever the Ravens tried to tug on Superman's cape, bad things happened.
But PaVaSteeler must now admit that little brother has done grown up, and the Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco deserves all the respect and honor any of the top quarterbacks in the league receive. Despite a late season melt down resulting in losing four out of their last five games, the Ravens for the second year in a row earned the AFC North division crown. And unlike in years past when they found ways to lose in the playoffs, this year the Ravens handily defeated the New England Patriots to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
And PaVaSteeler readily admits the Ravens earned it. Flacco clearly outplayed the immortalized Tom Brady, completing 58 percent of his passes on his way to throwing for 240 yards and three touchdowns and earning a 106.2 passer rating compared to a clearly flustered Brady who only completed 54 percent of his passes for 320 yards, one touchdown, and a very mortal 62.3 percent passer rating.
The Ravens achieved all of this in spite of, or as many Ravens fans would contend because of, firing their offensive coordinator Cam Cameron late in the season and replacing him with Jim Caldwell. They achieved all of this despite having a weakened offensive line throughout much of the regular season, but by making strategic changes, and by having drafted players who quickly earned their way into the starting rotation buttressed that line into an effective unit that gave Flacco the time he needed to make plays.
The Ravens and Flacco have grown up, and have proven that they are no longer a facsimile of the Steelers, at least up to this point. Over the past several years the Ravens, operating under the same salary cap as the Steelers, still managed to keep their core players under contract and yet retain room for strategic signings to improve the team. Over the past several years the Ravens, and not the Steelers, found quality players low in the draft (e.g. Paul Kruger (selected 57), Ladarius Webb (88), Pernell McPhee (165) etc.) who brought skills and talent the Steelers clearly could have used; players drafted outside of the first round, meaning the Steelers had to have passed on them first. One only needs to look at the Steelers' 2008 draft class to see just how glaring a disparity between the recent draft histories of the two teams exists.
Steeler Nation often talks of the diaspora that the City of Pittsburgh suffered through, the emigration of so many of its sons and daughters to other parts of the country in search of jobs and a better standard of living as Pittsburgh's historical roots of heavy industry and manufacturing withered and died. Much blame during that time of the 70's and 80's was put on the Japanese, whose industries out-produced and underpriced that of the industries that made up the backbone of Pittsburgh. The Japanese were scorned for their imitative ways; they were often accused of lacking ingenuity and relying instead on imitation; they copied many aspects of the U.S. auto industry, steel industry, and improved upon them, and ultimately out-performed the very companies they imitated.
The Ravens have studied the Steelers closely, in the past often having much longer off-seasons to do so. They hired consultants to work with them in finding ways to beat the Steelers, just as little brothers often go to a parent complaining the bigger brother never let them win at games, and the parent offers solutions.
But the Ravens have moved past all that now. They have improved on the AFC North model that was the Steelers to the point where they are now repeating AFC North champions, repeating contestants in the AFC Championship game, and now, they are the AFC representative in the Super Bowl.
PaVaSteeler is not so much a "homer" for his Steelers that he cannot salute the Ravens for what they have accomplished, and give credit where credit is due. That credit most certainly goes to both the Ravens' ownership as well as its GM, for it was accomplished by crafting a plan and adhering to it but not being locked into it if circumstances such as an underperforming offensive coordinator required changes.
And credit also goes to the Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who despite not receiving what he deemed a satisfactory contract offer from the Ravens, still improved his game, didn't to allow erratic regular season performances to shake his confidence, and absolutely refused to allow himself to remain in the shadow of Roethlisberger's history of last minute victories. Flacco proved in the Ravens' victory against the Denver Broncos that being behind in the final seconds of a do-or-die game was not a situation too big for him to handle.
So no longer will PaVaSteeler view the Ravens in a diminutive light; they are first amongst equals in the AFC North.
But PaVaSteeler wouldn't be who he is without reserving this thought of the future: While in recent years the Ravens have out-drafted the Steelers and have avoided the "pay it forward" model of contracts the Steelers have followed, they are coming very quickly to a decision point the Steelers have long faced: with a franchise quarterback deserving of a franchise-sized contract, and other players who have proven they form a core group that can get them to more Super Bowls, how will the Ravens handle it? If they continue to model themselves after the Steelers, will they continue their ability to improve upon the design, or will they find themselves where the Steelers are now; over-committed monetarily to the aging players who got them there and therefore unable to spend the monies necessary to continue to adapt and change to meet the demands of the future?
Welcome to "adulthood" Baltimore Ravens; along with all the joys of attaining such, come the adult responsibilities and pitfalls that such success brings. Enjoy the fruits of your current labors, for as difficult as you found the journey getting here, it only gets harder trying to stay on top.