I cannot wait for kickoff. There's just one meaningless (though still full-price!) preseason game to get out of the way and then the real-deal NFL season gets underway and your Baltimore Ravens are kicking it off. Next Thursday night in Denver Joe Flacco and the World Champion Ravens take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos, and there should be great joy in Mobtown.
Of course, it wouldn't be Baltimore if there wasn't, instead, panic about the offense. Remember Bill Paxton in Aliens? There's that scene when he's all, "Game over, man. Game over." That's pretty much the average Baltimore sports talk-radio fan nine minutes into the first two-a-days. By the first preseason pick-six, or worse yet, a negative column by a certain wet blanket know-it-all at The Sun (whose name rhymes with Schmike Schmeston), and it's not about talking them off the ledge, it's about hoovering them off the sidewalk. Baltimore sports fans need their own "It gets better" ad campaign.
Honestly, these sky-is-falling fans make some good points. Other than one phenomenal opening drive in the penultimate preseason game where he went five-for-five with 45 yards, Flacco hasn't looked great. The Super Bowl XLVII MVP shines in the postseason, but can he really be considered elite until he does it in the preseason? Most NFL coaches hold back much of their playbooks in the preseason. They like to get the mistakes out of the way when the games don't count; screw up now so you don't later. Another school of thought would be to lay it all out there now. Sure they've made the playoffs five straight years, gone to the AFC Championship game three times in that span, and just added a Lombardi Trophy to the Castle's collection, but I hear if the Ravens lose their last exhibition game against the St. Louis, the Rams get their rings.
Yes, there are some real concerns heading into the regular season. This team has had a ton of turnover since walking off the field in New Orleans in February. Losing stalwart wide receiver Anquan Boldin in a cost-cutting trade to the 49ers and center Matt Birk to retirement hurt. In the NFL, a number-two wide receiver means more than just the guy who catches the second-most balls, it connotes a type. Your number two is a guy who can line up wide opposite your number one (Torrey Smith for the Ravens). Your prototypical number two gets yards after the catch and can stretch the field on deep routes with either great speed or, in the case of Boldin, great size and strength.
The Ravens don't have that guy. Jacoby Jones has got the speed, but doesn't seem to have earned the club's confidence in the role and has done nothing to claim the job this preseason. He just doesn't have the hands. The Ravens have liked Tandon Doss since taking him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, but he makes boneheaded plays, like failing to read the blitz and break off his route in a play against Carolina that lead to a painful (well, as painful as any play can be in preseason) interception and score. Marlon Brown, the towering undrafted rookie out of Georgia, has looked like a promising complement to Smith. At 6-foot-5, with giant mits and a condorian wingspan, he's even bigger than Boldin with quick feet and, so far, sure hands. He looks like a lock to make the team, but it's hard to imagine an undrafted rookie starting for the defending champs at such an important position.
The Ravens had hoped to take some heat off the number two by featuring their tight ends. Flacco had grown to trust Dennis Pitta almost as much as Boldin, and backup tight end Ed Dickson is big and speedy with the ability to stretch defenses, but injuries to both players pulled the rug out from under that plan. Pitta is out for the season, and Ed Dickson is once again practicing-but with a partially torn hamstring, how productive he'll be remains a question.
So yeah, there's reason for concern, but these are the Ravens, and Ozzie Newsome is still at the helm. Newsome scoured the trash heap and found a pair of possible gems in tight end Dallas Clark and wide receiver Brandon Stokley. Both players have connections to (sort of) new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell from their Colts days, which will make for a smooth transition despite their late arrivals to camp. Clark is iffy and will need to show that he's still got a little of his old Colts mojo, but Stokley is an amazing fit and an interesting one. Stokley is the only player left from the Ravens' first Super Bowl champion squad, and it's only fitting he return the season after Ray Lewis retired. He was a fan favorite while here the first go-around (catching a spectacular touchdown in the Super Bowl will do that) and while he's lost a step (or four) from those early days, he's a far smarter player.
Stokley is not going to give speedy cornerbacks nightmares while preparing for the Ravens. He's not the track-star player that's going to burn the defense down the field, nor is he the behemoth who will blast his way through safeties on his way to the end zone. He is the kind of guy who lines up in the slot and finds the soft spots in the defense. He's got the kind of cuts and route-running ability that will remind you of Derrick Mason and hands that have taken care of quarterbacks from Trent Dilfer to Peyton Manning and those hands wear a pair of rings to prove it. Stokley can be that security blanket, the guy who's always open in a pinch. Team him with Torrey Smith, who is primed for a breakout season in his first year as a true number one, and the pair could be big.
With Smith ready to be that big-time number one and Stokley underneath, whoever lands the Ravens number-two spot will only have to fit the mold and not catch the second-most balls on the team. Oh, and then there's another threat out of the backfield wearing No. 27. Look for Ray Rice to catch more than last season with Caldwell calling the shots and a more modern offense all around in the first post-Cam Cameron camp, and by week three, this unit will be killing it. This will be the year Flacco gets that first 4,000-yard season under his belt and, while he may not be able to make the big plays in the preseason, I feel pretty good about Joe Cool when it matters.