Ravens—Steelers: The Big Picture
The Steelers hired a new head coach in 2007, and the Ravens did the same in 2008. Both coaches were given an effective and intelligent front office staff headed by a long-time executive. Ozzie Newsome began working as an executive for the old Cleveland Browns and transferred, apparently seamlessly, to the newly-created Baltimore Ravens. However, he did not head their front office until 2002, when he was the first African American to be the general manager of an NFL team. Kevin Colbert was hired away from the Detroit Lions, where he was their head of scouting, to be the GM of the Steelers in 2000.
It occurred to me that following the path of each organization would be a fascinating comparison of the relative success of their philosophies in terms of hiring, scouting, and so on. As with all things NFL it’s difficult to draw hard and fast conclusions because of the small sample sizes and consequently larger-than-optimal role luck plays in the whole process, but there still should be some interesting trends.
It’s way too big a subject to tackle in one article, so I’m going to have a look at what appears to be the results of their player retention policies first. This may in fact also prove to be too much for a single article, but let’s give it a go.
Probably the most interesting aspect of all of this is to compare the years just after the latest Super Bowl win for both clubs, so let’s look at 2009—2012 for the Steelers and 2013—2016 for the Ravens, although obviously the jury is out for this Ravens season. The aspect of this which is most interesting is the clear difference in philosophy between Kevin Colbert and Co. vs. the Ravens. The Steelers apparently decided to keep together their core players in the hopes of another Super Bowl run. The Ravens immediately began dismantling the team.
The Steelers acted against type in keeping the core of players from the 2008 Super Bowl. Previously, the Steelers’ philosophy appeared to be that it was better to let a guy go a year too early than a year too late. And for the most part this philosophy had proven sound. The exceptions such as Rod Woodson, who went to other teams and played at a high level for about six more years, are definitely outnumbered by the guys such as Joey Porter who were revealed in retrospect to be in decline after they left, although Porter had a good year or two.
There is a lot which is attractive about this approach, the main one being that you aren’t paying for a guy’s previous production at a point in his career where he can attract top money. The difficulty with it is, you have to either have developed younger guys who are ready to take over with little drop in production or accept a few bad years.
This is apparently what the Ravens were willing to do, as they basically had a fire sale of their core guys from the Super Bowl. There were only two main exceptions, presumably representing opposite ends of the spectrum—Joe Flacco and Terrell Suggs. Flacco would be seen as a young quarterback ready to come into his prime. Suggs would be presumed to be already in his prime, and possibly on the downhill side.
The latter assumption gathers weight when you consider he turned 31 in 2013, playing a position not notable for longevity. He had an excellent season in 2013, a decent season in 2014, and has since had a series of the sort of soft tissue injuries which caused Aaron Smith to have to retire. After a while your body just can’t take it anymore.
As for Joe Flacco, he was young (just 27 years old in 2012) and had proven to be extremely durable. He plays a position in which a player can continue for longer than almost any other. And yet the Ravens took a calculated gamble by not re-signing him before the end of his rookie contract.
In retrospect it was perhaps a reasonable one. They apparently decided that Joe Flacco was a decent but not transcendent talent. As such it was worth taking a chance on having to either lose him or overpay him, because, I’m guessing, the calculation was that it was mainly going to be a dominant defense which got them to the Super Bowl. After all, their previous Super Bowl had been won with Trent Dilfer at quarterback. I’m guessing the assumption was they could replace him if they couldn’t come to a reasonable deal, without too much harm done.
But what in fact happened was that Joe Flacco put in the performances of his life during the 2012 playoffs. This is no exaggeration. Look at the figures. The blue lines are his regular-season average quarterback rating, the green ones the post-season average:
Whatever the Ravens’ front office was actually thinking, since the above is pure speculation on my part, the effect was to force them to give Joe Flacco a huge amount of money to stay on—”huge” in the sense that for a while he was the most highly-compensated quarterback in the league. (He has since been topped by Andrew Luck and Drew Brees.)
And all of a sudden all the lovely cap room the Ravens had been accustomed to having disappeared, and they had to make a decision—go the Steelers’ route and restructure the contracts of their better players to free up space, or basically let everyone walk and rebuild. Which of course was the choice they made. Ray Lewis obligingly retired, but a number of defensive players and a few offensive ones who were important to their Super Bowl run were released or not re-signed.
So now let’s look at the post-Super Bowl records of each team for four years:
Obviously it would be useful to look at a longer period of time, but that’s all we’ve got for the Ravens, and even so Year 4 is not quite half finished for them. In theory one could also look at how the Ravens handled matters after they won the Super Bowl in January of 2001, but Ozzie Newsome wasn’t the General Manager until 2002, and it’s reasonable to suppose he was left with the situation set up by his predecessor.
And while this isn’t particularly germane to this discussion, I thought it would be interesting to compare Joe Flacco’s figures with those for Ben Roethlisberger, since I was collecting the data anyhow. It’s the same deal—regular season in blue, post-season in green for Flacco, regular season in yellow and postseason in brown for Ben. And yes, it should be black, but it isn’t happening…
There’s more data to look at for Ben, but you can see that with a single exception he’s a somewhat better regular-season quarterback than post-season. You can also see that during the regular season he’s consistently better than Flacco. His worst season, which came after the motorcycle crash and the emergency appendectomy, is still a bit better than Joe Flacco’s worst season. And for the most part the floor is higher, and the ceiling is distinctly higher.
And just for the heck of it, here are the figures for both QBs by season (as in first season in the NFL etc.) superimposed, so that the first point is 2004 for Ben and 2008 for Flacco:
This is all I’m going to attempt for today, but I think this could have further interesting implications. If I’m feeling really ambitious I may try comparing the scouting. Although Steeler fans seem to think it’s pretty one-sided (either for or against the Steelers front office, depending on whether you’re a homer or a whiner) the truth is, as usual, far more nuanced, or so I’m guessing.