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Today’s absurd prediction:

John Harbaugh will be the most successful rookie head coach this year.

This is if we define success in terms of improvement over last year’s performance.  And even so, I’m allowing myself a little objectivity.  If Harbaugh improves the Ravens from 5-11 to 8-8, and Tony Sparano improves Miami from 1-15 to 5-11, Harbaugh does better.  Sure, Miami improves more games, but rising from bottom-tier team to a borderline playoff team is far more impressive.  Harbaugh takes over a talented and accomplished roster, whose biggest problem last season is that they lost respect for their coach.  Harbaugh, from what I’ve read, has the right personality to get the team behind him – it may be a quick injection fix that doesn’t have much lasting power, but for this season, I’m thinking it’ll work.

Coaching Changes: Things I’m not sold on: Bubble Tea and the Ravens’ new offensive coaches.  (C)

Again, Harbaugh is a great hire for this year, merely because of his personality.  As for his coaching savvy, motivational power, talent developing, and overall staying potential, I have no idea.  Fortunately for him, he’s in a place that is patient with their coaches – he’s the franchise’s third head coach ever.  Because for some reason, even though the whole team moved from Cleveland, they became a “new” franchise, but I digress.  There are a whole lot of new faces on the Ravens’ sideline, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.  Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, secondary coach Mark Carrier, and defensive line coach Clarence Brooks stick around to make the transition easier, but other than them, it’s a mostly new staff.  The new faces include deposed Miami head coach Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson, Atlanta’s ex-OC, and wide receivers coach Jim Hostler, who coordinated the Niners’ offense last year.  All three of those guys held their previous job for one year, and are serving lower-ranking posts now with the Ravens.  Since Cameron served as OC as well as head coach for the Dolphins, you’re talking about the guys who “masterminded” the 27th, 29th, and 32nd highest-scoring offenses in the NFL last year.  Also baffling, before being promoted to coordinator, Jackson was a WR coach (and he’d also coached RBs), and Hostler was a QB coach.  Now they’re switched.  Maybe they’ve stepped back to jobs that fit their skills more, or maybe this is a grotesque collection of failures.  I’m betting on the latter, because it’s more dramatic.

Draft: No Flack for Flacco (A)

Some people criticized the Ravens for trading back up to pick Flacco perhaps a little early.  I disagree – middle-first round is exactly where I had Flacco pegged, and he was getting to the point where he’d be a bargain.  Plus they finagled a move up from a sixth-rounder to the 71st overall pick in the process, a pick that translated into ILB Tavares Gooden.  Interestingly, that pick was theirs to begin with – it went to the Bills as part of last year’s Willis McGahee trade, then to the Jaguars as part of the Marcus Stroud deal.  All in all, I like the Ravens’ draft a lot; they landed my favorite QB in Flacco, the impossible-to-dislike-unless-you’re-a-fan-of-another-Big-East-team RB Ray Rice, and SS Tom Zbikowski, giving them one of my favorite players at three positions.  The U has the most supportive alumni of any school, as I understand, and having fellow ‘Canes Willis McGahee, Ed Reed, and Ray Lewis as mentors will help Gooden immensely.  Rice is the kind of back I love, small, stocky, and speedy – his acceleration is amazing; the guy just keeps picking up speed.  Right now, he’s cut out to be merely a second option until he improves his catching and blocking, but Baltimore’s a great place for him – he’ll keep McGahee fresh, and the two should be quite a tandem for at least the next two years.  Helping bolster the line depth are two raw prospects with good upside, T David Hale and G Oniel Cousins (no, not Shaq and Jermaine, that’s the O’Neal cousins – also, Shaq and Jermaine aren’t cousins).  WR Marcus Smith continues the trend of guys with talent who need coaching and experience.  They took a shot at Oklahoma RB Allen Patrick, who had some great games after emerging from Adrian Peterson’s shadow this year, but whose upright running style and limited college playing time leave some legitimate concerns about durability.  Basically, between Patrick, Rice, and McGahee, the Ravens won’t be without a capable running back anytime soon.  I wish I could tell you something about S Haruki Nakamura or WR Justin Harper, but they’re going to have to speak for themselves in camp.

Player Movement: They get knocked to a B- for being uninteresting.

No big surprise, the Ravens pretty much held still on the free agent market.  They locked up their important players, and the biggest names they pulled in were cornerback Fabian Washington and special teamer Brendon Ayanbadejo.  The big loss, of course, is Steve McNair to retirement, but his odds of starting this year would have been slim anyway.  There’s a reason he retired.  Musa Smith and Mike Anderson, who had been important role players, are gone, but they’ve been replaced through the draft.  So the continuity should be good, but isn’t it possible a 5-11 team might want to add some new talent?

Other Considerations: The Wizardry of Ozzie

The Ravens creatively solved a grievance involving franchise player Terrell Suggs, who felt that as a pass-rusher, the average salary of the top five outside linebackers in the league did not reflect his true position on the team.  They averaged (more or less) the franchise tag price for defensive ends and that of OLBs, and Suggs ended up with about 400K more on his season’s salary.  His agent “tips his hat off” to GM Ozzie Newsome for the deal, and that’s why Newsome’s one of the best managers in football.  Expect Suggs to sign an extension before the season drags on too long – anyone who tells you this situation could become distracting is just trying to manufacture drama.  The mismatch of keeping pretty much the same team with almost all new coaches could get interesting.   The quarterback situation should be interesting: first there’s Kyle Boller, one of the few from his generation of failed quarterbacks who remains with the team who drafted him (Rex Grossman being the other).  This says the team actually likes him and will give him a fair shot, but he’ll need to do better than he did in his 8 starts last year, and he can’t excuse himself as young and inexperienced any more.  If he struggles, the fans are going to want to see Flacco.  And there’s always Troy Smith, whom I’ve always hoped would get a shot, and with a strong preseason, he might.  But even after figuring out who’s throwing when, who’s going to catch the passes?  Derrick Mason didn’t break 100 yards once last year, and isn’t getting any younger.  In fact, age is a concern with many of the Ravens.  There are definite weaknesses.

Grade: B-.  This year, the Ravens will be a team you can’t count out, but when week 17 is over, you won’t be counting them in, either.

Don’t worry, Ravens fans, I’m not cursing you guys by putting you in the Super Bowl again.

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