For every winner, there must be a loser. Such is the case of two talented NFL teams whose seasons just ended in the conference championships. Matt Harmon examines the main tasks that the Ravens and Lions must tackle before next season. Check out his examination of the Divisional Round losers here.
Baltimore Ravens — Retooling an already great offense
There is nothing to say, no hope or promise of next year, that can ease the sting that anyone invested in the Baltimore Ravens at any level feels today.
The 2023 Ravens are among the five best teams ever, according to DVOA. They trounced good opponents. Once the offense got over some minor early hiccups, you couldn’t find a tangible weakness in this squad for the balance of the season. The defense was suffocating and uniquely challenging to play against.
This was an all-time team. And yet, they’ll be lost to the passage of time. No one will remember the 2023 Ravens because they let their shot at eternal glory slip through their fingers.
Don’t think the players don’t know this, too:
Dang fam it just hit me. This was really our year
— marlonhumphrey.eth (@marlon_humphrey) January 29, 2024
The theory of hope for great teams with young quarterbacks is simple. It’s easy to say that they’ll be back. It’s a lot harder to pull it off in practice.
NFL history is littered with men who convinced themselves they’d get another chance at a Super Bowl appearance only to find, years later, that their best shot was the one they just missed.
I remember Philip Rivers telling me about Norv Turner's speech after the AFC Championship Game loss to the Patriots in '08. Said they were such a good team that they'd definitely be back. Rivers was 26, their defensive stars were young.
It never happened. https://t.co/ixnRCAg1G5
— Robert Mays (@robertmays) January 29, 2024
So with all that brutal reality digested and settled, there is still a next year to consider and assess for the Baltimore Ravens. If they are going to get back to this spot and come close to matching the type of team they were last season, it’ll have to come with a jump from the offensive side of the ball.
Lamar Jackson will win his second career MVP after enjoying his best season since 2019 by any passing efficiency metric. So it’s easy to forget that this was merely Year 1 of Todd Monken’s offense.
It wasn’t perfect and both Jackson and Monken will undoubtedly leave the AFC Championship game with regrets about their respective performances. Still, for the most part, this initial year of the Ravens' offensive evolution was a rousing success. Don’t count me among the naysayers before this season, but Jackson still proved his worth as a pure passer without a shadow of a doubt this season. The team said goodbye to so many of the stale route concepts and condensed formations of the Greg Roman years and allowed Jackson to be an elite, pure dropback passer. He and a boosted supporting cast responded with a great season.
Now, they get a chance to build on that. Monken got a few head coaching interviews but appears a lock to stay in Baltimore as the play-caller in 2024. Monken and Jackson were effusive about working together in public. This has the potential to be the beginning of a tremendous partnership.
The AFC Championship will serve as a reminder of the touchups this team can make in the offseason to take this great, evolved and dangerous unit and vault it even further.
Zay Flowers had some harrowing moments on Sunday that he will want back. Still, he was their most explosive player by a long shot. The drive he ultimately ruined by fumbling at the goal line was all about him and Jackson creating. He’s a future star in my book, critical mistakes aside.
Monken has to find even more ways to unlock Flowers as the primary read on this team, especially in the intermediate areas of the field. I’m not sure where Flowers will rank in fantasy football ADP this year after a WR30 finish last season, fifth among rookie receivers, but I’ll likely be a buyer. Dynamic movement and ability to beat man coverage are the building blocks of breakout receivers. Flowers has both.
There needs to be even more progression around Flowers in the passing game, however. Nelson Agholor was the second-leading receiver with 39 yards on a single catch on Sunday. Odell Beckham Jr. was once again a limited participant in the game plan, thwarting any idea that the team was “saving him” for the postseason. Both of those guys are free agents this offseason. They could be candidates to return on cheap deals but those can’t be the only additions to the room.
It was excellent that Rashod Bateman made it through an entire season mostly healthy and perhaps he’s a bigger contributor the farther he gets from a cataclysmic 2022 foot injury. I loved his talent coming into the league and believed he showed big-time X-receiver flashes in glimpses but again, Baltimore is too good to count on hypotheticals as its answers.
Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely combined for four catches and 31 yards on five targets. Obviously, Andrews wasn’t close to 100% healthy but next season, that duo needs to be more productive in tandem. Andrews is one of the premier tight ends in the league and Likely is too good to just be a bit player. Expect Monken to be in the lab this offseason to find ways to activate the 12-personnel packages in 2024.
Lastly, the traditional run game evaporated in the postseason. The Ravens only had four true running back carries in the first half. Some of that has to come back to Monken and a lack of commitment to the ground attack. At the same time, if he wanted to put the game in Jackson’s hands and not those of Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, it’s hard to blame him, results aside. Those guys are fine complementary players but not lead dogs. If the Ravens had a player like that in the building — try not to be wistful about what could have been with J.K. Dobbins — that player could be a high-end producer next regular season and perhaps help this team push past the ceiling it achieved in 2023.
This offense has all the potential in the world to be among the league’s best ecosystems for years to come. It has a gifted play-caller in tune with the league’s current offensive meta, a superstar quarterback and talented players to build around. I can’t wait to see what seasoning they sprinkle on top of the main dishes here and, more than likely, I'll invest heavily in this unit next season.
Detroit Lions — Wade through the brain drain
There’s a price to being good; everyone wants a little bit of what you have. The Detroit Lions are about to pay that toll.
For weeks, everything has pointed to Ben Johnson taking the Washington Commanders’ head coaching job when the Lions were eliminated from the postseason. That moment has arrived. Johnson could be out of the building by the end of the week. It also sounds like Johnson could be taking offensive line coach Hank Fraley, who has been the man behind one of the top front-fives in the league the last few seasons, with him.
This is how it starts.
EDITOR'S NOTE: After this story's publication, it has been reported that Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson will be staying in the same role for the team in 2024.
Detroit has likely prepared to lose Johnson for the last calendar year. It was a shock it could hang onto him during the last head coaching cycle, and it would be nothing short of a miracle if he were back in the same role in 2024. The Lions may already have prepared another member of their rockstar offensive coaching staff to take on Johnson’s role. Remember that, when Johnson took over as the play-caller, he was a big unknown being promoted from the tight end coaching spot. So there is some hope the Lions will strike gold twice via an internal promotion. The team that vanquished them on Sunday is proof you can suffer through having your staff picked clean every season.
On the other hand, you need only look at last season’s NFC Champion to see the other side of the proposition.
The Eagles knew they were likely to lose play-calling offensive coordinator Shane Steichen to a head coaching job and that’s precisely what happened. The Eagles felt they had a clear internal promotion candidate in quarterback coach Brian Johnson, so there was no panic. One year later Johnson has been fired from that position and head coach Nick Sirianni, who has an offensive background, is under immense scrutiny after the Eagles' offense was one of the most disappointing units of the season.
Structurally, the 2023 Eagles didn’t look all that different from Steichen’s group of the prior season but the in-game feel, sequencing and subtle nuances of play-calling were dramatically different. Some guys have it, some guys don’t. Steichen proved once again that he has it as the head coach of the Colts.
Back in Philadelphia without him, well, the results speak for themselves.
Star players who seemed like sure bets in Philadelphia were still good. You look at the end-of-season numbers for Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith and they’re fine. But the actual way those stats came together and the year-end fantasy finishes for some of them were below expectation. That’s not to mention a run game that produced a top-13 running back in 2022 that was left to rot this season.
At this moment, I don’t think the loss of Johnson is enough to dissuade me from ranking Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jahmyr Gibbs and Sam LaPorta highly in fantasy next season … and yet, ask those who selected Eagles players how they feel about paying top-of-the-market draft prices last summer.
When the brain drain arrives, there are new levels of risk.
That timeline is the fuel of nightmares for Detroit but it doesn’t have to be its fate. The 49ers have survived the intense brain drain because, at the end of the day, everything flows down from Kyle Shanahan as the premier offensive designer and play-caller-in-chief.
Dan Campbell is a top-tier head coach in this league but has mostly been able to farm off the majority of the offensive duties to Ben Johnson the last two seasons. However, I believe that in terms of strength at the head coaching spot, he’s closer to Shanahan than Sirianni. He deserves credit for hiring and empowering a great staff that teams will want to pluck from. Again, maybe there is another member of this staff who has the goods and can step into Johnson’s vacated role. Maybe it’ll be a seamless transition. Then again, when we’re using the word “maybe,” it implies that risk we're talking about.
That’s what makes a loss, especially in the fashion Detroit lost it, on Sunday so brutal. It’s the theme of this weekend for the losing teams. It’s easy to say you will be back and the Lions — as a young, upstart team with a general manager in Brad Holmes who has pitched almost nothing but gas in the draft and free agency since he arrived — have every right to listen to the siren song of optimism.
But as Dan Campbell freely admitted on Sunday night, it will be a lot harder. That’s because when you’re good, everyone wants what you have. The Lions are indeed good and now must begin to pay the price of success.