BALTIMORE — The Ravens are a team in transition, and one of the toughest jobs this season belongs to the franchise’s marketing department. That group has to sell this football team.
It doesn’t sound difficult because the NFL is the No. 1 sport in America and several major networks broadcast games every weekend during the fall and winter. The Ravens also have tradition on their side, having won two Super Bowls since moving to Baltimore in 1996, while several longtime organizations, such as the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, have never won the coveted Lombardi Trophy.
But the Ravens still have to clear another hurdle to show this franchise is back after reaching the playoffs for the first time in four seasons in 2018. They have to win over a fan base that started to dwindle after players started kneeling during the national anthem in 2017, and they have to do it without a superstar on the roster.
The Ravens made a bold statement when they signed former Seattle Seahawks All-Pro safety Earl Thomas to a four-year contract in March. But Thomas, 30, missed 12 games last season with a broken leg. He might return to the form that made him one of the most feared competitors in the game, or he might just become another safety on the downside of his career.
Everything is a tough sell for the Ravens, who haven’t been this devoid of marquee names since the great alpha-male purge after their championship season in 2012.
Besides Thomas, the next biggest name is second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson. He brought excitement to this town last season when he rushed for 695 yards and five touchdowns as the Ravens won six of their final seven regular-season games before losing to the Los Angeles Chargers in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Fans started buzzing and wearing purple on Fridays again. They stopped giving away tickets as easily as some people eat Skittles. By the time the Ravens played the Browns in the regular-season finale last year, M&T Bank Stadium was the place to be again Sunday afternoons.
But now, the Ravens have to prove last year wasn’t a fluke and they are close to becoming serious contenders. As much as some people loved Jackson, there are just as many doubters because of his inaccurate arm and inconsistent play.
The ultimate barometer for the team will be its ability to win, but the marketing department has to put fans in the stands. Until the winning starts, what else do they have to sell?
The team’s best player is right guard Marshal Yanda, who is nowhere near as engaging as Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden. They have two talented tight ends in Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst, but both are in their second seasons and still unproven.
Running back Mark Ingram is solid, but doesn’t have the name recognition of Le’Veon Bell or Ezekiel Elliott. Rookie receiver Marquise Brown, nicknamed “Hollywood,” was drafted in the first round, but he hasn’t fully recovered from a Lisfranc (foot) injury.
If both he and Jackson don’t live up to expectations, imagine the embarrassment that will be felt by the Ravens front office. They will have drafted a receiver in Breshad Perriman who can’t catch, a quarterback who can’t throw and a fast receiver who can’t run.
It would be an amazing trifecta.
On defense, the situation is similar. The Ravens finished the season ranked No. 1, but there aren’t any household names except for Thomas. There is no one to fear or to have to game plan for except nose tackle Brandon Williams in the running game.
Gone, and rightfully so, are veterans such as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and safety Eric Weddle, who both lost a step, and linebackers C.J. Mosley and Za’Darius Smith, who were significantly overpaid during the offseason.
There was a similar scenario about seven years ago, when the Ravens parted ways with veteran inside linebacker Ray Lewis, safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard and receiver Anquan Boldin.
But they still had some top players coming back, such as running back Ray Rice, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, Suggs and quarterback Joe Flacco.
These Ravens have a nucleus of players to build on. They have a lot of offensive players with potential in Jackson, Hurst, Andrews, Brown and receiver Miles Boykin. On defense, they have cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young, and linebackers Kenny Young, Matthew Judon and Patrick Onwuasor. They have the game’s top kicker in Justin Tucker, even though it’s scary when a kicker is your most recognizable player.
The advertisements put out by the team so far are perfect. The Ravens celebrate their past and pay tribute to former stars such as Lewis, Reed and Jamal Lewis, but they don’t dwell on it.
They move to the present with a lot of footage of Jackson and emphasize the proud tradition of playing great defense in Baltimore. The Ravens get it. They are selling a new era in Baltimore.
But it would be a lot easier if they had some star players.