Are the 9-2 Ravens Overrated?


In a recent blog post, Bleacher Report columnist Nick Kostora argued that the Baltimore Ravens are “by far the most overrated team in the NFL.”  To prove his claim he proffers statistics placing the Ravens’ run and pass defenses in the bottom half of the league, and cites Flacco’s inconsistent play, a limited receiving corps, and an underutilization of Ray Rice as major negatives on the offensive side of the ball.

To be fair, Mr Kostora doesn’t go completely Skip Bayless (or Dan Fouts) on the Ravens.  Indeed, he acknowledges that it is almost impossible to go 9-2 in the NFL based solely on luck, but maintains that the team has major weaknesses and is the most overrated team in football.

No surprise here, but I completely disagree.  Before addressing each of the arguments above, I challenge the overall thesis that the Ravens are overrated.  Simply put, the term overrated assumes there are armies of writers, broadcasters, fans, odds-makers, and other NFL glitterati sending signals that a team is better than they really are. 

Based on my – admittedly non-scientific – survey of the available literature, I do not think this is the case.  In fact, most of what I read about the Ravens from external sources highlights negatives like the Ravens’ slide from defensive dominance and their inconsistent play (especially outside of M&T Bank Stadium).  Additionally, internal sources are not overly trumpeting the team’s success in the win-loss ratio.  If anything, most Ravens’ bloggers are remarkably circumspect about the team’s performance so far, and quite frank with their criticism.

Now, for the specific arguments, I’ll start with the defensive statistics.  It is true that the Ravens are ranked 26th in the league in rushing defense (as measured by rushing yards ceded per game), and 23rd in passing defense (based on passing yards allowed per game).  I’ll be the first to admit that I’d much rather see the Ravens in the top third of these categories than in the bottom third, but what do these statistics really tell us?  Especially when only one of the teams in the top 10 rushing defenses (Houston) has a better record than the Ravens and none of the top 10 passing defenses has a better record.  If anything, I’d say the figures tell us that there is a relatively weak correlation between the yards a team gives up and a team’s success as measured by wins and losses. 

I find it curious that Mr Kostora skipped a discussion of defensive rankings sorted by points per game.  At 19.9 points allowed per game, the Baltimore Ravens are ranked 7th in the league – a rank that comports well with the subjective power rankings of numerous sports writers.  Also, it appears that points allowed per game is more strongly correlated with winning than either of the two previous statistics since all but one of the top 10 teams in the category have winning records, and 5 of the 8 division leaders are in the group. 

This is a bit of an oversimplification, but what I take away from the defensive rankings cited earlier is that you can pretty much let opposing offenses do anything they want between the 20s.  The key is to drop the hammer in the red zone and limit the number of points they put on the board.  By any objective measure, the Ravens have been moderately successful in that task.

On the offensive side of the ball Mr Kostora has some legitimate criticisms of Joe Flacco’s inconsistencies, but he is off base when it comes to the team’s use of Ray Rice and statements about a shallow receiving group.

To be sure, Flacco’s performance varies wildly from game to game (especially when comparing home and road contests), but this is not unique to Joe Flacco or the Ravens.  Indeed, while Flacco’s QB rating has varied between 75.5 and 115.8 over the last four games, even the vaunted Aaron Rogers (currently #1 in overall QB stats) has seen his rating vary between 81.9 and 106.4 over the same period.  And, even though Rogers has doubled Flacco’s number of TDs, they share almost identical stat lines for passing yards and interceptions.  I don’t make this comparison to argue that Joe has earned the elite badge, because he is not quite there yet.  I’m merely making that case that the inconsistency badge is just as ill-defined as the elite badge, and depending on the mood of the particular analyst at the time it can be pinned on just about any QB in the league.

Kostora’s criticism of the Ravens for underutilizing Ray Rice is based on a single statistic.  Specifically, he states that Rice has received 20 hand offs or more in only four games this season.  This statement is true, but it fails to acknowledge the other way the Ravens get the ball to one of their best playmakers –the pass.  Adding these numbers up, one finds that in only 5 games this year has Ray Rice touched the ball less than 20 times (and two of those games were blowouts – Cincinnati and Oakland – where Rice left the game after three quarters).

I would personally like to see Ray get more touches, but the plain and simple truth is that the Ravens have more offensive weapons now than they have in years past, which leads to my last criticism of Kostora’s argument on the receiving corps.  He laments the Ravens for having only two receivers with more than 423 yards or 5 catches of 20-yards or more.  I’m not sure why his statistical line was drawn at those points, but the Ravens have five receivers with over 300-yards this year (including Ray Rice), and all but one have been on the receiving end of at least one passing TD.  So contrary to Kostora’s conclusion that the Ravens’ passing game can be shut down by taking Smith and Boldin out of the game, the Ravens now have depth and diversity at the position which allows them to continue their air assault through Pitta, Jones, Rice, and Dickson if and when required.

The bottom line is that I do not believe the Ravens have been the recipients of too much praise this year, and therefore they do not deserve the title of the most overrated team in the league.  Furthermore, many of the statistics used to make this case were either cherry-picked to prove a pre-conceived view point, or are inaccurate indicators of a team’s overall success.  Correctly used, statistics can be a useful measuring stick, but they are almost always lagging indicators.  And finally, most of the statistics cited were individual in nature, which fail to account for the fact that RBs don’t compete against other RBs, and defenses don’t compete against other defenses.  At risk of sounding overly simple, NFL teams compete as teams.  For the good teams, the results are generally better than the sum of their parts.  I think the Ravens are a good team.  The remaining five regular season games and a hopefully long post season will determine if they are a great team.

It’s Steelers’ week so I would be remiss without a prediction.  So here it goes: tight game as always, but the environment favors the Ravens.  23-17.  See you at the game.