What we think about football does not always matter. This may sound like a weird lede for an article that has thoughts about football (please don’t close the tab, I promise there’s a payoff), but the truth is that for all we do to break down the game, football is fundamentally a sport of randomness.
Someone can be right about every roster move and coaching decision, but a couple of unlucky bounces make them look dumber than me when I decided it would be a good idea to try to walk through a completely blacked-out tunnel in Israel without a flashlight.
In a sport with such a small sample size, there are so many archaic factors that cannot be predicted that contribute to a team’s record.
Some of them are truly areas outside a team’s control — things like weather, injuries, opponents shooting themselves in the foot, etc. Others are areas that contain volatility on a year-to-year basis contain volatility due to small sample sizes.
A team can do everything right, but if these factors do not bounce their way, they could be done for.
For the 2021 Baltimore Ravens, everything seemed to go wrong. While it was a year that most Ravens fans would probably like to forget, the good news is that there are numerous luck factors that will hopefully go Baltimore’s way in 2022.
Just to be clear, this is not to say that they will get lucky, it is simply saying that there are areas in which the Ravens should not be as unlucky.
Here are four areas in which the Ravens can be expected to positively regress to the mean in 2022.
The first area of positive regression, and the thing which will form the basis of the rest of this article, is injuries.
Football Outsiders has a stat called Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) which, rather than looking at the raw numbers of games missed, looks at the quality of players who missed games and provides the best composite of injury quantity and quality of the players who were injured.
Not only were the Ravens were the most injured team in football last year, but they also had the most Adjusted Games Lost in the history of Football Outsiders’ database, which goes back to 2001. Even when prorated down to 16 games, the Ravens still wound up as the most injured team of this century.
If the advanced numbers don’t do it for you, a simple narrative of last year’s Ravens teams paints a picture of a team that was injured unlike any other.
While the easiest way to put things is that an 8-4 Ravens team lost Lamar Jackson for the year and wound up at 8-9, the injury problems went far beyond Jackson.
Their secondary was decimated, missing nine defensive backs in Weeks 15 and 16. Anthony Averett, the only healthy outside cornerback from the beginning of the year, went down in a Week 16 game against Cincinnati in which the Ravens were also down to their third-string quarterback.
All in all, nearly half of the team’s expected preseason starters wound up being lost for the year at some point, but that doesn’t tell the whole story because many of their backups wound up getting injured as well.
While Baltimore has been resting more players in the preseason and taking steps to change the way they practice to avoid a repeat of last year, the truth is that injuries, particularly season-enders, ultimately come down to unlucky breaks, and the Ravens last year got as unlucky as one can get.
The basic laws of probability tell us that it would be astronomically unlikely for the Ravens to once again be the most injured team in all of football, and even more unlikely to be as decimated as they were last year.
The only concern is players such as Ronnie Stanley who have injuries from last year that could linger into this year, but for the most part the team hopes to be fresh coming into the year..
The 2021 Ravens were defined by their injuries. The 2022 Ravens will be defined by how they bounce back.
2. Third Downs
Football can be a funny game. The very things which cause the biggest swings in a football game — third downs, red zone performance, and turnovers — are the very things that are the hardest to predict.
While they are the “money downs” which have the biggest impact on the result of a game, the raw conversion rates and efficiency numbers for third downs tend to have extreme variance.
While it is obviously true that over longer periods better personnel correlates to better performance on third down, the simple rule of small sample sizes creates greater variance.
What’s more, the offense has the least control over the situation on third down. Early downs will always start on first and ten, which is when the offense can fully implement whatever type of game plan they want and dictate the way they want the series of downs to go.
This gives us a truer measure of an offense, because these downs represent the unit in its purest form.
Third downs are inherently dedicated by what happens on earlier downs, meaning the hand of the offense has already been forced to a certain extent.
The fact that third downs tend to naturally have higher average depths of target on passes also creates greater variance.
A defender stumbling on a couple of deep shots could change a couple of arm punt interceptions into two long touchdowns — plays that obviously create vastly different results both in terms of the ultimate result of a game and in terms of greater efficiency metrics.
While the Ravens’ running game took a major hit on early downs, they went from one of the most run-heavy teams to passing at an above-league average rate on early downs, and their efficiency on those passes actually improved.
Lamar Jackson improved from 15th in EPA (expected points added) per play on early downs in 2020 to 11th in 2021, while improving from 21st to fifth in success rate.
What’s more, according to Warren Sharp’s 2022 season preview, the Ravens improved from 23rd to ninth in the percentage of early downs that gained a first down, while staying out of third downs by moving from 24th to the seventh fewest percentage of offensive plays that were third downs.
The problem is that when they did face third downs, they were horrible.
Over the previous two years, the Ravens had been very good on third downs. The 2019 Ravens were first in third-down conversion rate and fourth in EPA/play, while the 2020 Ravens were second and fifth in those numbers respectively.
In 2021, those numbers swung to the opposite end of the pendulum. The Ravens were 25th in third-down conversion rate and 29th in EPA/Play on third downs and particularly took a hit on third and long.
According to Sharp’s preview, Baltimore posted a 53 percent success rate on third downs between eight and ten yards in 2019 and a 50 percent rate in 2020. That number dropped all the way to 29 percent in 2021.
Part of that is because the Ravens were due some negative regression, but the injuries played a major role as well. The offensive line was decimated, and one of the biggest impacts of the injuries to the running back room was the lack of continuity when it came to blitz pickups, with the new running backs continuously floundering in pass protection on third downs.
Ravens quarterbacks were pressured in 2.5 seconds or less at the highest rate in the NFL, a horrible number in itself, and one which explains why the Ravens particularly struggled on longer downs when the receivers needed more time to run their routes.
Even if players are not all back for Week 1, a healthier and upgraded offensive line as well as the return of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards should help alleviate some of these problems over the course of the season.
The biggest question is Greg Roman. While the offensive line certainly played a major role in those problems, Roman was also unable to come up with an adjustment for the constant blitzes the Ravens faced.
This told teams that they could blitz the Ravens at will which they did, particularly on third downs. While the offensive line may be healthy, Roman is still the offensive coordinator, and until he proves he can provide a counter to the heavy blitzing, teams will continue to bring pressure on third down.
The randomness of third down as well as better protection in front of Lamar Jackson should lead to a big improvement for the Ravens on these downs. The question is whether they will be able to return to the elite level sustained in the two seasons beforehand.
3. Interception Luck
Interceptions can be a very misleading stat. There are so many outside factors that could go into an interception occurring that the quarterback cannot control such as an unlucky tip, a receiver running the wrong route, or a receiver losing a jump ball on a third-down arm punt.
On the flip side, many factors could stop an interception from occurring such as a defender dropping the ball, a receiver knocking the ball away from the defender, or even a penalty nullifying the play.
While this seems self-evident, fans seem to time and time again make judgments off of just the raw interception numbers without looking at the underlying factors.
Lamar Jackson had 13 interceptions in 12 starts in 2021, but those numbers slightly inflate the degree to which he failed to take care of the ball.
As the offensive line started to crumble, Jackson increasingly felt the need to carry the offense, and as teams started to blitz more, he took more risks at times when he should have just thrown the ball away, causing him to throw some really bad interceptions such as this one.
At the same time, he was not as careless as the raw numbers would indicate. Football Outsiders has a stat called expected interceptions which looks at every pass a quarterback throws and looks at the odds of an interception would be on a given play.
By this metric, a ball that was dropped by the defense will give the quarterback a higher expected interception score than a ball tipped into the defender’s hands because based on what the quarterback could control, the first throw would be the one more likely to cause an interception.
Lamar Jackson’s expected interception number last year was not great — he wound up with ten expected interceptions in his 12 starts — but he also wound up as the second unluckiest quarterback in football, with only Justin Herbert having a bigger drop from his actual interceptions to his expected number.
When looking back at Jackson’s interceptions, it makes sense why this would be the case.
Rashod Bateman was only credited with two drops last year, but both of them happened to fall into the arms of opposing defenders. A couple of his interceptions came on deep shots where the receivers just lost the battle, including one on a third-down arm punt.
Even if he wasn’t great at protecting the ball, Lamar Jackson should not have wound up with as many interceptions as he did last year.
What remains to be seen is whether Jackson will be able to take care of the ball even if some of the unluckiness regresses to the mean.
One of Jackson’s greatest strengths had historically been taking care of the ball, with the rash of interceptions that occurred last year truly a first over the previous three seasons.
It is reasonable to say that he felt a greater need to carry the team, but the fact remains that he put the ball in harm’s way more often than he should have.
We will see whether he takes better care of the ball with what should be better protection in 2022.
4. Bengals Negative Regression
I am going to tread very carefully here.
Ravens and Bengals fans have been engaging in all-out warfare on Twitter, and I do not want this article to turn into a fight over the Ravens vs. Bengals and Lamar Jackson vs. Joe Burrow.
However, the Bengals did get lucky in many areas outside their control in 2021.
Considering that the Ravens and Bengals are the two teams most likely to win the AFC North, those areas of expected Cincinnati negative regression should only serve to positively benefit Baltimore.
Once again, this article is not supposed to be a referendum on the Ravens vs the Bengals. Instead, I am going to list the areas outside the Bengals’ control in which they got lucky in 2021 and should negatively regress in 2022.
- They had the third-easiest schedule in all of football in 2021 based on opponent DVOA. They project to have the sixth-hardest schedule in 2022.
- They were one of the healthiest teams in football, finishing with the seventh-fewest adjusted games lost.
- Their opponents were decimated in 2021, with Bengals’ opponents accruing the most adjusted games lost by a wide margin.
- They benefited immensely from opponent penalties, with the fifth most penalties committed by opponents in the NFL.
- Their opponents had the fifth lowest field goal percentage in the NFL (in the interest of transparency the Ravens were even luckier in 2021, finishing second in this metric).
Even if I do think the Ravens will win the division, I am not trying to put the Bengals on blast here. I think they are a playoff contender with an elite young passing offense, and the arrow is only pointing up.
At the same time, it is undeniable that these are all outside circumstances that will make Cincinnati’s path in 2022 harder, something which should only help the Ravens.