OWINGS MILLS, Md. – It is just June, three months before the real football begins, but the scrutiny sure seems to be rather thick already for the Baltimore Ravens.
One quick glance at the defensive backs as the first mandatory minicamp practice began said as much. The Ravens were slapped by the NFL (again) last week, forfeiting the final two days of organized team activity practices for apparently having a bit too much contact in drills.
So there was no sign of that on Tuesday, when the cornerbacks typically employed in bump-and-run coverage techniques for as much as 80% of the snaps in the real games went through the whole practice playing it soft. “Off coverage” is what it’s called, and it’s an apt term.
That’s what scrutiny will do for the practice script.
Then again, maybe the Ravens – penalized for a third time since 2010 for such violations of the collective bargaining agreement – are getting picked on a bit too harshly.
“I don’t get into judging all of that,” Harbaugh said after practice. “They have their reasons for what they do.”
I’m guessing that Harbaugh – fined $50,000 on top of the $100,000 team penalty for the latest infraction – bit his tongue on the matter. He knows his team is being watched like it’s on double-secret probation when it comes to his practice drills.
Yet that represents just one layer of the scrutiny.
After his team missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season, the first such streak since 1999, the pressure on Habaugh undoubtedly intensified in February when Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti (who incidentally attended his first practice of the offseason on Tuesday) acknowledged that he considered whether to bring his head coach back for an 11th season.
That’s about as plain as a hot-seat warning as you’ll get. Meanwhile, esteemed general manager Ozzie Newsome will turn over the reins after the season to his longtime assistant, Eric DeCosta, with the expectation of transitioning to another role in the organization.
Then consider the hot-and-cold quarterback, Joe Flacco, whose moves will be even more closely dissected given the presence of first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson. The story line has had juice since draft weekend, when Flacco refused to speak to the media during a team-organized draft event, then continued after Jackson maintained that the veteran didn’t return his text-messages in the days after the draft.
Flacco is the guy who once bet on himself when contract talks hit a wall and then won Super Bowl MVP honors en route to a major payday. Think he’s a bit stoked by all of this?
“I don’t know if it makes a difference,” Harbaugh said, while Flacco, unavailable for comment, hustled into the closed locker room. “I think he’d be motivated, anyway. What the heck. All of our antennas are up all the time.”
Harbaugh maintains that Flacco represents “the major, No. 1 observation” of the entire offseason, which is all rather essential. A year ago the quarterback was coming off back surgery, which wiped out his offseason and training camp before a shaky first half of the season.
He’s healthy now and looks better than he has in years, early as it may be. He was fluid on Tuesday, moving well and throwing with zip. He routinely flicked deep throws, too, seemingly with ease, as if to serve reminders of the big arm that sparkled during his best years. That he’s in the mix for the offseason work as the Ravens overhaul the receiving corps with the additions of crafty Michael Crabtree, speedy John Brown and emerging Willie Snead is obviously critical for improving a 29th-ranked passing game.
And Flacco even mimicked the fleet-footed Jackson (sort of) on a scramble up the middle.
Yet the scrutiny won’t let up — not with Harbaugh talking about the heavy consideration for finding creative ways to get Jackson involved.
“I fully expect him to be active on game day,” Harbaugh said. “So, gosh, you’d sure like to have him out there helping. And if he can play quarterback, to get two quarterbacks out on the field at once, what options does it create for our offense. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
Harbaugh could have a delicate task managing that development. Show me the starting quarterback in the NFL who would be thrilled by the prospect of losing snaps to the up-and-coming understudy.
Then again, it’s the business of pro football. Jackson was arguably the most intriguing player in the draft, and he was picked in the first round for a reason. His progress is another marker for scrutiny.
For Flacco, Jackson and the rest of the Ravens, the spotlight is likely to persist all summer — and beyond.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.