Baltimore Sun

Up for rebound

As camp begins, team in unfamiliar position after dreary 2021: ‘There’s a bad taste in your mouth’

- By Jonas Shaffer and Matt Cohen

When the last of the Ravens veterans reported to training camp Tuesday, the vibe around the team’s facility was familiar. “Like the first day of school,” defensive lineman Calais Campbell said.

The circumstan­ces surroundin­g their 2022 season, however, are decidedly foreign. After a year so riddled with injuries that former defensive coordinato­r Don “Wink” Martindale likened it to Netflix’s gory “Squid Game” series, the Ravens know they have to move past the dismal end that defined their 2021.

Six straight losses, including four without injured quarterbac­k Lamar Jackson. An 8-9 record, only the second losing season during coach John Harbaugh’s tenure. And no postseason appearance for the first time since 2017.

“It makes you hungry,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen said Tuesday. “I don’t like having a bad taste in my mouth. I know the last game of the season [a 16-13 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers], it didn’t end how we wanted to, and we didn’t make the playoffs. So the only thing on our minds right now is just getting ready for these preseason games. Go in there and just get off on the right foot and just get off on the right foot and just be better than what we were last season.”

A less crowded injury list will help. Jackson, sidelined last season by a bone bruise in his ankle, is healthy and expected to participat­e fully amid ongoing contract negotiatio­ns. But left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle),

running backs J.K. Dobbins (knee) and Gus Edwards (knee), outside linebacker Tyus Bowser (Achilles tendon), cornerback Marcus Peters (knee) and safety Ar’Darius Washington (foot) are on the physically-unable-to-perform list, meaning they haven’t been cleared to practice. Edwards is already considered questionab­le for Week 1.

Rookie tight end Charlie Kolar, meanwhile, is dealing with a possible sports hernia that could require surgery, and rookie outside linebacker David Ojabo (Achilles), an unsigned second-round pick, won’t be ready until at least midseason. And despite the Ravens’ revamped approach to training camp — a later start time, more stretching, fewer one-on-one sessions — training camp injuries are inevitable.

But inside and outside Owings Mills, there is faith in the team returning to the playoffs. According to DraftKings, the Ravens are slight favorites to win the AFC North, ahead of even the Cincinnati Bengals, who swept the Ravens last season and stormed to a Super Bowl appearance.

“If [missing the playoffs] don’t give you a little bit of edge, I don’t know what will,” Campbell said. “There’s a bad taste in your mouth the whole offseason, so when you’re preparing and training, you kind of have that taste in your mouth the whole time. When you lose in the playoffs, you have a bad taste in your mouth. But you knew, like, ‘OK, we were close.’ But when you don’t even make the playoffs, I mean, it’s a little different. It gives you a little bit more of an edge when you’re going through your training camp — and not just training camp, but the preseason workouts and just trying to get ready for this moment.

“So I think we’re in a good place, though. I think we know what we can be. And that’s what’s most important, is, OK, the pieces are there. Now it just comes down to execution, our developmen­t, from now until the season starts, and then just going out there and earning our way. So we’re in a position where we know it’s going to be a lot of work. It’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to roll our sleeves up and get dirty. But I look in the guys’ eyes and I see a whole lot of guys who are ready and willing. So I’m excited.”

The next step comes Wednesday, when the team will hold its first full-team practice. On Saturday, the Ravens return to M&T Bank Stadium for an open practice. On Aug. 11, they’ll welcome the Tennessee Titans to Baltimore for their preseason opener. After last year’s disappoint­ments, the team knows it can’t afford to skip any steps in its path back to prominence.

“The word that comes to mind is excitement,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “It’s kind of the start of getting down to the real business. We have a lot of goals and aspiration­s, and for us, it’s being the most discipline­d team, being focused on the details during this time and being a hungry team, which we will be.”

Players defend Jackson after recent criticism: Ravens players once again are being asked to defend Jackson after criticism from national media. This time, it’s from an anonymous NFL defensive coordinato­r.

In an article in The Athletic ranking quarterbac­ks into tiers based on a poll of 50 NFL coaches and executives, the defensive coordinato­r said he didn’t think the Ravens could win if Jackson is forced to throw and that Jackson will never be a top-tier quarterbac­k.

“If he had to pass to win the game, they ain’t winning the game,” the defensive coordinato­r said. “He’s so unique as an athlete and he’s really a good football player, but I don’t [care] if he wins the league MVP 12 times, I don’t think he’ll ever be a 1 as a quarterbac­k. He’ll be a 1 as a football player, but not as a quarterbac­k. So many games come down to two-minute, and that is why they have a hard time advancing even when they are good on defense. Playoffs are tight. You have to be able to throw the ball, and he is just so inconsiste­nt throwing the ball. It is hit or miss.”

Andrews, Jackson’s top pass-catcher, was blunt in his response.

“We’ll see whoever that was, for sure, mmm hmm,” Andrews said succinctly.

It’s not the first time Jackson has been criticized since the Ravens took the Heisman Trophy winner in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft out of Louisville. He’s been called a running back, and pundits talk about his accuracy. This offseason, his contract negotiatio­ns — and value — have been a further point of critique.

In the article in The Athletic, Jackson was ranked 10th and in the second tier of quarterbac­ks. He was the third-best quarterbac­k in the AFC North, ranking below the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow (sixth) and the Cleveland Browns’ Deshaun Watson (ninth). Jackson’s teammates don’t agree. “That’s a foolish statement,” Campbell said. “If you win 12 MVPs, you’re the best quarterbac­k of all time. Certain people always have their opinions and you really can’t care about what other people think. Everything Lamar does, if he goes out there and wins the Super Bowl three years in a row, people are still going to be critics.”

ESPN insider Louis Riddick said on “Get Up” Tuesday morning that “this doesn’t seem cowardly, it is cowardly. This doesn’t seem personal, it is personal.”

In a similar exercise, ESPN surveyed more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players to rank the top 10 players at 11 different positions, and Jackson, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player, ranked outside the top 10 quarterbac­ks.

“Hard to stay healthy when you run that much; he’s actually gotten a lot better as a passer,” one NFL offensive coach said. “But if you play that way [with a run-heavy attack] and it’s a close game and you’re down, it’s really hard to win, because you’re asked to do what you only minor in, not major in, and that’s passing the ball when they know you are gonna pass it.”

 ?? KENNETH K. LAM/BALTIMORE SUN ?? “If [missing the playoffs] don’t give you a little bit of edge, I don’t know what will,” Ravens veteran defensive lineman Calais Campbell said Tuesday on the eve of training camp.
KENNETH K. LAM/BALTIMORE SUN “If [missing the playoffs] don’t give you a little bit of edge, I don’t know what will,” Ravens veteran defensive lineman Calais Campbell said Tuesday on the eve of training camp.

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