The NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, and Lamar Jackson winning the MVP in 2019 feels like it was forever ago. Three NFL seasons is a lifetime for most players, and since then, Jackson has finished 17th, 21st, and 20th in passing EPA/play. That was more than enough to get former offensive coordinator Greg Roman fired, and lots of people, myself included, were bullish on his successor, Todd Monken. And through three games, the results have been middling.
Lamar ranks 16th in passing Total Points/play after finishing in the bottom half three years running, and the Ravens rank 13th in offensive EPA/play (-0.04). In short, the new-look Baltimore offense hasn’t looked quite as good as we thought it would coming into the year.
If you’re a fan of Lamar, it was easy to get excited about the offense this year, even beyond the coordinator change. The receiving group, on paper, is the best it’s been in years. They used a first round pick on Boston College WR Zay Flowers, and they brought a still-effective Odell Beckham, Jr. into the fold. But, this group has been beset by injuries.
Tight end Mark Andrews missed Week 1 with a quad injury, and now Rashod Bateman and Beckham are dealing with hamstring and ankle injuries, respectively. The team has averaged 0.15 EPA/play with all four of them on the field, but they’ve played just 13 snaps together so far. And at the end of the day, the Ravens receiving corps hasn’t performed as well to start as last year’s rendition did, as they rank 25th in receiving Total Points/play in contrast to a 2022 unit that ranked 2nd through Week 3.
Lamar also ranked 6th in passing Total Points/play during that span, so this year’s start shouldn’t seem as meaningful as it maybe does, especially in light of the injury issues they’re having. The offensive design is better than it was last year, but that’s a low bar and there are still a few spacing issues in the passing game from time-to-time. Furthermore, this is still not a particularly balanced offense.
They are balanced in the traditional sense that they skew closer towards a 50/50 run-pass split than most NFL offenses, but that’s generally suboptimal and their hit chart (essentially, what part of the field the ball goes to) is eerily similar to last year’s. In 2022, about 40% of their plays were outside runs; this year, that number is 41%. 35% of their plays last year were short passes (under 10 yards); it’s about a third of plays this year. In both 2022 and 2023 thus far, only 5% of their plays have been passes to the intermediate area of the field. The nuts and bolts – the X’s and O’s – have changed, as have the players who represent them, but philosophically, it’s the same stuff.
Arguably the biggest manifestation of the changes thus far is that Lamar is getting the ball out a lot faster this year than he was last year. His average snap to throw time has dropped nearly a full half-second, and his Expected Snap to Throw +/- is hovering at around league average – that is, he’s getting the ball out more or less when he’s supposed to, per the design of the play. Not Tom Brady fast, not Bryce Young slow, and that’s fine!
But, that’s what’s so unsettling about all this. The story of the Baltimore offense the past four years has been the story of Lamar Jackson. They have, more or less, only gotten as far as he’s been able to drag them. There have been systemic improvements so far, but this isn’t a unit reborn.
It feels like we’ve been here before with the Ravens. In reality, there’s no place for – I don’t know if you could even call it this – superstition in quantitative football analysis, but it just seems like we’re approaching boy-who-cried-wolf territory in regards to hyping the Baltimore offense. Even if the coordinator change proves to be little more than addition by subtraction, I am hopeful that the skill players can get healthy and that these small improvements are enough to allow Lamar to regain his MVP form. The Ravens face a big test this weekend in a Browns unit led by an absolute monster, as well as the No. 1 defense that features an early DPOY favorite in Myles Garrett. An offseason of excitement has been tempered by reality, as reality often does, but an impressive road performance against a divisional rival that allows -0.37 EPA/play on defense would be a dream come true.