Jonas Shaffer: After offseason improvements, could the Ravens really turn into a pass-first offense?

BALTIMORE — After the Ravens took wide receiver Rashod Bateman in the first round of the NFL draft last month, coordinator Greg Roman wanted to offer a correction. There was a prevailing narrative around his offense — that it was a run-first attack. And then there were his facts. Which, to him, did not align.

“It’s important to remember that as we are a, quote-unquote, running offense, we still throw the ball more than we run it,” Roman said during a virtual news conference. “There are more passing plays per year than running plays, and we want to be great at both, and we’re going to work very hard at being great at both.”

As the Ravens convened in Owings Mills this week for organized team activities, their revamped wide receiver room daring fans to dream again, it was not hard to imagine this offseason as an inflection point in the team’s offensive evolution. It was quite easy, in fact, to imagine quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens throwing far more often — and running far less — in 2021.

Even with free-agent signing Sammy Watkins absent from Wednesday’s voluntary practice and Bateman sidelined for much of the workout with muscle soreness, Ravens wide receivers flashed. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown ran as if his new No. 5 jersey were an indication of his default gear. Miles Boykin, a perennial offseason standout, impressed with a handful of catches. Devin Duvernay had the afternoon’s longest reception. Fourth-round pick Tylan Wallace worked the middle of the field with confidence. There weren’t a lot of bad days for the group, if any.

It was just one late-May practice, against a secondary missing most of its top cornerbacks, without the looming threat of crunching tackles. But it pointed toward a trend, toward the type of descriptor Roman might prefer for his offense: if not pass-first, then at least well-balanced.

On the surface, the Ravens’ numbers suggest otherwise. In 2019, Jackson’s NFL Most Valuable Player season, they averaged 27.5 passes per game, the least in the league, and 37.3 carries per game, the most. In 2020, they averaged 25.4 passes and 34.4 carries.

But slowly, change was underway in Baltimore. Roman’s assessment of his offense was incorrect in one respect: In practice, the Ravens have remained a run-first offense. They finished last season with an NFL-high 555 carries and NFL-low 406 pass attempts.

In theory, though, the numbers told a different story. According to Sports Info Solutions data, if you were to move the Ravens’ 49 scrambles over to their passing column, remove their 13 kneel-downs from their running column and imagine all 32 sacks as pass attempts, the margin narrows considerably.

Add the 23 pass attempts and scrambles nullified by penalties, compared to the nine designed runs taken off the books, and unofficially, 510 Ravens plays had started off as passes — and just 502 as runs. (Jackson was the Ravens’ only quarterback to spike the ball, but he did so just three times.) No accounting could’ve led to a similar conclusion about the 2019 offense.

Roman’s assertion required some tortured math, but he was at least partly correct. Opposing defenses, fearful of a record-breaking rushing attack, had “dared” the Ravens to throw the ball last season, Roman explained. And the Ravens had obliged.

“There are times when people, from a numerical standpoint, are just going to dare you to throw it and just commit more to defend the run than you can possibly hope to have sustained success against,” Roman said. “That’s where we really want to take a big step this year, and I think that’s really going to be key to us taking a big step offensively.”

Publicly, the Ravens’ quarterback and their general manager have been somewhat at odds in their visions for the offense, though never acrimoniously so. Jackson is maybe the NFL’s greatest running quarterback ever, but he’s long hoped for a more Tom Brady-esque run-pass ratio. Before the 2019 season, Jackson said he was hoping for “probably 30 passes a game”; he finished with 26.7, then dropped to 25.1 last year.

Eric DeCosta, meanwhile, at the team’s season-ending news conference in January, left no ambiguity in how he saw the offense. “We’re a running team,” he said. But he also acknowledged the need for a more consistent passing attack: “We want receivers who can make plays. We want tight ends who can make plays. We want to not give the defense a chance to get used to what we’re doing.”

In the pass-happy NFL, a run-first offense is not an easy sales job. According to analytics website, only five teams last season finished with positive Expected Points Added on carries — a metric that determines the value of a play by accounting for its down, distance and yards to goal — while only eight teams had negative EPA on drop-backs. The two play types complement each other, of course, but only an efficient passing offense nowadays can ensure an efficient offense.

The Ravens’ conundrum is one of choice. They were one of just four teams with positive marks in both categories last year. Yet despite Jackson’s disappointing passing season, the Ravens still had a higher EPA per play on drop-backs than they did on runs.

Now their attack has three first-round picks and developing depth at wide receiver, a Pro Bowl-level tight end in Mark Andrews, a more experienced and likely more secure offensive line, and a quarterback with something else to prove. The Ravens had the NFL’s top offense two years ago, when they set the league’s single-season rushing record. Their path to the top this season could look very different.

“Our expectation is to score a lot of points,” Brown said Wednesday. “If that’s with the least amount of pass attempts, if that’s with the most pass attempts, we want to take advantage of everything we get and score the most points we possibly can each and every game.”

In leading the NFL in scoring over the past two seasons, the Ravens have largely defied modern conventions. Now their revamped offense could defy easy categorization: a constantly evolving force that embodies DeCosta’s run-based philosophy one week, Jackson’s pass-heavy preference the next week and Roman’s good-at-everything ideals every game.

“I just can’t wait to put the pads on and go against other opponents to show off our skills and stuff like that,” Jackson said Wednesday. “Right now, everyone’s rolling. Everyone’s happy to get back. The new guys, they’re happy to be here. So we’re just going to see.”