The Double-Edged Sword of High Expectations
“If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down”
One simple lyric from a nearly 20-year old rock song can sum up the way many Ravens fans are feeling these days. We Baltimoreans relish the role of the underdog, and we feel most comfortable when our teams do the same. For nearly the entirety of their existence, the Ravens have been all too happy to oblige us in the “us against the world” mentality. Sure, WE always expect our team to do well, but we’ll be damned if we’re going to let on that fact to “them.” We prefer to carry any optimism we may have very close to the vest.
And so, when we find the Ravens garnering the amount of positive national attention that they have been since their 2009 season unceremoniously crashed to the ground in Indianapolis, we become a bit…uneasy. There are a few reasons for this. On top of the aforementioned underdog fetish (or what some may call an inferiority complex), there is the fact that, under the previous regime anyway, the Ravens have always been much more likely to do prove prognosticators wrong than to inspire a chorus of “I told you so’s.”
On the way to the franchise’s only Super Bowl, Brian Billick’s team won two road playoff games, including victories in Oakland’s “Black Hole,” and Nashville’s Adelphia Coliseum, the latter in which they were, to that point, the only road team to ever win a game.
Long live the Baltimore Underdogs.
When they were expected to be dominant though, Billick’s teams were seemingly delighted to disappoint. Following their AFC North Titles in 2003 and 2006, they were quickly dismissed from the Playoffs, both times at M&T Bank Stadium and both times without recording a single postseason victory. In the seasons that followed each of those playoff losses, seasons in which they were expected to be in contention for defenses of their Division Crowns, they proceeded to post disappointing records of 9-7 and 5-11, respectively.
Enough of the quick history refresher course though. Let’s talk about how this relates to our 2010 Ravens.
- Joe Flacco has led the team to the postseason in each of his first two years under center. He has done so with a less-than-stellar receiving corps. Traditional wisdom says that an NFL QB’s 3rd season is the one in which he really starts to grasp the speed and complexities of the game.
- We acquired a true #1 wide receiver in Anquan Boldin. While Boldin is not the “deep threat” that has been missing from this offense for years, another guy that the Ravens picked up, Donte Stallworth, could be just that.
- Ray Rice is, by all accounts, on the verge of absolute superstardom. Along with Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain, the Ravens have one of the most potent ground attacks in the league.
- Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison seemed to finally figure things out during the second half of 2009, and the Ravens’ defense, despite perceived struggles throughout the year, finished #3 overall.
Add all these things together, and you get what may be the highest pre-season expectations…well, EVER for a Ravens team. And not just locally. National publications are all over the Ravens in 2010, and we fans have, of course, been quick to take note. We are proud to see our team getting some high-profile respect. We love Ray Rice being ranked in the Top 5 of “Fantasy” running backs. We beam when John Madden talks about how impressed he is with Joe Flacco.
But, in the back of our minds, many of us are still uncomfortable with all the love. Which is a big reason why, when our first-team offense comes out and struggles a bit, as they have so far during the first two preseason games, many of us find ourselves being magnetically pulled to that figurative “cliff.”
Usually, I tend to be the one trying to talk Ravens fans back from that cliff. This time, though, one of the reasons I’ve yet to weigh in on Saturday’s Redskins game is that I am unfortunately feeling that same gravitational pull to the edge that, judging by the callers to local sports-talk stations, many Ravens fans are.
In a “normal” year, things like the offense going 0-for-5 on 3rd downs, or the starting linebackers getting absolutely torched in coverage, in preseason games, would be cause for concern, but by no means a reason to hit the panic button.
This year, though, the curse of high expectations makes those weaknesses appear to be all the more glaring.
“We’ll never win a Super Bowl with these bums around Ray! Heath Miller and Jermaine Gresham will kill us!”
“Why does Flacco STILL keep checking down so much?”
“What in the world happened to Michael Oher? Isn’t this guy supposed to be good?!”
Those are the kinds of things Ravens fans were screaming at their televisions Saturday night.
In the days since, I’ve found myself torn between agreeing with this kind of knee-jerk, reactionary (and sometimes alcohol-induced) hyperbole and with trying to remind myself that we really can take nothing from preseason football games. Hell, the Bills torched the Colts last week (with both teams’ starters on the field).
Again, I think it’s the expectations getting the better of me. In our stubborn (and usually unrequited) love of the underdog role, we take the defensive mechanism of talking ourselves into the notion that our team probably isn’t as good as everybody says.
If we don’t expect too much, we might not be let down.
Hopefully, the day is coming when these kinds of expectations are par for the course in Baltimore. As much as we despise the Pittsburghs, Indianapolises, and New Englands of the world, their fans have learned to deal with being preseason favorites long ago. That is the kind of culture that Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh are trying to build around here, and it would be great if it became common enough that we all just got used to it. That day obviously isn’t here yet. And in the end, all the predictions and prognostications go straight out the window once the opening kick of the season is in the air.
My suggestions, then, for my fellow Ravens fans and myself, are these:
- Don’t buy into the hype. Make the team prove something before you label them as contenders or busts.
- Recognize the weaknesses in the team, but also remember that this really is still the preseason. Until the games count, many of these guys just aren’t wired mentally to do anything more than go through the motions. Remember that the coaches are using these games to evaluate, and they too are careful of how much they are revealing.
- Get excited about the strengths too. That 21-yard completion from Flacco to Boldin on Saturday was a pretty play, and there are plenty more like it where that came from.
- Find something productive to do between now and September 13. Get your mind off the purple and black. The time for pulling out your hair isn’t until the games start to count.
I’ll try my best to abide by these. I hope you will too.