John Harbaugh is not afraid of change. His search for an offensive coordinator will reveal how the Ravens might evolve.

Published on: January 25, 2023 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: January 25, 2023 7:40 AM EST

BALTIMORE, MD - OCTOBER 13: Head coach John Harbaugh interacts with Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens prior to playing against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium on October 13, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland.
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The last time the Ravens fired and hired a coordinator, there were no public plans for a total makeover. Mike Macdonald, who replaced Don “Wink” Martindale as defensive coordinator after the 2021 season, would be doing renovations instead.

“It’s not going to be dramatically different, I don’t think, structurally,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Macdonald’s defense at his end-of-season news conference in January 2022, “because you try to build on where you’ve been before.”

What Macdonald and the Ravens built this past season was, as inside linebacker Patrick Queen put it in October, “very similar, but very different” — familiar terminology, but a new approach. The Ravens blitzed a lot under Martindale; they didn’t under Macdonald. The Ravens played with heavier boxes under Martindale; they didn’t under Macdonald. The Ravens relied on single-high safety coverages under Martindale; they didn’t under Macdonald. Maybe the most obvious carryover from one play-caller to the next was the players in the scheme, rather than the scheme itself.

As the Ravens start to interview offensive coordinator candidates this week, quarterback Lamar Jackson’s fit and future, more than any other consideration, will drive the franchise’s search for Greg Roman’s successor. But Harbaugh’s willingness to embrace change, and his flexibility with the team’s “identity,” could be just as important.

“We’ve established an identity for our offense. I think everybody knows that,” he said at Thursday’s end-of-season news conference. “That’s important; that’s a good identity. That’s an identity that we’re going to carry forward. It speaks well of the organization, the city, kind of what we’re all about. Within that, the schemes that you run, the formations, the type of players you put out there, that’s all kind of methodology. You kind of work through that as you go.”

The last time Harbaugh made a change at offensive coordinator, it ushered in the franchise’s most successful era of offense — an era that was stylistically divorced from the one that preceded it.

Under Marty Mornhinweg, who served as coordinator from Week 6 of the 2016 season through the end of the 2018 season, quarterback Joe Flacco averaged 38.4 pass attempts per game, according to TruMedia, which ranked behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger in that three-season span.

Under Roman, meanwhile, who replaced Mornhinweg ahead of the 2019 season, Jackson averaged 27.5 pass attempts per game, which ranked 23rd among qualifying quarterbacks over the past four seasons. Spread formations and three-wide-receiver looks gradually disappeared from the Ravens’ call sheet, replaced by condensed sets and tight-end-heavy personnel groupings.

The partnership never produced the “revolution” that Harbaugh envisioned ahead of Jackson’s breakout 2019, doomed in part by injuries. But it was productive. Driven by Jackson’s unique dual-threat talents and Roman’s creative run game schemes, the Ravens finished with a top-12 offense, according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics, in all but one of the past four years.

The only offensive coordinator in franchise history to approach that level of success was Harbaugh’s first, Cam Cameron (2008-12), whose best season never came close to the record-breaking highs of 2019 — or even the soaring early-season levels of 2022. (The Ravens were ranked No. 5 in offensive efficiency when Jackson suffered an ultimately season-ending knee strain in Week 13.)

“The things [Roman] accomplished here were pretty historical; there were records set here in the National Football League that are going to stand for a long, long time,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “So we’re all really proud of those things. Greg’s a great coach, and he did the best he could every single week, every single day.”

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If the Ravens’ change at defensive coordinator last year was partly a concession to the blitz-beating abilities of the elite AFC quarterbacks standing in their way, the change at offensive coordinator could be an acknowledgment of the dwindling support the offense’s run game under Roman had offered the passing game.

The Ravens ranked second in rushing efficiency this past season, their third top-three finish in the past four years. But even as the team’s running game evolved over the years, succeeding with and without Jackson, its play-action success tumbled.

In 2019, Jackson’s NFL Most Valuable Player season, the Ravens averaged a robust 0.25 expected points added per play-action play, according to TruMedia — seventh best in the NFL. In 2020, that rate fell to 0.06 EPA per play (16th). In 2021, they were at 0.07 EPA per play (24th). This past season, the most quarterback-friendly play in football was worth just 0.03 EPA per play (25th). (EPA is a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position.)

“We’re going to always believe in running the ball, and we’ve done that really well over the last number of years,” Harbaugh said. “With that, you’ve got to have a complementary passing game. You’ve got to have a standalone passing game — with drop-back passing, situational passing, third downs, especially long and in the red zone. And then you’ve got to have a play-action passing game that goes with whatever runs you run, whether it’s quarterback-driven runs or power runs or whatever, and they’ve got to fit your run game.”

Harbaugh said the Ravens would cast a “wide net” in their coordinator search, but four of the candidates who’ve reportedly been requested for interviews have a common background. Zac Robinson is the Los Angeles Rams’ quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. Chad O’Shea is the Cleveland Browns’ wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator. Dave Canales is the Seattle Seahawks’ quarterbacks coach and former passing game coordinator. And Brian Angelichio is the Minnesota Vikings’ tight ends coach and passing game coordinator.

In Jackson, the Ravens have a quarterback who “can do everything,” Harbaugh said. The 26-year-old has broken records as a passer and as a runner, torched defenses with big plays and knocked them back with patient drives. If the front office’s top priority this offseason is negotiating a long-term deal with its franchise quarterback, Harbaugh’s is finding a coordinator who can make that record-breaking contract look like a bargain.

After the 2021 season had ended with a thud, six straight losses knocking the Ravens out of playoff contention, Harbaugh shared a mantra he’d been thinking over: “Change is inevitable, and growth is required.” Ahead of another coordinator search, he was curious to hear what others saw as the way forward.

“What kind of ideas come up in these interviews?” he said. “What kind of ideas do guys have? How can they merge their thoughts and their vision for this offense with what’s been done here in the past, too? How does it all fit together with the players? Those are all the questions you ask. So nothing’s set in stone; nothing ever stays the same. Everything changes, everything evolves. You have to keep it moving. So we’ll definitely keep it moving in ways that fit the players that we have, but it’ll definitely be within the identity that we have for our offense.”