These are strange September days in Baltimore. The Orioles are in a pennant race and the Ravens have an offense, with the parting of both seas taking place just in a nick of time.
For beginners, another last place finish in the American League East and the Orioles would have been near extinction, as for the previous 14 late summers and falls, the Raven has been the bird of choice for the Baltimore sports fan. Whether or not the Orioles can stay in the race is a moot concern at this point. With just 19 games remaining, they’re smack dab in the middle of it.
Without Nick Markakis, who was hitting like Rickey Henderson since taking over the leadoff spot, things will be decidedly tougher. But this is a team that has defied logic since nearly the first pitch of the season, thrown what seems like 50 starting pitchers ago.
As for the Ravens, their new high-powered no-huddle offense has hit town at a time when the team’s meal-ticket defense finds itself in a transitional stage. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the heart of the team for so long, are as old as their tongues and slightly older than their teeth, which is say, by NFL standards, Kris Kringle old.
Newer, younger players are being brought into the scheme, and based on what we saw in Monday’s 44-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, it’s going to take some time, as the Bengals had success running the ball before the Ravens offense put the game away early in the third quarter.
Thus, it will be on the Baltimore offense to carry this team for awhile, and that hasn’t been the case since a fellow by the name of Unitas was in town calling the plays, which is exactly what Joe Flacco appears to be remarkably comfortable in doing. It’s been five years, and particularly with how he performed in the AFC Championship game last season, it was time for head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to take off the training wheels, and it was time for Flacco to respond by being the white-hot quarterback he has been since the first game of the preseason.
It has never been easier for Harbaugh to make this decision because the Ravens have weapons — Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, Dennis Pitta, with fullback Vonta Leach suddenly looking like Lydell Mitchell taking passes out of the backfield. The Ravens can win running the ball, dumping the ball or going to its speed downfield. It’s not Mike Wallace speed, but neither is it having to rely on tight end Todd Heap as your only deep threat.
Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young of ESPN is impressed, particularly by what he sees in the quarterback.
“Flacco put himself on the front page,” Young said. “It’s about Joe Flacco. And it’s not because he meant to, it’s because he was superior. It’s the nature of the game today with quarterbacks. The Ravens are now set in my mind, more than ever, including in 2000, to go the distance with this formula.”
“Flacco is big league,” Sports Illustrated’s Peter King declared, with ESPN’s Ross Tucker concluding, “Flacco's agent is smiling from ear to ear right now. He’s got the laser, the deep ball and now the touch.”
Flacco has always had the laser, the deep ball and the touch. Now he’s finally been given the opportunity to use them.
Baltimore is wired, as the Bengals found out Monday night at M&T Bank Stadium, with perhaps the loudest ovation of the night being reserved for Orioles J.J. Hardy, Mark Reynolds, Matt Wieters, Jim Johnson and Adam Jones. There was a time not long ago when the Ravens would have avoided showing Orioles on the jumbotron as a matter of courtesy. There was a time not long ago when the Orioles pretended that big building across the street from Oriole Park was an industrial park. Now Ravens players wear Orioles hats and spend the summer throwing out ceremonial first pitches at Orioles games.
Feel-good statues are everywhere in the neighborhood of Camden Yards — Babe Ruth, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr., John Unitas — and people in Baltimore walk down the street with smiles on their faces.
The Orioles are in a pennant race. The Ravens not only have an offense, they have an offense that is designed to carry the brunt of the load and, of all people, Steve Young, for years a most vocal critic of the Ravens’ lack of offensive philosophy, is singing its high praises.
It’s all just one big happy family in Bawlmer, hon.
Strange days, indeed.
Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org