The Green Bay Packers were the NFL’s worst team when they hired Vince Lombardi decades ago. He pledged to improve them by stressing the basics. At the start of his first team meeting, he held up a ball.
“Gentlemen, this is a football,” he said.
Max McGee, a receiver with a wry sense of humor, raised his hand and said, “Coach, don’t go so fast.”
Even Lombardi laughed.
Envisioning what the Ravens need to do to better themselves in 2021, I think of that scene and Lombardi’s focus on simple things. Part of what undid them in their playoff loss last season was the inability to perform one of football’s basic tasks – snapping the ball to the quarterback.
It was an intermittent problem during the season that surfaced at the worst possible time, with the Ravens down late in Buffalo. Lamar Jackson chased an errant snap into his own end zone and wound up with a concussion.
When considering how the Ravens could improve in 2021, my take was they had to start with that basic issue. You know, don’t go so fast. Make sure you can snap the ball to the quarterback and go from there.
I don’t want to minimize the challenge of doing it right, especially in the pistol formation, where a snapped ball travels a good distance to the quarterback. Imagine doing it with a defensive lineman poised to bash you in the head. Not easy.
But an NFL team has to get it right, and that’s why switching Bradley Bozeman from guard to center is among the Ravens’ most important moves of 2021.
Yes, improving the passing game and re-tooling the pass rush are also critical. But after cycling through three centers in 2020, solidifying and/or upgrading that position could have a profound effect.
Clean snaps to Jackson would be an obvious difference-maker, and that’s just part of the equation. The center is, in effect, a second quarterback, charged with identifying defenses and calling out blocking schemes – a job as high-pressure as it is low-profile.
A quarterback is always better if his team has a quality center he can go through the years with – a pairing not unlike the right catcher for a baseball pitcher.
A young Joe Flacco certainly benefitted from the Ravens’ signing of Matt Birk, then an 11-year veteran center, in 2009; they won a bunch of games together, including Super Bowl 47.
Early in his career, Jackson was paired with Matt Skura, an overachieving former undrafted free agent who developed into a starter. The Ravens were so happy with Skura that they converted Bozeman to guard even though he’d played center on a national championship team at Alabama.
Skura was a candidate for a long-term contract extension until he suffered a major knee injury in 2019. Suddenly, the future at his position was unclear.
After enduring a tough rehab, Skura shared the position with Patrick Mekari and rookie Trystan Colon in 2020. It reflected well on them that the Ravens had the NFL’s top running attack, but snaps became an issue and the Ravens seemingly came out of the season looking for more stability as part of a larger effort to upgrade their offensive line. (Skura signed with the Dolphins in March.)
Bozeman, meanwhile, has developed into a starting-caliber O-lineman, performing so solidly at left guard that it’s fair to wonder whether he should move.
But he could be more valuable as a center. If all goes well, he and Jackson, who were part of the same draft class, could provide a long-term solution as a quarterback-center pairing. If Bozeman can be replaced at left guard — the roster isn’t lacking for candidates – the O-line is better.
In open OTA practices, Bozeman has appeared to handle the position well. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh announced he was the starter last week.
“He’s very comfortable in there,” Harbaugh said. “He’s making the calls. He’s moving very naturally as a center. He’s snapping the ball very well. I think that’s where we’re at – that’ll be our starting point.”
It’s hugely important, especially if it means the snap issue is gone.
As Lombardi’s Packers illustrated, taking care of the simple things can be a very big deal.