Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs looks on before the Ravens… (Patrick Smith, Getty Images )
It is the time of year for victories, not excuses.
We've been hearing a lot of them from the Ravens (3-4) since the season opening debacle in Denver. The receivers are old and quarterback Joe Flacco needs time with his new ones. The offensive line is hurt. The secondary lacks communication and the special teams aren't so special. It's Juan Castillo's fault.
And the list goes on and on and on ...
Well, it's time to put up or shut up.
"We know what time of year it is," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "I think coach [John] Harbaugh will tell you we've built this team on November and December football to obviously have a chance to play in January, and then you know what happens after that. That's where we're at these next couple of weeks.
"If you want a chance to play in January, you've got to take care of your business in November and December. And it just so happens the first of the month is coming up, and we start our new chapter right now."
And that's why excuses are no longer acceptable. Any kinks the Ravens had, they certainly have had the time to work them out.
The Ravens know this and that is why they made the bold moves Wednesday of cutting veteran safety Michael Huff and defensive end Marcus Spears. Both were top free agent acquisitions during the offseason and both were performing poorly.
General managers usually don't cut the new disappointing free agents until after the season because it's embarrassing. Apparently, Harbaugh had the blessing of GM Ozzie Newsome as Huff and Spears became the biggest free agent disappointments since quarterback Scott Mitchell in 1996. And not only was Spears underperforming, but he was starting to grumble in the locker room.
Harbaugh means business.
"So, obviously there will be a little bit of an adjustment there — particularly on the defensive front — but they made those decisions in the best interest of the organization, and we have a job to do and we have to get it done on the field. Simple as that," defensive end Chris Canty said.
Harbaugh wants to hold his players accountable, but he and Newsome have to be held to the same standard as well. They compiled data on all the newcomers, they checked over the salary cap and they put the roster together.
On Wednesday, all of the players practiced for the first time this season with the exception of starting offensive tackle Michael Oher (ankle), and Thursday they all practiced except for left guard Kelechi Osemele (back).
Rice said his hip felt good and he thought he made a major breakthrough as far as health two weeks ago against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Backup running back Bernard Pierce (strained hamstring) has said he is close to 100 percent. Both interior lines appear fairly healthy and inside linebacker Jameel McClain is set to start his second straight game after missing earlier games with a bruised spine.
So, the injury excuse is gone, and so is the Castillo factor. The Ravens pulled the plug on his influence before the Steelers game and the offense showed improvement. Basically, they are back to using what made their offense successful in the postseason last year.
Flacco is setting the pass protection, not center Gino Gradkowski. The Ravens are attacking more in the zone blocking scheme and running less stretch plays. They are back to running more three-receiver set formations which will spread out the defense and open more natural holes for the running game.
This will take fullback Vonta Leach off the field more, but allow Flacco to call more of his own plays at the line of scrimmage instead of relying on coordinator Jim Caldwell and receiver coach Jim Hostler.
A lot of adjustments have been made.
"What do you really address? I mean, there's an issue, you talk about it, you work on getting it better and you have to go out there and play well," said Flacco, when asked about the team's poor running game. "That's how you address things is by going out there on Sunday and doing it well and getting yards. All the other stuff is really just talk. It's just a matter of going out there and doing it."
Flacco doesn't talk much, but when he speaks he says a lot, if you listen carefully. He knows that at this point of the season the timing should be down with young receivers Marlon Brown and Tandon Doss.
It's been a slow learning curve for Flacco and veteran tight end Dallas Clark, but the two have been playing well in the past two games.
But what about on the other side?
In the first half of the season, the Ravens had glaring holes in the middle of the secondary, which was attributed to communication problems.
After three months, they should be fixed by now. The same can be said for special teams. One of the reasons the Ravens cut Spears and Huff was to bring up safeties Omar Brown and Brynden Trawick to improve coverage.
It's been nearly two weeks since the Ravens last played. During the bye, they had an opportunity to self scout and make changes in personnel. They also had time to heal. So now, it's just a matter of winning.
Excuses can't be tolerated.
"It's November football. At this point, they're all big — [especially] after the bye," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "They all count. Not to say the ones before didn't, but these decide whether or not you get a chance at greatness."
Or an opportunity to make more excuses.