The Ravens entered the league as an expansion team in 1996, and although that particular season was filled with interesting, dominant and putrid teams (Jacksonville, Carolina, Green Bay and the New York Jets being the latter), but the most fascinating was Baltimore.
Although the Ravens began 2-2, they quickly dropped off to go 2-10 throughout the rest of the year. Although the season finishing with a terrible 4-12 mark, quarterback Vinny Testaverde was named to the Pro Bowl, and receivers Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander surpassed 1,000 yards.
The Ravens were the total opposite of what their team would become in only 5 seasons, as their 2000 squad won the Super Bowl with a legendary defense and a bumbling offense. The 1996 team had the league’s best total offense, but the league’s second-worst defense.
Although the defense featured the likes of rookie Ray Lewis, it didn’t stop them from giving up 27.5 points per game and costing Baltimore 8 losses in which they held a halftime lead. In fairness, the unit was decimated by injuries early in the season, crippling their pass rush and dooming the unit to become one of the league’s worst.
Football Outsiders calculated that the ’96 Ravens had the worst pass defense they had ever tracked, and watching some games that they played, there’s no way it couldn’t have been. The skylights in Memorial Stadium caught more passes, and receivers ran all over the place, constantly putting pressure on the offense.
The offense, however, was streetwise enough to overcome the defense’s miscues…four times. Vinny Testaverde had a career year, playing in the Pro Bowl for the AFC despite playing on a last place divisional team. Although the offensive unit didn’t have a gaudy 450+ point season, they averaged 23.1 points per game and were a complete unit, being able to run and pass the ball with equal efficiency. The run game, bolstered by
Father Time Ernest Byner and Bam Morris, was actually very good, providing 10 touchdowns.
Testaverde passed for 33 touchdowns and 4,177 yards, which was a very good season in 1996. His yardage mark is still a franchise record, 18 years later. Testaverde couldn’t reach his full potential, however, thanks to a poor offensive line (featuring Jonathan Ogden, I might add) that gave up 34 sacks.
As a result of this tremendous imbalance, the Ravens lost all sorts of shootouts, including a wild 46-38 loss to New England at home. Another shootout loss was a 45-34 loss to Denver. The defense ended up holding opponents to fewer than 20 points twice, both wins, and allowed over 30 seven times.
The next season, the offense dropped to 19th, while the defense rose to 13th, and it’s been like that ever since. There was a long quarterback drought in Baltimore between Testaverde and Joe Flacco in which Baltimore tried guys like Jeff Blake, Randall Cunningham, Anthony Wright, Trent Dilfer and Elvis Grbac.