The Sophomore Season
Ravens trying to battle through second-season syndrome and return to playoffs
By Joe Platania
For ardent sports fans in today's athletically-saturated society, beauty and joy are provided by so-called supermen who burst majestically onto the scene by scoring touchdowns, hitting home runs, throwing down windmill dunks and generally towering over their competition in ways that won't soon be forgotten.
Lack of proper perspective notwithstanding, they are held aloft on pedestals, revered seemingly for eternity until ... the sophomore jinx.
No one seems to know the origins of a phenomenon that dictates that an athlete's second-year performance must suffer by comparison to his first. No one seems to have pinned down all the factors responsible for an alleged drop-off in motivation, work ethic and statistics. That's probably because nobody is sure if the sophomore jinx really exists.
Baltimore Ravens fans probably believe it does, given the path the team has taken. From the fork in the road at which the team found itself before the 2008 season began, to the current state of affairs, the franchise has taken the proverbial long and winding road.
When the 2008 season kicked off, the team had, in the space of just nine months, changed head coaches (Brian Billick to John Harbaugh), offensive coordinators (Rick Neuheisel to Cam Cameron) and starting quarterbacks (Steve McNair to rookie Joe Flacco). Despite a season that saw a franchise-record 19 players placed on the season-ending injured reserve list, the results were stunningly positive.
The team improved in almost all major statistical categories, averaging seven more points per game than the previous year, winning six more games and advancing all the way to the AFC Championship game before narrowly missing a second Super Bowl appearance.
Through the first three games of the current campaign, it looked as if nothing had changed. Indeed, the Ravens seemed even more explosive than before, a welcome change from a decade-long offensive malaise.
Points were pouring through as if a dike had broken -- 38 against Kansas City, 31 in a pulsating win at San Diego and 34 more in a hammering of the Cleveland Browns. Cameron's creativity and innovation were widely praised. The rocket-armed stoicism of the youthful Flacco was drawing comparisons to the taciturn legend that was John Unitas.
And Harbaugh's steely-eyed focus and devotion to tempo, alacrity and a no-nonsense, diligent work ethic was just what the doctor ordered for a humble, blue-collar fan base weary of nine years of Billick's new-age verbosity and arrogance that belied his overall success.
But in the nine games that followed 2009's sterling start, the sheen dulled, the euphoria was muted and the bloom definitely fell off the rose.
Games won by laughingly absurd margins suddenly became lost by razor-thin ones, due to the most trivial mistakes. Big plays at clutch moments that were a "fait accompli" for a tremendously talented roster were seemingly just out of reach.
Did the sophomore slump wrap its sinister sinew around the Ravens?
Or did the vagaries of a parity-ridden league simply come around to bury Baltimore in their inevitable avalanche?
'THE JINX' AT WORK What do the following names have in common?
Scott Williamson, Pat Listach, Bob Hamelin, Marty Cordova, Ben Grieve, Kaz Sasaki, Eric Hinske, Mike Croel, Kendrell Bell, Leonard Russell, Mike Anderson.
All of them won one of the various Rookie of the Year awards presented by Major League Baseball or the National Football League over the past two decades. None of them ever made a significant impact in their respective sports again. Croel's case is especially telling.
An aggressive linebacker, Croel was the fourth overall pick in the 1991 draft from Nebraska and, at first, lived up to his billing with 84 tackles, 10 sacks and four forced fumbles. That output helped the Denver Broncos post a 12-4 record and advance all the way to the AFC Championship game, where they lost to Buffalo, 10-7.
Croel's output dipped to five sacks the following year, and the Broncos' feared defense collapsed partially because of it. They went 8-8, missed the playoffs and made only a token wild-card appearance over Croel's next two years in Denver.
By the time Croel arrived in Baltimore and played with the Ravens' 1996 inaugural team -- a defense that produced the fewest turnovers (22) and gave up the most yards per game (368) in Ravens history -- his days as a spotlighted force to be reckoned with were over.
What causes such a drop-off?
Dr. Charlie Citrenbaum has been a licensed psychologist for 41 years. He has worked in the Prince George's County addiction program, among others and has used clinical hypnosis as a means for determining an individual's inner motivation. He is a believer in the mysterious second-year decline but has a tangible reason for it.
"There does seem to be something we could call the sophomore jinx," Dr. Citrenbaum said. "It's a label, like other labels, that describes someone that has a positive first year; then, in his second year, he doesn't even come close (to matching the first-year performance).
"What happens is there are expectations generated in the public. Whether the athlete says to himself or others, 'I'm not putting pressure on myself,' it's there because the expectations are there."
If someone could have avoided the sophomore jinx, it would have been Mike Anderson.
A former Marine Corps member with a stoic personality and strong work ethic, Anderson burst onto the scene with the Broncos in 2000, gaining over 1,400 yards, scoring 15 touchdowns and proving to be the team's offensive linchpin before Denver got eliminated by the Ravens in the wild-card round.
The following year, Anderson played in all 16 contests but started just seven games, rushing for less than half of his previous year's total (678). By the time 2001 ended, he had already run for half of his eventual career total of just over 4,000 yards, even though he would play five more NFL seasons, his last two with the Ravens.
"There's a part of that person who expects to do what he did in his first year," Dr. Citrenbaum explains. "The external world is going to have expectations. You can see the media picking up on that in the questions that they ask.
"In lots of cases, if a negative experience gets into his second season, it gets magnified because of the expectations set. Negative energy is much more amplified, whereby an injury, a fumble or interception take on more substance."
THERE'S NO SUCH THING Of course, there are plenty of cases where if a player proves himself over a consistent basis, he cannot only avoid a sophomore jinx, he can go on to be one of the greats of his game.
Ravens running back Ray Rice may be one of those people. In fact, you could say he didn't have a sophomore jinx, but rather it was an injury-related rookie regression.
The 5-foot-8, 210-pound Rice had surprisingly few problems adjusting to the pro game in 2008, touching the ball 140 times for 727 yards and averaging six yards per attempt. But a lower-leg injury forced him to miss the last three games of the regular season and most of the postseason as well.
Already well into his second year, Rice not only leads the Ravens in rushing and receptions, but he tops all NFL running backs in catches (68) and receiving yards (652). Rice ran for a career-high 166 yards against the Lions in Week 14, finishing the game with a personal-best 219 total yards and going over the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
“First off, last year was my first experience being in an NFL stadium," Rice recalled. "Emotions do run high. This year, I knew what to expect."
Rice also understood that preparing for a full football season -- rather than draft workouts, on-campus pro day workouts and then training camp -- would make a difference in his sophomore campaign.
“Last year I was training for (the pre-draft Scouting) Combine. That’s totally different training than trying to become an NFL running back," Rice said. "Last year I was training for a 40-yard dash, a 225 (-pound bench press) and a vertical jump.
"This year, being around the team in the offseason, pumping the weights each day, but at the same time the conditioning that we’re doing helps maintain your speed and quickness in your joints. You learn how to train when you’re a professional athlete."
Harbaugh, a no-frills type who easily shrugs off any notion of clichéd external forces having an effect on his or anyone else's players, saw Rice's big year coming during training camp.
“The thing is -- it’s always probably been true -- that your biggest improvement in your career, as a football player, at any level, is between your first year and your second year, high school, college and pro," the second-year coach said in August. "That’s when you make the most improvement. So, our rookies -- last year’s rookies -- need to make the biggest jump that they’re going to make, probably in their career, between Year 1 and Year 2.
"Ray has taken that to heart. We expect him to make that improvement.”
Not only has Rice shaken off the jinx, but many other 2008 draftees have done so as well.
Two of them play Rice's position -- Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall and Tennessee Titans speedster Chris Johnson. All three of those players are among the top six rushers in the AFC and are in the NFL's overall top 10.
SO, WHAT'S THE PROBLEM? There is compelling evidence for both the existence and the folly of the sophomore jinx. Taking that into account, what has caused the Ravens' performance in general -- and the fortunes of Harbaugh, Cameron and Flacco in particular -- to suffer this year?
Dr. Citrenbaum brings up a common psychological point, the phenomenon of "regression to the mean."
"The mean is the average ability of a given player," the doctor explained. "The second year is more of what that person really is, and it balances out what happens in the first year. In that second year, who that person really is comes out.
"Other teams learn that person's strengths and weaknesses and take advantage of them. That causes what you could call 'performance anxiety.' Once they had a great first year, within themselves, they experience an energy that leads to that."
Throughout their history, the Ravens have almost always been, at best, average when it comes to launching a downfield passing attack. During their successful 2008 season, they performed well above their mean, and lived well beyond their means as a result.
In the regular season, the Ravens delivered 40 pass plays of 20 or more yards. That may not sound like much, but they did so with two different quarterbacks and 11 different receivers participating in those plays with varied formations, imaginative play calls and pinpoint execution born from high-tempo practice drills.
The pressure to perform such feats in a second consecutive year has definitely shown, and Cameron knows it.
“Well, you know, every player or coach in this business … you get stung," Cameron said. "That’s just the way this business is. I think there is a ton of great examples of people that come back and continue to do good things. I’m not different than a player. You learn from any situation you were in. You come back. You’ve got to get better. You move on. If you can’t bounce back, then this is probably not the profession for you.”
Given his results and family history in the coaching business, Harbaugh is definitely in the right profession.
But the team's recent lack of tempo, sloppy tackling and penalty-filled ways, and more than a few ill-chosen timeouts -- including one where Harbaugh mistakenly thought he could have back in return for a replay challenge -- have raised as many questions about Harbaugh's coaching identity as the team's on-field philosophy.
However, the coach believes the big-picture objective is what's important now.
"The difference between last year and this year is the fact that the team, players and coaches know the process," Harbaugh said. "They know where we’re going with this thing. I think that’s a huge advantage in getting better.
"They know where they’re tracking, and they can get there a little more quickly now.” On the field, the quarterback is supposed to be the one getting the team there a little more quickly. But despite throwing 14 touchdown passes in the first 12 games -- matching his entire rookie year output -- Flacco has had his troubles as well.
When the foot of a Minnesota Vikings pass rusher met Flacco's in October, it caused foot and ankle problems that have continued to plague the former Delaware quarterback, something that made the sophomore jinx irrelevant.
The Ravens have had slow offensive starts for the past two months, but by the time Flacco gets to the fourth quarter, the pain obviously subsides: Flacco's 96.1 fourth-quarter passer rating is fourth in the AFC and ninth in the entire league.
But with the team having obviously fallen in love with Flacco's arm a bit too early in his career, has this caused a sophomore jinx season?
“Well, maybe that’s true," Cameron said. "It’s really hard for anybody to know what he’s being asked to do. We ask our quarterbacks to do a lot.
"It may not look that way at times, but there is a lot of leeway for our quarterbacks in and out of plays, formations. But at the same time, as a young quarterback grows, you’d like to think you can do more. What that means, I guess we’re going to have to wait and find out.”
THEY’RE HUMAN, TOO Dr. Citrenbaum believes it's just not possible sometimes to maintain the one-game-at-a-time mentality athletes and coaches try so hard to keep.
"I know pro athletes do their best to stay in the moment," he said. "I know they try to do the best job they can, but they are human. Everyone has a little marginal point within himself, and that's why you see a lot of athletes being superstitious."
To this point, there have been no reports of Ravens players not changing their socks or underwear for long periods of time, but the questions surrounding this team have, to be sure, created their own uncertain stench.
For instance, the Ravens' recent Monday-night trip to Green Bay's Lambeau Field elicited widely varying opinions on the team's performance.
ESPN analyst Cris Carter, before the game: "Joe Flacco has really graduated from his freshman to his sophomore year. All he needs are some playmakers."
MASN analyst Bruce Laird, after the game: "Joe Flacco is definitely having sophomore-itis."
It would seem hard to believe a laid-back, level-headed player like Flacco would fall victim to something as intangible and ambiguous as a sophomore jinx.
His shaky performances this season could well be caused by the fact that teams are trying to contain him in the pocket more often and cover what few targets he has.
They could be caused by the fact that over the past five weeks prior to the offensive explosion against Detroit that saw Baltimore find the end zone six times while racking up 308 rushing yards, the Ravens were averaging two touchdowns less per game, with their single-game rushing average dropping below the 100-yard mark.
In the NFL these days, that's absolutely suicidal, for the passing game is on its way to setting record totals. League-wide, games are averaging 672.5 yards per contest between the two teams, with 442 of those yards coming in the net passing category.
Not only that, through Week 13, there were 82 passing performances of 300 or more yards. Flacco had only three of those.
"The ability is there," Cameron said. "Everyone ... can see that. The matchups on a week-to-week basis and those differences are the little things that the great quarterbacks can take advantage of.”
But it's the opposition that has taken advantage of the Ravens' offense at a key point in its development: the sophomore years of the head coach, the coordinator and the quarterback. The Ravens built this trio for short-term stability and long-term success.
That's because since 1945, there have been 11 head coach/quarterback tandems that have lasted for 10 or more years. All have advanced to at least one championship game, with seven of them winning at least one title.
Does Harbaugh mind having his fortunes tied to Flacco's?
“I don’t know if it’s fair, but I’m pretty happy about it, to be honest with you, because I think we have a quarterback," Harbaugh said. "We’ve got good players on this team. But when you’re a coach in the National Football League -- or for any team -- you like to have good players. And Joe is fast becoming [a good quarterback].
"As time goes on, he’s going to be a tremendous quarterback in this league. So, I’m OK with that.”
But it's December, and sophomore jinx or not, the time for improvement is now.
Issue 144: December 2009
I meant to say pitcher versus BATTER, not catcher. Sorry. Anyway, team sports like hockey and football are truly team sports in that players must work in concert with each other. Look how many stud RB's Denver had for a while. When they left that superior blocking, the RB was left to be declared in decline. Look how many LB's left Baltimore only to be so-so when not playing with Ray Lewis. Are these players having a Sophomore Team Jinx? Of course not. Swimming, skiing and golf don't even try to use the term because they are players against themselves. It is only competitive in the sense times or scores are compared at the end of the day.
Mr Bad Example @ 4:56 PM on 12.17.2009 [
The Sophomore Jinx is a baseball term. Even though baseball is a team sport, it is centered around pitcher versus catcher -- individual versus individual. Players have tendencies, so players playing against those tendencies once they are learned will sometimes generate a reduction in production. It then becomes incumbent on that player to adjust (so the Sophomore Jinx is a one-year blip), or he goes away never to be heard from again (so the One Year Wonder's downfall began with the Sophomore Jinx). The same phenomenom can be seen in individual sports (tennis, boxing) or other activities (poker, chess) if it is one-on-one. It is mostly coincidence if it happens in football or swimming.
Mr Bad Example @ 4:50 PM on 12.17.2009 [
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