The information age, annoying as it can be, is still useful for some things.
News of Saturday’s NFL preseason contest between the Baltimore Ravens and the Washington Football Team was barely under way when the reports surfaced: Ravens starting RB J.K. Dobbins taken off field with apparent knee injury. Naturally, Ravens fans held their collective breath in anticipation of Sunday’s MRI results, but given extensive video replays, the outcome was already rather obvious: Dobbins suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, aka ACL, and will miss the entire 2021 NFL season, confirmed via league sources and the Ravens’ public relations department, followed by the usual agent platitudes touting Dobbins returning stronger in 2022.
As a known, hyperbolic Ravens fan, my initial response was to look for the nearest bridge, or at minimum, begin drinking heavily. As the shock and hangover gradually wore off, I began to calmly consider the actual impact to the team.
Dobbins isn’t a well-kept NFL secret. He remains the last back to gain 2,000 rushing yards in an NCAA season. His rookie year began as a third-string fill-in behind holdovers Gus Edwards and then-starter Mark Ingram, logging 5-10 carries per game. By week 5, it had become clear to fans and coaches alike: Dobbins was ascending while Ingram was declining, resulting in the midseason promotion of Dobbins to the starting role, with Edwards the immediate backup. Dobbins and Edwards combined for over 1,500 yards rushing in 2020, with a 6.0 and 5.4 YPC respectively, placing both in the upper tier of producers per ground play in the NFL. Combined with QB Lamar Jackson’s rushing prowess, the trio figured to post astronomical numbers in 2021 while opening up new passing lanes for Jackson to exploit, and using Dobbins more in the passing game appeared to be a decisive new wrinkle to further confuse opposing defenses.
Preseason hype v. preseason reality is often a tough hurdle for fans. Dobbins and Edwards fulfilled their part of the bargain in their preseason action; Dobbins in particular shined in recent weeks due to his newly-enhanced catching ability, captured in a few random YouTube posts. Critics can debate the merits of playing Dobbins at all in a final, meaningless preseason game; given the dearth of healthy players in Ravens camp this year, I’m not sure what else they were supposed to do to get the offense some much-needed game-simulated action prior to the season opener. Dobbins had played four total snaps before his injury occurred Saturday, so to speculate that the Ravens overused him simply doesn’t make sense.
No; this is old fashioned bad luck. Lest we be reminded, football is still a violent game and produces a spate of injuries like this across the NFL every week; it’s just unfortunate to see young talents sidelined in such rapid, brutal fashion. The hope is always that the player in question returns and is as effective as they were prior to injury. It’s fortunate, in a way, that the injury wasn’t more serious – one remembers the catastrophic, gruesome, career-altering knee injuries of Willis McGahee and Napoleon McCallum, among others.
The Ravens are left with a RB room consisting of Edwards, UDFA Ty’Son Williams and presumed holdover Justice Hill, who has struggled to make an impact in his three years with the club. Edwards is expected to inherit the bulk of the carries in Dobbins’ absence, but it bears watching Williams, who quietly established himself as a solid rushing option in camp and had rendered Hill expendable prior to Dobbins’ injury. Fans were divided over the team’s decision to retain Edwards this past offseason, but the Ravens forged ahead with a two-year extension in February anyway, which, in hindsight, may prove to be their most significant maneuver of the 2021 offseason.
Free agents are always an option, although the offerings are typically older, broken or unproven. The Ravens had former Rams RB Todd Gurley in for a visit recently, so speculation is already circulating about the possibility of signing him, but it should be noted that Gurley’s production nosedived the last couple of years; it’s assumed he doesn’t have the legs to be a reliable option anymore, and his catching ability was suspect long before his rushing ability began to decline. In that vein, the Ravens are supposedly considering adding notorious former Steeler, Jet and Chief Le’Veon Bell, whose catching skill have been well-documented, even as the rest of his game appears to be deteriorating.
There are always options, to be sure, but my take is that the team will probably stand pat and rely on their existing depth to account for Dobbins’ absence. The pressure will also weigh heavily on offensive coordinator Greg Roman to devise ways to create more ground production, and given Roman’s creative focus, I wouldn’t bet against him, at least in terms of the rushing attack.
This hurts the team, no question. I suspect it may cost them a game or two in the standings overall. Still, the NFL is unpredictable, and teams respond to injuries in unique ways. The Ravens are no stranger to the “next man up” concept, which seeks to imply every player is capable of delivering the same sort of impact as their predecessor regardless of position on the depth chart. I guess we’ll find out shortly.