Ravens Watch

This Ravens Season Will Be Most Unusual to Watch—And Play

From cardboard cutouts to ambient stadium noise, the team's “work-at-home” situation is new for everyone.

Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman is worried that Lamar Jackson might talk too loud.

He’s worried that players and coaches from other teams—either watching live or on television replays—will clearly hear what signals the quarterback is yelling out at the line of scrimmage and find a pattern about what play follows, or which direction Jackson runs.

Think of how clear Peyton Manning’s famous “Omaha” call was on national television a few years back. Now put that situation in a mostly empty, cavernous football stadium. (Manning, the future Hall of Fame quarterback, revealed once he retired that the Nebraska city was an “indicator” word to his lineman that he’d changed a play, and gone to “Plan B”.)

Sensitive microphones can easily pick up language from players, coaches, or the sound of a sneeze, especially with no fans in the stands, which will be the case for at least the start of this Ravens season. It’s scheduled to begin next Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium against the Cleveland Browns.

“That’s one of the first things we started talking about,” Roman, the guy who picks the plays that Jackson calls in the huddle and the line of scrimmage, said this week, “how the communication is going to be a lot more evident, based on the fact that it’s not going to be nearly as loud. We’ll definitely mix some things up as we go.” He often holds his hand or play sheet over his goateed mouth so opponents can’t read his lips. A mask might do the job now.

(On a related note, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the other day, “Don’t they put that lip-sync thing out every year?” referring to the series of hilarious “Bad Lip Reading” videos that have linked nonsensical phrases to the movement of coaches’ mouths, “It’s going to kill that industry.”)

In the grand scheme of this most unusual and chaotic year, sign-stealing and code-breaking probably doesn’t rank high on the list of most people’s daily concerns.

As we work from home with kids hanging from our legs, and others struggle with the challenges of not working at all, we’re simply happy to even be talking and writing about sports, and that games are happening.

(And so are others, evidently. As we were researching something for this article, we noticed a Browns fan must have done some recent editing to M&T Bank Stadium’s Wikipedia page, labeling the Ravens stadium as “aka Baker Mayfield’s house” in the first line and picture caption. Can someone please change that?)

Football will be played, but like most everything else this year, it will be different. Because of the pandemic and government regulations, the Ravens home stadium—aside from the players on the field, coaches on the sidelines, and other team staff—will be empty on game days. Same goes for most road games, depending on the state and if policies change.

Fans know that the Ravens have a provocative in-stadium message during big points of a game. “Every decibel counts,” with a fake sound meter encouraging more. But the noise will literally be manually controlled this year. “It’s always great to have our fans there. They’re always energized,” linebacker Tyus Bowser said recently. “It’s going to be a different vibe.”

In fact, the NFL is reportedly requiring teams to play fake crowd noise to create some semblance of atmosphere (as well as background noise for entertainment and competitive reasons, like Roman said). And stadium staff will be allowed to play loud music until there’s 15 seconds left on the play clock.

In this new work-at-home (stadium) life, everyone who isn’t a player will be required to wear a mask on the sideline or anywhere else. Media interviews, typically done in person in or near the locker rooms, will be held over videoconference, like they have been the last month since training camp began in Owings Mills. Players will continue to be tested for COVID-19 every day. (They’re the most tested people in the country, it seems.) Reporters and team staff will spread out in the press box and capacity will be limited.

And, most notably, the Ravens recently said that cardboard cutouts of paying fans will sit in the purple seats at M&T Bank Stadium, which for the previous 22 years have been occupied by real humans. It’s a trend that other pro sports teams, from South Korean baseball organizations to the NBA bubble in Florida, have tried this year. If you ask us, it’s a brilliant idea.

For $45 if you’re a personal seat license (PSL) holder, or $55 if you’re not, your image can be one of the flat likenesses in the crowd on Sundays, and you can maybe catch the paper version of yourself in the stands while watching on TV. The team will tell you in which section of the stadium you should look. All proceeds from the cutout sales will benefit the Ravens’ COVID-19 relief efforts in the Baltimore area, and you can find more details about how to order yours here.

“Unfortunately, we can’t have fans at the game for the time being, so we wanted to give an opportunity for fans to feel like they were still there,” Deandra Duggans, the Ravens director of advertising and branding, said on the morning news the other day while showing a few examples of what the cutouts could look like.

Twenty-six of the NFL’s 32 teams have announced fanless plans, much like the Orioles have done this year. From a competitive standpoint, for the Ravens, it’s really a shame, given that Super Bowl hopes are very legitimate with Jackson, the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player, entering the prime years of his career. There should be plenty to cheer for. Originally, the team had plans to have 14,000 people in their roughly 71,000-person capacity stadium. Then the Ravens sent a revised proposal to the city and state with a cap of 7,500 fans at games, but that was shot down last week.

“That’s a bummer,” new Ravens defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said the day the decision was announced. “I’m more bummed out for the fans themselves, because they’re not going to get to [go]. Who knows? Maybe a couple of games in we might be able to start letting some fans in. Maybe by the end of the season, going to the playoffs, we’ve got a full packed stadium.”

We’re not going to blame anyone for being cautious, even with the idea of a crowd 10 percent of a normal one. So, dealing with the current reality, the Ravens have practiced at least three times in the last two weeks in an empty home stadium to get a sense of what the season will look and sound like.

On Wednesday, they practiced in the afternoon to mimic what the light will look like—mainly for Jackson and the wide receivers when they catch and throw, and for kick and punt returners when they look into the sky—during their 1 p.m. season opener against the Browns.

With no preseason games this August, the team ran through substitution patterns and game situations all with ambient noise blaring. After the first stadium practice, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, “It was louder than I thought it was going to be. [It was] probably similar to what you have in the stadium when the crowd is there at a normal level.”

That’s good news for his fourth-year assistant Roman, and Jackson, and anyone else who doesn’t want to worry about other teams hearing what they’re saying.

“It’s different,” Roman said, “but once that ball gets placed and the whistle blows, it’s football. And we have to get ready to play some good football.”