Only one team won all their preseason games in 2018: the Baltimore Ravens.
They did it despite being in the Hall of Fame Game, forcing them to win five August contests instead of four. But nobody should’ve been surprised. Baltimore won all its preseason games in 2016 and 2017 too.
After the Ravens beat Washington on Thursday, they also finished the 2019 preseason — you guessed it — 4-0. That makes four straight undefeated preseasons. That’s 17 straight wins in games that don’t actually matter at all. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh might disagree with that last part, though.
“We like to win,” Harbaugh told BaltimoreRavens.com. “The haters out there are going to have their own little snide comments. I think winning is better than losing, and we don’t do much different than anybody else.”
Or in the words of Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale, “it’s a good habit to get into ... winning football games.”
If the goal is to win in August and set a tone entering the regular season, it appears to be working for the Ravens. They’re 8-2 in September games since their preseason winning streak started in 2016.
Let’s put Baltimore’s preseason success under the microscope. How special is it? And is it actually working out well for the team?
The Ravens don’t have the record, but their streak is still historic
It’s hard to dig too deep into the historical context of the Ravens’ accomplishment, because no one really cares much to document preseason results. When the Ravens got to 16 consecutive wins, the Elias Sports Bureau told ESPN it was the longest preseason winning streak in at least 25 years.
A 2013 post by the Philadelphia Inquirer covers the rest of NFL history. Their all-time ranking of preseason win streaks shows only one longer than Baltimore’s: a run of 23 straight exhibition wins the Green Bay Packers had beginning in 1959 and ending in 1963.
It’s worth pointing out, though, that preseason was much different back then.
Teams often spent August and most of September traveling to play one-off games around the country to generate interest. For example, the 1959 Packers ended their preseason schedule with games in Portland, Ore.; Bangor, Maine; Winston-Salem, N.C.; and Minneapolis.
And because the point was to entertain, they kept their foot on the gas. Like the time the Packers beat Washington, 41-7, in a 1960 preseason game in Winston-Salem.
There were also weird novelty games such as Green Bay’s 42-20 win against a team of college all-stars in 1962. Even weirder is the fact that it was college all-stars who snapped the Packers’ preseason win streak at 23 games in 1963.
All that to say, this Ravens’ streak is much different. It’s easily the longest winning streak in the NFL preseason’s current format.
Now the preseason is a tool used to: 1. Lightly prepare starters, and 2. Evaluate talent trying to make the roster. Most teams don’t care one bit about the final score. Take the Falcons, for instance, who are at 12 straight preseason losses — a streak absolutely nobody is concerned about.
When the Ravens actually try to win a game in August that’s pretty much all it takes to get the job done. Starting quarterback Lamar Jackson played the first three possessions of Baltimore’s preseason opener against the Jaguars, leading the team to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Jacksonville sat every player on the team you’ve heard of.
The following 18 @Jaguars players are not expected to participate due to coach’s decision:— Tad Dickman (@TDickman89) August 8, 2019
It’s not exactly surprising the Ravens won 29-0. They also came out on top 26-13 against a Packers team that sat Aaron Rodgers and beat the Carson Wentz-less Eagles, 26-15 (although Jackson sat in the latter).
If Baltimore wants to win in the preseason, the other team usually won’t put up much of a fight. The question is whether or not it’s worth it.
Does the Ravens’ preseason win streak matter?
Remember that 8-2 record the Ravens have in September games since 2016? Well, they’re 3-10 in October over that same span.
The biggest benefit of not trying in preseason is that it decreases the risk that starting players will get injured. The Los Angeles Rams didn’t play their offensive starters at all during the 2018 preseason, then rode that explosive offense to the Super Bowl.
Baltimore got to the playoffs too. Despite a midseason slide with four losses in five games, the Ravens won six of their last seven to take the AFC North crown. It’d be convenient to blame their rough October on wear-and-tear, but Baltimore’s injury report didn’t look much worse than any other team’s.
A better way to evaluate Harbaugh’s preseason strategy is to stretch the sample size. After all, he’s been trying to win preseason games since he became the Ravens’ head coach in 2008.
“It counts,” Harbaugh said after the Ravens beat the Patriots in his first ever preseason game as a head coach, via ESPN. “There’s the excitement of the players coming up here and getting a victory in this stadium against this team. It was a real thrill to be here.”
Overall, Baltimore is 37-12 in preseason during his tenure. Here’s the Ravens’ regular season record in each month since 2008:
- September: 25-12 (0.676)
- October: 17-25 (0.405)
- November: 32-13 (0.711)
- December: 27-20 (0.574)
- January: 3-2 (0.600)
It sure looks like the Ravens have an October problem. Then again, it’s offset by Baltimore being great in September and November.
Is the preseason why the Ravens tend to slow down a few weeks into the season? Perhaps. But Harbaugh has a 104-72 record in the regular season and has led the Ravens to the playoffs seven times in 11 seasons — including a win in Super Bowl 47.
Trying to gear up for the regular season by winning in August is working out for the Ravens. Don’t expect it to stop as long as Harbaugh’s in charge.