Joe Flacco should remain Ravens starter, but Lamar Jackson’s time approaches
For the Baltimore Ravens, 2018 represents a flashpoint. At some point this season, longtime quarterback Joe Flacco will almost certainly pass the torch to first-round pick Lamar Jackson, signaling the start of a new era for the franchise. The decision to select Jackson, a Heisman Trophy winner with seemingly uncapped potential, put to rest any notion of Flacco remaining the long-term starter in Baltimore. So while the sun has not set on the veteran’s tenure with the Ravens, the focus has shifted to both how and when the transition to Jackson will occur.
In the two weeks since the NFL regular season began, the Ravens have seen two sides of Flacco. In the opener, he successfully guided a quick-strike passing attack that resulting in his statistically strongest performance — 25 completions on 34 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns — in at least three years. That Flacco echoed the 2012 version of the quarterback who put together one of the all-time great playoff runs in modern league history.
Four days later, the Ravens saw a much different player under center. Flacco attempted an astonishing 55 passes, the third highest single-game total of his career, and failed to complete even 60 percent of them. His two interceptions further doomed Baltimore in their first AFC North tilt of the season.
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Still, while Week 2’s performance marked a significant regression from the season opener, Flacco’s overall 2018 sample far outclasses that of his recent past. In 2017, Flacco ranked as one of the least efficient passers in the league, averaging an unfathomably poor 5.72 yards per pass and an even worse 5.3 adjusted yards per attempt, the worst and third worst figures respectively among quarterbacks with at least five starts. If not for the severe cap ramifications, the Ravens likely would have parted ways with Flacco during the offseason. Instead, he returned for another year and, at least thus far, has rewarded Baltimore.
Flacco’s performance will likely continue to fluctuate. However, as long as it remains within the range of his first two weeks, the Ravens have no reason to send him to the sidelines now. In a down AFC, the team has a viable chance to compete for a playoff berth and, perhaps, win a division title for the first time since 2012. Baltimore’s upcoming schedule includes contests with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, and Tennessee Titans, three teams with just one win between them. If the Ravens can win the majority of those games, they can look forward to an 11-week stretch to close the year featuring just four road trips. Even if the Ravens fail to take advantage of their conference and schedule, the season holds value as an introduction for Jackson.
Flacco’s improved play buys the Ravens time to prepare Jackson for the rigors of the NFL. It makes sense for the team to pick a favorable matchup for Jackson’s debut, and the perfect one comes in Week 11. That game, a home tilt with the Cincinnati Bengals, comes directly on the heels of Washington’s bye and pits Jackson against a middle-of-the-pack defense. Baltimore should have plenty of time to prepare the rookie signal-caller for the matchup, build a compatible game script to get him in rhythm and give him every advantage possible for his first start.
Further helping matters, Week 12 offers a home matchup with the hapless Oakland Raiders, owners of one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL. The Raiders’ soft pass defense should create opportunities for Jackson to test his arm while their lack of athleticism on the edges should open up running lanes for him to showcase his elite-level mobility.
But getting to that stretch without overexposing Jackson presents challenges. In virtually every NFL city, the pressure to hand over the reins to a first-round quarterback increases with each passing week, especially if the team falls quickly out of contention. John Harbaugh and his coaching staff haven’t led the Ravens to the playoffs since 2014, and their plan to ease Jackson into the offense could end up in the trash to protect their job security.
Of course, the Ravens could also find themselves in the playoff hunt come November, further complicating factors. In such a scenario, it becomes difficult to envision Harbaugh making a change under center if Flacco remains reasonably effective. That doesn’t mean a switch couldn’t occur, though.
A similar situation played out for Harbaugh’s brother in 2012 with the San Francisco 49ers, with established veteran Alex Smith yielded the starting job to second-year man Colin Kaepernick midway through the season. An injury pushed the swap initially, but the 49ers could have still gone back to Smith, who had enjoyed a career season up until that point. Undoubtedly, Baltimore’s Harbaugh remembers those decisions and will weigh them as 2018 unfolds.
However, all of those issues only matter if Flacco maintains his early 2018 performance well into the season. The Ravens need him to prevent his heir from ending up in the line of fire prematurely. Flacco certainly didn’t anticipate becoming a mere placeholder, but Baltimore’s future depends on him executing the role effectively.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at NFL.com, SB Nation, Sports on Earth, and other outlets. He also serves as the senior reporter and editor for Acme Packing Company, a Green Bay Packers blog.