While Ravens find themselves in playoff hunt, faltering Joe Flacco remains an enigma
For myriad reasons, the Baltimore Ravens find themselves in the thick of the playoff picture. For myriad reasons, the team many projected to compete with the Cleveland Browns for the bottom of the AFC North entered Week 12 in first place. For myriad reasons, a squad that fired one of its highest-ranking assistant coaches in early October hasn’t sunk deeper into desperation mode.
Yet somehow, Joe Flacco, the Ravens starting quarterback and player chiefly responsible for lifting the franchise to its last Super Bowl title four years ago, does not constitute any of those causes.
The numbers don’t necessarily reveal all the ways Flacco has faltered. His completion percentage, interception percentage and yards per attempt either fall right in line or actually demonstrate improvement on his career averages. Likewise, he finds himself on pace for the first 4,000-passing-yard campaign of his nine-year professional career.
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However, week after week Flacco displays broken mechanics and questionable decision at a frequency not seen from the veteran signal-caller in previous seasons. Whether under duress or with little pressure in his face, he often forgoes setting his feet before beginning his delivery, allowing passes to sail. And while Flacco has always trusted his arm to make passes most quarterbacks cannot fathom completing, he has allowed that self belief to cross over into overconfidence, throwing into double and triple coverages that even rookie quarterbacks know to avoid.
Flacco’s poor play has opened up the floodgates for further criticism, chiefly from former teammate and future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis.
Last week, Lewis tore Flacco apart during an appearance on FS1’s talking-head-gab-off Speak For Yourself, questioning the quarterback’s passion and ability to rally the team. While Lewis later apologized for the remarks, they underscore concerns that have fairly or unfairly dogged Flacco for much of his career.
“There is something called talent, right, and you see it a dime a dozen. Then there’s something called being passionate about what you do, about really what you do,” Lewis said about Flacco. “Me being around that … Gifted? Absolutely. Passionate about what he does? I’ve never seen that. I don’t know what that looks like.
“I don’t know how many times you hear somebody really just go out on a limb to defend, He’s the greatest teammate I’ve ever had. … Maybe his personality is just not that personality. He’s not a ra-ra guy; he won’t say much. But still, in the game of football, there has to be some burning fire behind you, there has to be something that speaks that is bigger than me. This is us, this is a core. Whether you understood that I used to do or why I used to do it, sometimes I didn’t ra-ra for me. Sometimes I ra-ra because my boys need to ra-ra.”
At the outset of the season, some of Flacco’s struggles could be explained away as part of his ACL recovery. Less than 10 months had passed since he ruptured his knee before Flacco took the field for the Ravens’ season-opening win against the Buffalo Bills, a quick turnaround for any significant injury. While some elite athletes have returned 100 percent in similar time frames — Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s 2012 MVP campaign comes to mind — most require more time to regain their full faculties.
But the hurdles associate with an ACL tear cannot alone account for Flacco’s inconsistencies. A rookie-filled offensive line certainly hasn’t helped matters, with the left side composed of No. 6 overall pick Ronald Stanley and fourth-rounder Alex Lewis breaking down on seemingly every other drop back. A more mobile quarterback might better navigate a collapsing pocket, but Flacco, especially so soon after knee reconstruction, just does not have the wheels to escape such regular pressure.
Yet even with those valid excuses, Flacco must still shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for his performance in 2016. A signal-caller of his stature and experience cannot throw touchdowns on just 2.4 percent of his passes, nor can his offenses produce the second fewest yards per play (5.0) of any team in the conference. More specifically, the Ravens cannot afford to have an average player under center.
A cursory look around the league shows the top-paid quarterbacks elevating their teammates and succeeding as a unit. Russell Wilson leads one of the hottest offenses in football despite playing behind a subpar offensive line. Philip Rivers has lost nearly every meaningful pass catcher in his arsenal, but the San Diego Chargers remain potent when they have possession. Even Andrew Luck, the top-tier signal-caller with arguably the worst supporting cast around, manages to keep the Indianapolis Colts in contention.
Can Flacco, with a still-frisky Steve Smith Sr. and rejuvenated Mike Wallace at his disposal as well as a defense that has quietly become an elite unit, find a way to generate results similar to his contemporaries? Flacco has shown the ability in the past, putting the Ravens on his back during the 2012-’13 playoffs, one of the great individual runs in postseason history.
Few dispute whether Flacco can perform at that level again. Whether he does may well determine how much longer Baltimore’s 2016 postseason hopes remains alive.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at SB Nation, Sports on Earth, and other outlets. He also serves as the senior writer and editor for Acme Packing Company, a Green Bay Packers blog.