What Case Keenum’s breakout season suggests about Joe Flacco’s future
Much of blame for the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive shortcomings this season has fallen on Joe Flacco, and for good reason. The veteran quarterback has delivered perhaps his worst season as a professional, looking nothing like the player that carried Baltimore to the Super Bowl just five seasons ago.
But while his struggles suggest the Ravens need to start looking for a successor, the renaissance of another signal-caller in a purple uniform could provide insight into how Flacco might get his career back on track.
Just one year after leading the NFL’s worst offense, Case Keenum has become one of 2017’s most unlikely success stories. The journeyman quarterback has become the starter for the Minnesota Vikings, the soon-to-be NFC North champion and one of the best teams in football. In 10 appearances, Keenum has posted an impressive 14-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and is on pace to set numerous career marks. More importantly, the Vikings look like a legitimate Super Bowl contender for the first time since Adrian Peterson’s MVP season.
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Keenum hasn’t thrived in a vacuum, however. The Vikings feature one of the league’s bright young receiving corps, a group headlined by breakout stars Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen as well as Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph. The talented pass catchers consistently separate from defenders and either generate significant yardage after the catch or provide a reliable target in the red zone. Keenum had to correctly identify the right read and deliver a decent pass, but his weapons rendered that process considerably more manageable.
Just as significantly, the Vikings have catered their offense to Keenum’s strengths. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur focuses much of the offense through the intermediate passing game, an area that doesn’t overburden Keenum’s arm but requires a strong understanding of timing and avoiding defenders creeping into coverage. Shurmur has also done a commendable job mixing in the run game, first with rookie star Dalvin Cook and more recently with Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon. Those factors have combined to help Keenum reach new heights in 2017.
By any objective measure, Flacco has performed like one of worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL this season. His nine touchdowns and 2.6 touchdown percentage rank as the worst for any signal-caller with at least 300 pass attempts, and his 3.1 interception percentage comes in behind only his 2013 mark for the worst of his career. The Ravens offense has floundered due to Flacco’s struggles, ranking 18th in points (21.5 per game) and 26th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA entering Week 13.
While Flacco’s play has raised considerable red flags about his future as a starting quarterback, Keenum’s breakout season offers some optimism for a turnaround. A year ago with the Los Angeles Rams, Keenum posted touchdown and interception percentages of 2.8 and 3.4 percent respectively, both close to Flacco’s current marks for 2017. The Rams parted ways with Keenum, who subsequently landed with the Vikings and their more capable offensive supporting cast.
So far this season, Keenum has thrown touchdowns on 4.2 percent of his attempts and dropped his interception percentage to 1.5. No one will confuse him for a superstar, but he has more than kept the Vikings afloat in the time since Sam Bradford succumbed to his knee issues. Shurmur has done a fine job scheming the receivers open with room to run, and Keenum has regularly directed his passes where they can do the most damage after the catch. That offensive approach shares more than a passing similarity to the one Flacco thrived in under Gary Kubiak.
And while Keenum and Flacco look quite dissimilar as quarterbacks, they share many of the same physical tools. Neither possesses much in the way of speed, though each can buy some extra time while navigating the pocket. Each can complete difficult passes when throwing off platform. Only Flacco’s size and arm strength separate the two. If Keenum can turn his career around with the right personnel around him, Flacco has a chance as well.
Flacco’s situation does differ from Keenum’s in certain ways, especially in terms of compensation. Keenum will earn roughly $1.9 million in base salary and various bonuses in 2017 and accounts for just 1.1 percent of the Vikings’ cap space. Flacco hasn’t played for such a small amount since his rookie season ($1.3 million, 1.1 percent of cap) and almost certainly never will again for the duration of his career. With Flacco set to take up nearly $25 million in cap space next year with a dead-money cost of $28.75 million if released, the Ravens can’t realistically move on from him this offseason.
And that lack of flexibility further highlights the need make changes to Flacco’s supporting cast. Keenum’s success derives in part from the receiving trio of Diggs, Thielen, and Rudolph. By and large, Flacco hasn’t had the luxury of such a receiving corps. Arguably, the veteran quarterback hasn’t played with anyone approximating a bona fide No. 1 receiver since arriving in Baltimore a decade ago. Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin served as his top targets early on with the tandem of Torrey Smith and Steve Smith Sr. taking over those responsibilities in more recent years. All of those wideouts produced at least one 1,000-yard season during that stretch, but none commanded the type of defensive attention nor challenged secondaries the way the league’s top receivers can.
Even more damning, the Ravens’ current receiving corps rates as arguably the worst of Flacco’s career. Mike Wallace appears to have lost the burst and straight-line speed that made him one of the league’s elite deep threats early in his career, regressing into a reserve-level receiver forced into starting duty. Jeremy Maclin hasn’t lost quite as much physically, but he also lacks the ability to separate with consistency. The two wideouts haven’t done enough to help their quarterback, which partially explains why running back Javorius Allen has as many or more targets at this point in the season.
While developing a true No. 1 wideout will take some time, the Ravens can still help Flacco in that department this offseason. The upcoming free-agent class could include several intriguing wide receivers, headlined by the Philadelphia Eagles’ Alshon Jeffery, the Green Bay Packers’ Davante Adams, and the Miami Dolphins’ Jarvis Landry. Each comes with notable flaws and will likely require lucrative multiyear deals to acquire. However, all three have played at a Pro Bowl level at some point over the last two years and, in the case of Jeffery and Adams, still have room to grow.
Baltimore might not ultimately pursue any of the top options due to salary-cap restraints (fifth least cap space entering 2018, per Over the Cap’s projections). If so, more cost-effective options do exist. Terrelle Pryor’s season took a nosedive after a promising early start, but he remains a talented wideout with the speed to burn. Soon-to-be restricted free agent Willie Snead has all but disappeared in 2017, and the New Orleans Saints could tender him at a low level or leave him unprotected. And if Allen Robinson’s ACL tear renders his market bear, perhaps the Ravens could swoop in and sign him to a one-year, “prove it” deal à la Jeffery’s current contract with the Eagles. Any of these options could make a meaningful impact on Flacco’s performance.
But the Ravens can’t simply restock the shelves and assume Flacco improves. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg hasn’t adjusted his play calls to his personnel, and the team has struggled for it. Any improvement effort seems destined to fail should he continue calling plays for Baltimore into next year.
Rather than replace Mornhinweg with someone in-house as head coach John Harbaugh has done for much of his tenure, the next offensive coordinator should come from outside the organization. A fresh approach from someone not beholden to the franchise’s existing philosophy could prove the key to unlocking Flacco.
Perhaps Flacco never rebounds from his current tailspin, but the Ravens have no choice but to try. Until 2019, the two sides are stuck with one another. They might as well try to make the best of it.