When the playoffs began, Baltimore was the team no one wanted to face. And now, no one will.
Despite a late comeback effort spearheaded by dynamic rookie Lamar Jackson, the Ravens came up short in their bid for playoff glory, falling to the Chargers Sunday in an opening-round heartbreaker. Rather than doing battle with long-time nemesis Tom Brady up in Foxboro this weekend, Baltimore is left to reflect on what could have been. While the Ravens take a long look in the mirror, it might be time for us to look at what the future holds for Baltimore’s star quarterback-turned-benchwarmer Joe Flacco.
Turning the page on a franchise cornerstone is never easy. There’s something to be said for loyalty and certainly the Ravens owe a great deal to Flacco, who stands as the most decorated quarterback in team history. Regardless of where you fall on the whole “Is Joe Flacco elite?” debate, there’s no denying that without him, the Ravens wouldn’t have hoisted their second Lombardi trophy in 2012. Sure, his $120 million contract may have been a reach (though that number seems tame by today’s standards), but Flacco’s playoff heroics that year were nothing short of remarkable. In upsetting the Peyton Manning-led Broncos (his Hail Mary to Jacoby Jones sent the game into overtime) and later fending off the pesky Niners in the iconic Blackout Bowl, Flacco cemented his place in Ravens lore. But folk hero or not, the Ravens are a business and in putting out the best on-field product, teams have to make sacrifices. Nostalgia has to take a backseat when winning is the currency.
We all knew the Flacco Era in Charm City wouldn’t last forever and evidently so did departing GM Ozzie Newsome, who started the countdown clock on Flacco by using a first-round pick on former Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. When he arrived on the scene Jackson was, by all accounts, a project. Equal parts polarizing and electrifying, most scouts agreed that Jackson would not be an immediate starter. But after two months of part-time gadget work, a hip injury to Flacco opened the door for Jackson, who went on to win six of seven regular season starts with his lone loss coming at the hands of top-seeded Kansas City. John Harbaugh milked Flacco’s injury for as long as he could before arriving at the toughest decision of his coaching career on December 12. That’s the day Harbaugh announced Jackson as the team’s permanent starter, relegating the long-tenured Flacco to backup status.
Jackson’s playoff debut was anything but smooth sailing as the 22-year-old (like Nicolas Cage and my brother, he celebrated his birthday on Monday) labored through an excruciating first half against the Chargers. The 32nd overall pick in April’s draft looked so rattled by L.A.’s seven-man secondary—a genius wrinkle incorporated by defensive coordinator Gus Bradley—that many wondered if the Ravens would call on Flacco to make a relief appearance. It never came to that, though Sunday’s season-ending defeat was a gentle reminder that despite his prodigious rushing talent and exhilarating play-making ability, Jackson is still far from a finished product. Jackson clearly has a long way to go as a passer, completing a mere 58.2 percent of his throws while eclipsing the 200-yard mark on just one occasion this year.
Pinning the team’s future to Jackson rather than staying the course with a more traditional pocket passer like Flacco is a definite risk, but it’s one worth taking. Despite an increased emphasis on downfield gunslingers in today’s NFL, the Ravens proved ground-and-pound can work just as effectively, snapping a four-year playoff drought on the strength of 2,441 rushing yards (second-most) and 19 rushing touchdowns (third). Baltimore completely transformed its offense with Jackson at the reins, bludgeoning opponents with a power-running scheme while turning each game into high-stakes keep-away.
We’ve seen countless coaches struggle to adapt under similar circumstances, but Harbaugh deserves credit for installing an offense suited to Jackson’s strengths while turning the Ravens into a surprise contender. Baltimore’s stout defense also played an important role in the team’s turnaround but it was abundantly clear that Jackson, for all his flaws, was the missing ingredient. Even when they knew it was coming, Baltimore’s opponents proved ill-equipped to contain a playmaker of Jackson’s elite caliber, yielding 50-plus rushing yards to the rookie in seven of his eight starts (postseason included). We’ve seen mobile quarterbacks like Tim Tebow and Jackson’s current teammate Robert Griffin III flame out in recent years (injuries were Griffin’s undoing), but Lamar is more than just a flash in the pan. Despite Sunday’s hiccup, Harbaugh confirmed the team’s long-term commitment to Jackson in his post-game remarks, telling reporters that there would be a “market” for Flacco this offseason.
Which begs the question, what’s next for Flacco? It couldn’t have been easy for Baltimore’s playoff savior to ride the pine while Jackson carried the team to a division title, but Flacco still said and did all the right things, handling his demotion with class and dignity. And soon the former Super Bowl MVP will be rewarded for his patience. With a thin crop of quarterbacks in this year’s draft class (studs Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa won’t be coming out until 2020) and even fewer options on the free agent trail (Teddy Bridgewater, Nick Foles and Tyrod Taylor are among this year’s standouts), Flacco shouldn’t lack for suitors on the open market. The Ravens will undoubtedly explore trades, but they won’t have much leverage as most teams expect Flacco to be released. That’s probably a safe assumption—there’s no way the Ravens would pay a backup $18.5 million. Baltimore would be on the hook for $16 million in dead money, but releasing Flacco would also free up $10.5 million in much-needed cap room.
The former Delaware Blue Hen is not long for Baltimore, which comes as stellar news for quarterback-needy teams like the Giants, Jaguars and Redskins. Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who declared for the draft on Monday, may be of interest to the G-Men. But if New York is looking for a bridge option while Haskins or another young quarterback is being developed, Flacco could be on their radar. Flacco isn’t the player he was early in his career, but he’d surely be an upgrade on the rapidly declining Eli Manning.
New York’s division rival finds itself in a similar conundrum as Washington will likely be without Alex Smith, whose career is in jeopardy after suffering a devastating leg injury earlier this season. Considering D.C.’s close proximity to Baltimore, Washington would seem to be an ideal landing spot for Flacco. Don’t dismiss Jacksonville as a possibility, either. The Jaguars finally got around to benching Blake Bortles this year, admitting defeat on a failed five-year experiment. And if Flacco isn’t the Jags’ cup of tea, perhaps the 6’6,” 245-pounder would be a fit for another Florida-based franchise, the Miami Dolphins. Only time will tell if underachiever Ryan Tannehill survives the Dolphins’ new coaching regime. If he doesn’t, the Fins could emerge as a dark horse in the upcoming Flacco sweepstakes.
You wouldn’t think an aging quarterback who lost his job to a rookie with a sub-60 completion percentage would be a hot commodity, but that’s exactly what Flacco will be when he inevitably hits free agency. Flacco was actually having one of his better statistical years before a hip injury derailed his 2018 campaign, ranking 10th among qualified QBs in passing yards per game (273.9) while contributing his highest quarterback rating (84.2) since 2014. The 2008 first-rounder hasn’t attained many personal accolades throughout his career—Flacco’s next Pro Bowl invite will be his first. But the 33-year-old’s downfield prowess and reputation as a winner should earn him at least one more look as an NFL starter.
Quick Hits: Green Bay became the first team to fill its head coaching vacancy this offseason, tapping former Titans OC Matt LaFleur as the successor to Mike McCarthy on Monday. Prior to hiring LaFleur, the Packers also met with former Lions and Colts coach Jim Caldwell, Saints assistant/TEs coach Dan Campbell, Saints OC Pete Carmichael, Patriots DC Brian Flores, Patriots OC Josh McDaniels, Steelers OL coach Mike Munchak and former Colts coach Chuck Pagano. This will be LaFleur’s first head coaching stint … While we’re on the subject of LaFleur, the newest Packers head coach is expected to retain Mike Pettine as his defensive coordinator. 2018 was Pettine’s first year in Green Bay following previous roles as a consultant for the Seahawks (2017) and a two-year run as the Browns’ head coach (2014-15) … The Chargers activated Hunter Henry from injured reserve, paving the way for him to make his season debut Sunday against New England. Henry is back to 100 percent after tearing his ACL at OTAs last spring … The Falcons have offered their vacant offensive coordinator position to Dirk Koetter, who was recently let go as Tampa Bay’s head coach. Assuming he accepts the gig, this will mark Koetter’s second stint as Atlanta’s OC … The Buccaneers have yet to make an official announcement, though according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, “all signs” point to Bruce Arians becoming the team’s next head coach. Arians retired from his post as Cardinals head coach last year … Former Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano is leaving his position as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator to pursue coaching opportunities in the NFL. Schiano interviewed for New England’s defensive coordinator opening last offseason but ultimately stayed in Columbus … Mike Wallace remains “day to day,” according to Eagles coach Doug Pederson. Wallace, who suffered a broken fibula in Week 2, hasn’t seen the field since the team activated him from injured reserve two weeks ago … The Jets conducted interviews with Jim Caldwell and USC OC Kliff Kingsbury on Monday. Both are vying for the head coaching vacancy left behind by Todd Bowles, who was recently let go after a disappointing four-year stay in East Rutherford … Eric Weddle hopes to be back with the Ravens next season. The All-Pro safety and 12-year vet said the only team he’ll play for is Baltimore … Per Ian Rapoport, the Ravens are working to sign John Harbaugh to a long-term extension. Harbaugh has been at the helm in Baltimore since 2008 … Demaryius Thomas said he has no plans to retire and is focused on getting healthy after tearing his Achilles late in the year. The Texans are unlikely to bring Thomas back at his current $14 million salary … The Jaguars are expected to move on from Malik Jackson, who inked a six-year, $85.5 million contract with Jacksonville in 2016. Jackson’s release would save the team $11 million in cap space … Dallas coach Jason Garrett said the team will exercise caution with Cole Beasley, who tweaked his ankle in the Cowboys’ Wild Card victory over Seattle. After playing through his injury against the Seahawks, Beasley should be fine for Saturday’s Divisional Round game at Los Angeles.