All things considered, Joe Flacco played poorly in the Ravens’ 34-23 loss to the Bengals on Thursday night, but he didn’t play poorly enough for Baltimore to make the much-anticipated quarterback change to Lamar Jackson — not by a long shot.
Flacco completed fewer than 60 percent of his many pass attempts (32 of 55), committed three turnovers and took four sacks, but he also threw for 376 yards and two touchdowns in a valiant comeback effort.
The QB situation in Baltimore simply comes down to this: Now that the Ravens have fallen to 1-1, one game behind the 2-0 and AFC North-leading Bengals, would Jackson coming in for more than the handful of snaps he’s getting as a gadget player make them a better team? For now, the answer is a resounding “No.”
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Everyone wants to see what offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s attack will look like with Jackson as its centerpiece and with a game plan adjusted to his immense athletic skills, but other than a few wrinkles (i.e., a lot more designed runs and dangerous scrambles), he can’t do more than Flacco can in the pocket with this particular supporting cast.
Jackson wasn’t drafted in the first round to provide a short-term spark. That means it is in the Ravens’ best interests to think about how they really need to play the long game with him, no matter how difficult it may be to watch Flacco struggle.
Flacco kept his many critics — who think he’s the antithesis of elite — at bay in Week 1 by ripping the Bills with his best, most efficient performance in roughly four seasons. They were ready to pounce in Week 2 as he scuffled in Cincinnati.
What didn’t help is that his Bengals counterpart, Andy Dalton, a notoriously bad prime-time passer, sparkled, with three of his four first-half touchdown passes going to A.J. Green. In contrast, Flacco, with a similar throwing volume, made the mistakes that Dalton usually makes on that stage.
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By the time Flacco got it going to his new go-to guy, John Brown, the Ravens were stuck in predictable passing situations that allowed the Bengals’ front to tee off on him. He made big plays that he had no business making by hanging tough in the pocket with his big frame and using his big arm to muster the ball downfield.
That’s exactly what makes Flacco so frustrating. His ceiling is Super Bowl MVP, and it’s admirable that he’s so unflappable and keeps pushing no matter how awful he has played. He’s sort of the AFC version of ElI Manning. At the same time, that persistence leads to big mistakes because Flacco believes he can put the ball anywhere at any time.
Regardless, at this point, Flacco is the right choice to operate an offense that is adjusting to a lot of newness beyond Jackson.
The pass protection is bad. The line can run block a little better, but the coaches have shown bad judgment in not thinking hard-rushing, yet elusive, Alex Collins should be a feature back. Their three primary wide receivers — Brown, Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead — are new. When rookie first-rounder Hayden Hurst returns from his foot injury, he will make the Ravens’ multiple-tight end sets more effective as he joins third-round rookie Mark Andrews.
Flacco has looked comfortable with who has been out there over the first two games, and he has mostly executed well. The AFC North figures to be a tight race until the end, and the Ravens, who can feel good about indispensable inside linebacker C.J. Mosley only suffering a minor knee injury Thursday and also knowing that suspended cornerback Jimmy Smith will return after two more games, have a defense that can keep them competitive.
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The Ravens, therefore, need Flacco in there while they’re still in contention, at least through a hard early schedule full of daunting defenses. Mornhinweg switching to an offense tailored to Jackson’s strengths so early would not be smart; everyone is still working on getting the many moving parts of the current version to click.
The Broncos, Steelers, Browns, Titans, Saints, Panthers and Steelers again are the Ravens’ next seven opponents. That’s four top pass-rushing teams from a season ago, and two other teams — Denver and Cleveland — that look much improved in that area in 2018.
Jackson can fling it, and he can do the running that Flacco can’t, but Jackson might be running for his life a lot in those games and won’t be able to mitigate his current weaknesses as a pro passer, in particular his accuracy. Either Flacco will be cool enough to get Baltimore back on top of the division after those first-half games, or his play will do a slow, inconsistent burn. That’s still better than what Jackson can provide right now.
The Ravens will have a good indication by midseason whether they will be a factor in the AFC playoff race. If they don’t have a shot at getting to at least 9-7, which put them on the brink last season, then they can consider using their Week 10 bye to prepare Jackson for first NFL start — at home against the Bengals in Week 11.
That period, let alone the months before the 2019 season, might seem like an agonizing wait after Flacco’s reversion in Week 2, but throwing Jackson in without a net and having him take his lumps is silly. For him, it shouldn’t be about this year. There’s a reason he was the only first-round QB to be drafted by a team with an established starter. Jackson needs time to polish his game so he can shine when he gets his chance instead of being unfairly asked in desperation to save the Ravens’ season.
The Ravens should keep giving Jackson enough snaps in certain packages to remind Flacco of his presence. There’s no doubt Jackson’s presence has motivated Flacco and that he is aware he needs to raise his game, stat. The coaches can only hope he will soon get a lot more help from his non-receiving personnel.
Baltimore isn’t built to be a playoff team by just leaning on the defense and the running game. It needs explosive pass plays, too, and Flacco is much better equipped than Jackson to provide those right now. When the Ravens do unleash Jackson, he’ll need to step in and deliver right away as a playmaker, because being a complementary caretaker won’t cut it.
The Ravens have lived on the edge with Flacco for a long time and have had a fair amount of success with him. Before their current three-season playoff drought, Flacco helped the Ravens win a playoff game in every one of his six trips, for a 10-5 record that included four victories to win it all after the 2012 season.
Jackson will see action as solely an NFL quarterback in due time, but things must break a lot worse for Flacco and the Ravens for them to expedite the move. The whole point of drafting Jackson was to be patient with him, and patience is exactly what Baltimore should practice.