Flacco-to-Jackson transition will prove challenging for Ravens

April 27, 2018 | Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens took their quarterback of the future Thursday night.

General manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh clearly stated Joe Flacco will remain their starter, but for how long? You don’t just trade back into the first round — surrendering a 2019 second-round pick in the process — and take Louisville’s Lamar Jackson to merely be a flier and long-term backup to light a fire under Flacco. Those picks are valuable commodities, especially for a team that’s made the playoffs just once in the last five years.

Drafting Jackson so early was a clear message that the Ravens have lost faith in their longtime starter.

It’s no secret that Flacco’s contract remains untouchable until next season while the consensus opinion is that the talented Jackson won’t be ready to play in the NFL right away. The Ravens would still be dealing with $16 million in dead money on their salary cap should they cut or trade Flacco next year, making it conceivable that he stays put for 2019 if he plays well this season or Jackson develops more slowly than they hope.

But how do the Ravens calibrate the present with Flacco while preparing for their future with Jackson?

Newsome said they want to win this year, but one of the major criticisms of the organization has been its inability to surround Flacco with more talent, something that wasn’t helped by drafting someone who will be standing on the sideline this season. Harbaugh cited New England as a recent example of a team contending while drafting a young quarterback early — Jimmy Garoppolo at the end of the second round in 2014 — but Flacco isn’t Tom Brady and the Patriots already had a championship-caliber roster in place. The Ravens really aren’t in a position to be using an early pick on a backup quarterback if they’re so determined to get back to the playoffs this season.

Beyond the question of whether Baltimore will adequately address its remaining needs, how do you go about developing Jackson appropriately? The idea of a first-round quarterback not playing right away was once commonplace, but that strategy is rarely executed successfully in today’s NFL for a variety of reasons, one of them being the overall shortage of practice time to adequately develop the player. There are only so many reps to go around, and an already-maligned veteran sharing valuable first-team reps with a developing backup isn’t a winning formula for Sundays.

Then again, the Ravens trying to utilize Jackson’s unique skills in some fashion during his rookie season should be a no-brainer. You can talk about practice reps and classroom time all you want, but there’s no substitute for live-game action and one of the major questions facing Jackson is his ability to handle pressure in the pocket, something not easily replicated in practice.

To little surprise, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was vague when asked how the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner would be handled during his rookie season.

“We talked about it just briefly on his visit about how we would go about these things,” Mornhinweg said. “So [quarterbacks coach James Urban] and myself and John plan together, pre-practice, all those things. It’s going to be important. As far as the future, we’ll see what happens there. Joe’s the quarterback of this football team. Lamar is going to develop all those things. So, we’ll see what happens.”

What about the coaches’ status in this equation?

Many have assumed Harbaugh and his staff would likely be dismissed without a return to the playoffs this coming season, but much has been made about the experiences of Mornhinweg and Urban resurrecting Michael Vick’s career in Philadelphia and assistant head coach Greg Roman tutoring Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor at previous stops. If Jackson’s development is truly the priority it needs to be after using a first-round pick on him, firing the coaching staff a year into his NFL career would seemingly set him back.

On Thursday, Harbaugh spoke in such glowing terms about a quarterback who doesn’t currently figure to be a major factor in 2018 that you wonder if he’s received assurances from owner Steve Bisciotti — who admitted he considered replacing him at the end of the 2017 season — that he’s not facing a playoffs-or-bust scenario and that his staff will be given sufficient time to oversee Jackson’s development. Otherwise, it’s difficult to imagine Harbaugh being thrilled about valuable draft capital being used solely for the future.

What about the relationship between Flacco and Jackson? The 33-year-old has always been viewed as a good teammate, but he’s never before been threatened by another quarterback on the roster, making you wonder how eager he’ll be to help tutor someone tabbed to take his job.

How will other Ravens players react if Flacco gets off to a lackluster start and the talented rookie is itching for his opportunity? Quarterback controversies can easily fracture a locker room if you’re not careful.

And we haven’t even mentioned how ugly it could get as soon as Flacco throws an interception or the offense has a few three-and-outs playing at home. A viable backup quarterback is always the most popular guy in town, meaning fan pressure to replace Flacco with Jackson at the first sign of trouble will be immense.

It all has the potential to be a very bumpy ride.

Regardless of your view on the Ravens’ decision on Thursday night, Jackson has impressive abilities and could eventually blossom into a dangerous NFL quarterback, but he’ll need proper coaching as well as a good roster surrounding him to succeed. A less-than-ideal salary cap situation, questions about the long-term status of the coaching staff, and the incumbent still being on the roster could all prove to be significant challenges as the torch is eventually passed.

The process sure will be fascinating to watch.

And it could be very problematic.