For Ravens to win in New England, Flacco and Harbaugh need to have “A” games

January 04, 2010 | Drew Forrester

In the same way that Brian Billick and Kyle Boller were joined at the hip through draft-connection and hopeful-confidence, Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh are seamlessly stitched together as the Ravens prepare for a playoff trip to New England this Sunday.

In year one, the Flacco-Harbaugh duo nearly pulled a Super rabbit out of their hat, falling in Pittsburgh in the penultimate game of the entire season.

And here we are now, in year two, and the QB-Coach combination has yet another post-season trip on the horizon.

But is this Ravens team as well-oiled and capable of winning in the playoffs as last year’s club?

Personally…I don’t think so.

And most of that, unfortunately, goes on the head of the aforementioned quarterback and head coach.

Flacco’s numbers this year would suggest he had a very good year.  He put up 3613 yards, tossed 21 TD’s, put up a passer rating of 88.9 and, most importantly, guided the team to a playoff berth.

Those numbers would lead you to believe Flacco had a very good season.

Not so quick.

Flacco had some very good GAMES in 2009.  He was terrific in home blow-outs of Cleveland, Denver, and Chicago.  In those three games alone, he threw for 6 TDs (nearly 30% of his total) and had passer ratings well over 100.0.  He didn’t pad his numbers in those games, but he certainly made his season – statistically – look better than it might have been.

My overall grade for Joe in ’09 is C+.  I don’t think he was bad.  Not at all.  I think he had a season that could be characterized as “better than average”, which is just about what a C+ grade represents.

For Joe to guide the Ravens to a win on Sunday in New England, he’ll need to put up a better grade than C+…that’s almost a certainty.

So what is it that has hampered Flacco’s performance in ’09?  For starters, there’s no doubt the ankle injury he suffered in week #5 at Minnesota has never really healed. Sure, players always play with varying injuries throughout the season, but in Joe’s case, that injury has clearly limited his mobility.  It hasn’t made him Scott Mitchell, per-se, but he’s not nearly as agile and athletic in year two as he was in year one.  To my eye – and there are reasons for this, for sure – he appears to have put on some weight.  He isn’t looking like the same “slim and trim” guy as he was this time last year.  Extra weight makes you a half-step slower.  Whether it’s injuries, a few added pounds or something else that’s hindering Joe’s escape-ability, I think it’s obvious to anyone watching that he seems “off” in some way this year.

No matter how good your offensive line is, the fact of the matter remains that quarterbacks are going to have to run and scramble on numerous occasions each and every game.  And when your offensive line lets you down, you’re forced to run and move around in the pocket more than a quarterback who’s well protected.  Maybe this season it comes down to this:  Joe has had to run more — and because of that, he’s opened himself up to more situations where he gets tracked down by defensive players.  Summary:  Last year, Flacco seemed more mobile.  That’s the bottom line, to borrow Ray’s favorite term.

And for all of Joe’s fine play in the first 32 regular season games of his career – and the 3 playoff games he’s played thus far – there’s still a startling hole in his resume.  He’s never led the Ravens on a last minute drive that gave his team a come-from-behind win.  The closest he came was last January in Tennessee when he guided Baltimore downfield to help set up Matt Stover’s game-winning field goal in a 13-10 triumph at Tennessee. If you’re nitpicking, you’ll note that the game was TIED at that point.  It wasn’t necessarily do-or-die there.

There’s also a thought that perhaps Joe’s “even-keeled” personality might be great MOST of the time, but a liability when the offense needs a kick in the ass.  One thing about Joe:  there’s not a whole lot of emotion there.  Anyone with a bird’s-eye view of the Ravens will note how Joe never really looks like he’s enthused.  And that’s not a knock on his character.  He is what he is, to use that phrase appropriately.  But as he moves into the spring of his career in Baltimore, it would behoove Flacco to develop a “fiery side” on the rare occasion that he needs to use it to motivate his teammates.

Who “owns” the New England offense?  Their quarterback.  Who owns the Pittsburgh offense?  Their quarterback.  Who owns the Indianapolis offense?  Their quarterback.  Who owns the Baltimore offense?  That’s easy.  It’s the veteran wide receiver with the chip on his shoulder who has shown more fire and passion when arguing with the coach on the sidelines than Flacco has demonstrated in two years.

I’m not looking for Joe to start fist-fights on the bench.  I would just like to see more fire from him.  In Pittsburgh’s win over Miami on Sunday, I noticed a play in which Ben Roethlisberger threw a ball that Mike Wallace short-armed on a 3rd down play.  Wallace didn’t even reach the sideline before Ben caught up to him, gave him a harder-than-it-should-have-been smack on the rear end, and distributed a tongue-lashing for a few seconds.  I don’t know was said, but it probably sounded something like this:  “Hey, chief, we’re playing for our lives here.  You can’t be alligator-arming that ball.  That’s not gonna fly.”  The earful probably included a “F-bomb” or two as well.

I haven’t seen Joe do that in two years here.  I’d like to see him become more vocal and more of a leader.  That’s all.

Everyone who’s listened to the show over the last two years knows how much of a Joe Flacco fan I am…I’ve been accused at times of being too “Pro-Joe”, in fact.

But the Joe I’ve watched this year hasn’t made the kind of progress I expected.  Is he better now than he was this time last year?  He’s more experienced for sure…so, by attrition, that probably makes him “better”.  But to say he played better this year than he did in ’08 is worthy of debate, even though the stats would suggest otherwise.

I just expected more from Joe in ’09.  Maybe I should have tempered those expectations.  After all, he’s only in year #2 of his career.  And again, he hasn’t been terrible.  He’s made some terrible throws – most notably, the red-zone pick against the Colts that took the Ravens out of field goal position late in the game and a red-zone pick in New England late in the first half – but he hasn’t really had any terrible GAMES.  It’s important to note that.  He’s had, in my opinion, a C+ season.

If Flacco has a C+ game on Sunday in Foxb0rough, the Ravens will lose.

Likewise, I think John Harbaugh’s grade for ’09 is C+.

I like John Harbaugh as the Head Coach of “my” team.  I think he’s done a nice job in his two years in purple.  He’s cleared out some of the riff-raff in the team’s locker room and is still working on moving a few others along…and I admire that because it shows he has a plan.  Like Flacco, he’s still 35 games into his professional (coaching) tenure…which means he still has a lot to learn.

But the team’s clock management this year has been suspect (at best) and some of John’s in-game decisions have not only been puzzling, but costly and damaging.

The team’s 2-minute offense – whether at the end of the first or second half – has sputtered and coughed and gagged more than Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. No pun intended, but the Ravens 2-minute offense has been “stinking up the joint” all season long.

Still, the team made the playoffs for the second straight year under Harbaugh.  And really, that’s all that matters.

But…like Flacco – the guy he’s attached to at the hip – Harbaugh hasn’t duplicated his year one success.  That’s just my opinion, of course.

Every week, I see something that makes me go, “Huh?  What on earth is he thinking there?”  Most recently, of course, we’ll document the lack-of-a-time-out in Pittsburgh late in the 2nd quarter on the 3rd and 12 play.  And yesterday in Oakland, his decision to have Billy Cundiff attempt a 51-yard field goal in the 4th quarter was absolutely the wrong decision.  Giving ANY TEAM the ball on their own 41 yard line is just too much of a gamble, especially in a one-score game.  Bad decision by Harbaugh.  There’s a laundry list of those from the 2009 season.  That’s why I gave John a C+.

And if he has a C+ game on Sunday in New England, the Ravens won’t win.

Is it too much to pin the team’s playoff hopes on the quarterback and the coach?

Not at all.

In the NFL, the two are almost always mentioned in the same breath.

New England?  Brady and Belichick

San Diego?  Rivers and Turner

Philadelphia?  McNabb and Reed

Dallas?  Romo and Phillips

And for the Ravens this Sunday, I think it comes down to Flacco and Harbaugh.  We’ll need “A games” from both of them in order for Baltimore to pull off the upset.