Time has come for Ravens to embrace the weirdness

December 03, 2018 | Luke Jones

The Ravens are weird.

Very weird.

There’s nothing conventional about possessing the ball for more than 24 minutes in the second half or running nearly twice as often as you pass in today’s NFL. You don’t plan for your punter to make the best throw of the day or your starting quarterback to fumble three times and pass for 125 yards in your biggest road game of the season to date.

But that all happened as the Ravens won — again.

Nothing about this is ideal, nor should it be viewed as any kind of long-term blueprint for talented rookie Lamar Jackson, who is an electric runner with a long way to go to become an all-around franchise quarterback. To be clear, that’s to be expected after only three starts, but his athleticism and upside cannot dismiss concerns about ball security, a shortage of plays in the passing game, inconsistent mechanics and accuracy, and not doing the little things such as throwing the ball away instead of taking a loss. If nothing else, we can all agree Jackson running more often than he passes is not a recipe for keeping him healthy for the long haul, a reality that shouldn’t be completely ignored in the present.

In a perfect world, a healthy Joe Flacco would be under center as the Ravens make their December push for the playoffs. The 33-year-old would have a strong running game in the conventional sense, a stout and healthy offensive line, and wide receivers who consistently gain separation and catch the football to allow him to potentially channel past postseason success.

But that’s not reality, which is why Jackson’s skill set is the better fit for what the Ravens have become over the last three weeks in which they’ve gone from a 4-5 team circling the drain to one holding the No. 6 spot in the AFC and just a half-game behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North. A healthy Flacco and a more conventional offense may have also won three straight against struggling teams, but we can’t say that for sure, making it a difficult sell to a rejuvenated locker room that you’re just going to pivot back toward the hypothetical.

Perhaps the rise of Gus Edwards and bye-week adjustments would have led to a better running game with Flacco at quarterback than what we saw with running back Alex Collins over the first half of the season, but we’ve watched the Ravens rush for a remarkable 716 yards over the last three weeks with Jackson’s speed putting incredible pressure on opposing run defenses. Baltimore ran for just 834 yards over its first nine games, and no one could objectively argue that the ground game would be as explosive with an immobile quarterback on the field these last three weeks.

That’s more of a knock on the front office and coaching staff for not being able to field a productive running game by conventional measures, but here we are going into Week 14. Giving yourself the best chance to win in December isn’t about what’s fair to any individual player — even one who won you a Super Bowl several years ago.

It’s time to embrace the weirdness and let it ride in a way similar to how Brian Billick embraced “the dark side” on the way to an eventual Super Bowl win 18 years ago. As head coach John Harbaugh said after Sunday’s 26-16 win in Atlanta, no one really knows exactly where this is going, which should make it fun.

Perhaps the best way to describe what the Ravens have become is a warped version of that 2000 team. This defense doesn’t compare to that historic unit, of course, but holding the league’s 11th-ranked scoring offense to 131 yards and nine points — Jackson’s second fumble resulted in the other Falcons touchdown — was a terrific road performance. No one is ready to confuse Edwards with a young Jamal Lewis, but the rookie free agent’s 5.0 yards per carry and physical style have been a godsend. And if Jackson can limit the turnovers, he at least represents a much more athletic version of Trent Dilfer for now.

None of that is to suggest the Ravens fit the profile of a team poised to make a deep run in January. They might lose by three touchdowns in Kansas City this Sunday, but you could have said the same about the struggling team we saw before the bye week. The Ravens’ best chance — even if still not a good one — is to play keep-away from Patrick Mahomes and the high-powered Chiefs offense while hoping their own offense becomes more efficient inside the opponent’s 30, something that remains a pressing concern.

Unforeseen circumstances have led to the Ravens discovering a nightmare-inducing running game that’s allowed them to dominate the time of possession, proving the opportunity for the defense to be fresher late in games. The Chiefs will offer the ultimate test as we continue to wonder how long this approach can be sustained. A disastrous performance could lead to reassessing — especially if Flacco is fully healthy and looks good in practice — but we said the same thing last week before Baltimore recorded only its second December road win in the last four years.

There will be plenty of time to debate what Jackson will ultimately become, but keeping him on the field does add the long-term benefit of him gaining experience while the Ravens try to “weird” their way to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

It’s time to just go with it and enjoy the ride.