As the Houston Texans face the prospects of using their fourth quarterback of the year on Sunday, the Ravens haven’t even carried three quarterbacks on their active roster since 2009 due to Joe Flacco never missing an NFL game.
It’s been a peculiar season for Flacco under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak as a revamped rushing attack ranks fifth in the NFL and has taken much of the attention away from the veteran quarterback. But that hasn’t stopped the 29-year-old from quietly having the best season of his career with the Ravens in position to secure their sixth trip to the postseason in seven years as early as this Sunday in Houston.
Set to make his 111th consecutive regular-season start on Sunday — he’ll be opposed by Thad Lewis or Case Keenum — the durable Flacco is on pace to set career highs in a number of categories including completion percentage (64.2 percent), passing yards, touchdown passes, and passer rating (94.8). He’ll set a career low in interceptions if he can refrain from throwing one in his final two games, and his 7.4 yards per attempt average would match his career-best mark set in 2010.
Flacco set a career high with five touchdown passes in a 48-17 win over Tampa Bay in Week 6, setting an NFL record by throwing those five scores in the first 16:03 of the game.
Even the chic ESPN Total Quarterback Rating metric lands Flacco fifth in the NFL for the 2014 season, behind only Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, and Tom Brady and ahead of the likes of Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, and Matt Ryan.
His critics will point to his poor performance in consecutive road losses against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh — he threw two touchdowns and three interceptions in those games — as a reason why Baltimore is currently not in position to win the AFC North, but the 2008 first-round pick has found more consistency than in the past and is on the verge of guiding the Ravens back to the postseason after a one-year absence.
The differences in his game have been noticeable in Kubiak’s West Coast attack as his six completions of 40 or more yards would be the lowest single-season total of his career with the Ravens relying on more short-to-intermediate passing this year. But Flacco has been as efficient as ever, especially since the bye week as he’s completed 66.7 percent of his passes in three of four games.
His weapons are better than they were a year ago with the free-agent arrivals of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, but the season-ending injury to tight end Dennis Pitta in Week 3 has negated some of their impact and you still wouldn’t hold the Ravens’ pass-catching targets in the same regard as other top offenses in the league. Of course, the emergence of Justin Forsett in the running game has provided much more balance than the Ravens had with their disastrous ground game last season.
And that’s where we acknowledge arguably the biggest factor in Flacco’s strong season — the offensive line.
In addition to opening running lanes for the NFL’s No. 1 running back in yards per carry, the unit has protected Flacco better than ever as he’s been sacked just 16 times all season. His previous career low for being sacked occurred in 2011 when he was dropped 31 times.
Kubiak’s tutelage includes making quick decisions and getting rid of the ball, factors also reflecting the low sack total. Flacco owns a 110.2 passer rating when dropping back in the pocket for 2.5 seconds or less, which Pro Football Focus says is the fourth-best mark in the NFL. In contrast, his 72.5 passer rating when standing in the pocket 2.6 seconds or longer ranks 20th in the NFL.
Flacco is at his best with an effective running game and with a simple approach that allows him to make swift choices, two variables that have been in place all year.
It’s largely gone unnoticed with the black cloud of the Ray Rice saga still hanging over the organization and other headlines such as the improved running game and the struggling secondary garnering more attention, but Flacco has bounced back nicely from the most difficult season of his career.
And it’s a major reason why the Ravens are once again on the cusp of an invitation to play in January.