OWINGS MILLS, Md. — In many ways, Joe Flacco can’t win at this point.
The writing appears to be on the wall with the Ravens drafting a quarterback in the first round, even if former Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson needs some seasoning. Despite the proclamations of Flacco still being the franchise guy, an organization wanting to win now isn’t using two second-round picks to trade up to the 32nd overall selection simply for a better backup or someone seen as a project.
Even Flacco’s biggest supporters must acknowledge the need for him to show meaningful improvement after a third consecutive lackluster season in which Baltimore once again missed the playoffs and he finished dead last among qualified passers in yards per attempt. Some fans and critics are already clamoring for Jackson and will even louder at the first hint of trouble for the 11th-year quarterback and a passing game that ranked 29th in the NFL last season.
On the flip side, a Flacco renaissance will be chalked up by many solely to Jackson’s arrival motivating the former Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player. And even if Flacco does play better, he might still receive the Alex Smith treatment next offseason as Kansas City traded its Pro Bowl quarterback in March to clear the way for 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes.
Is the rookie’s presence the reason why some see more of a bounce in Flacco’s step this offseason?
“I don’t know. Does it matter what I say?” said Flacco as he smiled. “I think you guys will probably link it to Lamar anyway.”
It’s human nature in any line of work to feel more urgency when your employer hires a threat to your job, but perhaps he’s pleased with the organization making more than its typical halfhearted effort — at times, less than that — to improve the offensive side of the ball. Much is made about Flacco’s expensive price tag while the front office has frequently received a pass for investing resource after resource after resource into a defense that’s still come up too small in defining moments of the last five years.
Flacco’s hefty contract may justify more free-agent dollars going toward the defense in recent years, but using all but four of 17 total picks in the first three rounds of the 2013-17 drafts on defense was asking a quarterback to do more with less than anyone in the NFL. Exactly one of those four offensive picks (left tackle Ronnie Stanley) has made a lasting impact while the other three are either gone (tight end Crockett Gillmore) or likely soon on their way out the door (wide receiver Breshad Perriman and tight end Maxx Williams).
So little cheap labor with upside in addition to few impact free agents on his side of the ball for years, but it’s still all about his contract in the minds of many.
That the free-agent additions of wide receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead — three players all coming off down seasons — and the early-round selections of tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews are viewed as a Herculean effort speaks to the lukewarm commitment to building a good offense since Super Bowl XLVII. These offseason additions still don’t make Baltimore anywhere close to a top 10 offense on paper, but they at least bring a more diverse skill set to the passing game to give Flacco a better chance to succeed in this make-or-break year.
“I know we brought in a lot of pieces, a lot of draft picks to help him do that,” said Snead, who has shown early chemistry with Flacco and caught a combined 141 passes in his first two seasons with New Orleans. “I think that’s all he needed — weapons. I think it’s all on him now to be able to make those plays, which I know he can.”
Perhaps even more important than the possibility of improved weapons is the veteran quarterback’s health. Flacco is another year removed from his 2015 knee injury and appears to be over the back injury that cost him all of last summer and hindered him well into the 2017 regular season.
Asked this past week to reflect on how challenging it was to step right into Week 1 last year after missing all of training camp and the preseason, Flacco still wasn’t interested in making excuses for his poor numbers. After registering just eight touchdown passes, 10 interceptions, a 72.7 passer rating, and just 5.3 yards per attempt over the first nine games of 2017, the Delaware product posted 10 touchdowns, three interceptions, an 89.1 passer rating, and 6.2 yards per attempt the rest of the way.
But it wasn’t enough to get the Ravens back to the postseason for the first time since 2014 or to prevent general manager Ozzie Newsome from drafting his likely successor.
“Hey, I wish we went out there last year and made the playoffs and won more games and wouldn’t have to deal with it,” Flacco said. “I wouldn’t have to deal with answering stuff, questions like that about making excuses and not getting that part of camp. That’s all in hindsight and it’s not the most ideal situation, but we should have made it work.”
The most observable difference with Flacco this spring and summer has been his mobility as his movement within the pocket has been more fluid and he’s looked faster on those rare occasions when he takes off running. That’s a reflection of better health and the arrival of new quarterbacks coach James Urban, who has emphasized improving his footwork that has slacked in recent seasons. No one ever accused Flacco of being a mobile quarterback, but better movement will be key with the Ravens trying to incorporate more run-pass options this season, another harbinger of Jackson.
With Stanley and right guard Marshal Yanda not practicing on Sunday, Flacco effectively stepped up in the pocket and moved his feet in response to constant pressure from the defensive front, even taking off once or twice to gain positive yardage.
“Many of those subtle movements are important, and once again he looks really healthy,” said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who estimated that a quarterback must deviate from his designed drop roughly half the time. “If you remember now, it’s been a couple years since he’s been healthy. He was really a fine, fine athlete [before the injuries], and he is a fine, fine athlete, especially for his size.”
Doubts surrounding his future will remain as Flacco is set to carry a $26.5 million cap figure with an $18.5 million base salary in 2019. Short of him being selected to his first Pro Bowl or making a deep playoff run, the Ravens may choose to move on from their longtime quarterback next offseason, especially if the gifted Jackson looks like the real deal in his development.
But Flacco has every intention of silencing such talk and at least delaying what many see as the inevitable in the only way he can — on the field.
“I think we’re going to win,” said Flacco, exuding the same confidence he had six years ago when he bet on himself as a pending free agent and led the Ravens to a championship. “And we’re not going to hear about it.”