OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Joe Flacco says his right shoulder injury is nothing to worry about and head coach John Harbaugh expressed his belief that the Ravens quarterback will play against the New York Jets on Sunday.
But we’re also talking about the man who had missed only one regular-season practice in his NFL career before tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee last November. In other words, it takes a lot to keep the 31-year-old off the practice field, making Wednesday’s absence more concerning for a struggling team already trying to avoid its first four-game losing streak since 2007.
Like with any pitcher in baseball, you never want to hear about a quarterback dealing with an ailment to his throwing arm — no matter how minor it might be — because you don’t know how long it could linger. Fortunately, the bye comes next week to afford Flacco some extended rest, but the Ravens can hardly afford a loss to the struggling Jets with a challenging second-half schedule to come, making it difficult to sit him if he is capable of playing and isn’t at substantial risk of making the injury worse.
“It is not about being pain free,” said Flacco, who underwent a magnetic resonance imaging exam after reporting the injury on Monday. “You can deal with a little pain. It is just about making sure you can throw the ball good enough to go out there and help your team.”
The memories of the injury-ravaged 2015 were already returning with five former Pro Bowl selections inactive for Sunday’s loss to the New York Giants, but the additions of Flacco and veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs (torn biceps) to the injury report this week create a full-fledged sense of déjà vu. Injuries are part of the game, but the attrition has reached an alarming level in a matter of just a week or two.
The saving grace is that Baltimore is just a game behind first-place Pittsburgh in the AFC North and none of the key players to get hurt during the current slide have suffered season-ending injuries — at least to our current knowledge. We know Flacco is the only player the Ravens truly can’t afford to lose, and the current ailment pales in comparison to the ACL injury sustained last year.
But that team was already 3-7 and going nowhere fast when the franchise quarterback was lost for the season.
Of the three quarterbacks to start games in Flacco’s place last season, Ryan Mallett fared the best, leading an upset victory over the Steelers in Week 16. It’s hardly a stretch to think the Ravens’ backup couldn’t help the Ravens to a win over a 1-5 team with a different starting quarterback of its own on Sunday.
“This league is all about the next man up,” running back Terrance West said. “Everybody is behind Mallett. Everybody wants Flacco to play, but if he doesn’t, it’s about the next man up. That’s how the league goes.”
Whether it’s Flacco or Mallett under center, the Ravens will likely need to lean more on their running game against a Jets defense that’s been poor against the pass but has surrendered only 3.4 yards per carry. Having Flacco throw 45 or 50 times per game was already less than ideal, and that’s even more obvious now.
Maybe the starting quarterback’s absence turns out to be nothing more than a midweek footnote, but the missed practice time alone is less than ideal with Marty Mornhinweg in his second week as offensive coordinator. Averaging a career-worst 6.02 yards per attempt, Flacco could stand to use the practice reps with a group of wide receivers who struggled to consistently create separation on short-to-intermediate routes in Week 6.
Aside from the expected absence of five-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, the offensive line is fortunately trending in the right direction with left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right tackle Rick Wagner both practicing fully on Wednesday. It’s no secret that Flacco has taken a beating over the last few weeks, so improved pass protection would make Harbaugh and the Ravens feel better about playing him with a tender shoulder on Sunday.
It would also help if top receiver Steve Smith can return from an ankle injury suffered in the first quarter of the Week 5 loss to Washington. Even at age 37, Smith still represents the most reliable pass-catching target that the Ravens have.
Baltimore was already banged up and in real need of a break, but a Week 7 win is a must after losing three straight. Even at full strength, this roster needing to go 7-2 after the bye just to finish with a 10-6 record — which isn’t always guaranteed to land a playoff spot — would be an extremely difficult task.
Improving to 4-3 is critical, but a win against even the lowly Jets feels very uncertain without Flacco on the field and healthy.
Despite his claim on Wednesday suggesting otherwise, the shoulder is surely something to worry about.
“I sure hope not,” said Flacco about whether it could come down to a Sunday-morning decision. “I really don’t know to be honest with you. I hope I come in here and start feeling pretty good.”