BALTIMORE — The Ravens got the win over Oakland, and that’s all that mattered.
For Week 12 anyway.
The many hoping to gain clarity at the quarterback position entering December likely walked away from Sunday’s 34-17 victory feeling much like they did the previous week. It’s a hell of a debate, evident by the strong and differing opinions from fans and media in favor of either rookie Lamar Jackson or veteran Joe Flacco. And it’s about to become real with Flacco aiming to return to practice this week — pending medical clearance — and the 6-5 Ravens about to play three of their next four games on the road.
To no big surprise, head coach John Harbaugh wasn’t biting when asked if a healthy Flacco would regain his starting job.
“I’m not going to get into that for a number of reasons,” said Harbaugh, who labeled a CBS Sports report suggesting Flacco would resume practicing on Tuesday as premature. “Whether that decision has been made or not is not important for anyone to know but us. If I decide to do it one way or the other, I don’t want our opponent to know. I’m probably not going to announce it for obvious reasons — just to make it tough on our next opponent. That’s the way we’ll go this week.”
Truthfully, we should be grading Jackson on two different scales: for the remainder of the 2018 season and the big picture.
The first-round pick from Louisville has shown more than enough in his first two NFL starts to be encouraged about the future. The favorable comparisons made to how Flacco fared as a rookie a decade ago are irrelevant to the present, but some flashes in the passing game coupled with his electric mobility bode well for next season and beyond. Even Jackson’s harshest critics need to acknowledge he’s done everything you could have reasonably asked from a rookie backup in two must-win games, regardless of the opponent.
What that means for next week in Atlanta and the four games to follow is a different story.
Deliberate or not, the first half of Sunday’s game served as a litmus test with the Ravens running the ball just 10 times compared to 19 pass plays. The 74-yard bomb to a wide-open Mark Andrews in the second quarter was a thing of beauty, but it also propped up a 9-for-18 performance for 140 yards that included two interceptions and too much indecisiveness. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s play-calling really needed more balance, but the first half wasn’t a strong endorsement for putting the game on Jackson’s arm, something the Ravens will inevitably need to do at some point if he’s to remain the starter the rest of the way.
After a lackluster six offensive points through the first two quarters, the Ravens wisely reverted to last week’s strategy against the Bengals, rushing 33 times for 178 yards and possessing the ball for more than 21 minutes in the second half. Jackson went 5-for-7 for 38 yards and an 8-yard touchdown to Michael Crabtree, but his biggest contribution came from his legs as he ran nine times for 60 yards and a touchdown after intermission. Again, they did what was needed to survive a game that was too close for comfort entering the fourth quarter, but will it work on the road against opponents with much better offenses?
The Ravens have rushed for a whopping 507 yards the last two weeks, but they scored 24 points against a Bengals defense that’s surrendered 34 or more in four of its last five games. The offense was responsible for 20 of Baltimore’s 34 points Sunday against a Raiders team that had given up 29.3 per game entering Week 12. Every game situation is unique and a heavy advantage in time of possession matters, of course, but the dramatic change in style shouldn’t be confused for an offensive juggernaut just yet.
Of course, simply handing the reins back to Flacco isn’t a guaranteed upgrade.
The 33-year-old being cleared to return from a right hip injury doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be 100 percent, a worrisome thought with an offensive line dealing with its own nagging injuries. You wouldn’t expect the same lucrative yardage from the running game without Jackson on the field, but the newfound combination of Gus Edwards and Ty Montgomery that resulted in 169 yards on Sunday hasn’t been used in concert with Flacco, making it unfair to assume the running game would remain just as inept as it was before the bye week.
Still, would the boost in the passing game be offset by a diminished ground attack? And what impact might that have on a Ravens defense that’s been unspectacular for several weeks and has benefited greatly from the favorable time of possession the last two weeks? Would we see a Flacco closer to what we saw over the first four weeks of the season or the lesser version witnessed in October?
An outsider can easily argue for Jackson to remain under center since he’s the quarterback of the future and the Ravens aren’t looking close to being a Super Bowl contender anyway, but try explaining that reasoning to Harbaugh and a coaching staff likely needing to make the playoffs to survive. Even if Flacco appears unlikely to remain in Baltimore beyond this season and only marginally improves their playoff hopes, that higher percentage could be the difference in saving others’ jobs.
Regardless of what anyone tries to tell you or which way Harbaugh ultimately goes, it’s far from an easy decision.
But after back-to-back wins to move into the No. 6 spot in the AFC, the Ravens are just glad to be in a position to have to make such a tough choice for the rest of the season.