OWINGS MILLS, Md. — This figures to be one of the more interesting weeks in Ravens history, and it has nothing to do with Tampa Bay coming to town.
With Joe Flacco medically cleared for game action and about to log a full week of practice and head coach John Harbaugh reiterating Monday that Lamar Jackson “should be fine” despite leaving Sunday’s loss in Kansas City with an ankle injury, the Ravens can no longer kick the can down the road with their quarterback position. Frankly, there’s little reason to think Jackson won’t — and shouldn’t — remain the starting quarterback with the Ravens having won three of their last four and rushing for nearly 230 yards per game over that time, a style conducive to controlling the clock and keeping their defense fresh.
But this isn’t like Trent Dilfer replacing Tony Banks or the debate between Elvis Grbac and Randall Cunningham years ago. Potentially telling the best quarterback in franchise history — one who won you a Super Bowl six years ago — he’s no longer “the guy” should be a delicate matter. Harbaugh didn’t announce his Week 15 starter on Monday, but he was asked if he expected Flacco to be active and to play against the Buccaneers.
“I haven’t had a chance to sit down with all the parties yet [who are] involved,” Harbaugh said. “I think it stands to reason that if Joe is ready to go, then he’ll be part of the game plan. He’s too good of a player not to be. We’ll just figure that out as we go this week — to what degree, how it works. Everybody will know going in. Perhaps except everybody outside, mostly, unless I change my mind on that. I’m excited. If we get Joe back, it’s good because it’s another good player.”
There was nothing definitive in that answer, of course, but it doesn’t sound as though the Ravens simply intend to make Flacco the No. 3 quarterback — and game-day inactive — with Robert Griffin III remaining the primary backup to Jackson as some have suggested doing. A factor in that thought process would be not wanting to risk a serious injury to Flacco that would complicate the organization’s presumed intentions to either trade or release the 33-year-old this offseason, but deliberately removing him from the equation wouldn’t be a decision based on trying to win now, especially with Jackson having missed snaps in each of the last two games.
This offense is certainly unconventional and has run the ball exceptionally well with Jackson at the helm, but let’s not pretend there isn’t room for improvement. Many have cited the Ravens averaging 27 points per game over the last four weeks compared to the 23.7 per contest from Weeks 1-9, but that includes three touchdowns provided by the defense and special teams after neither unit offered a single return score in the first nine games. Removing those from the equation leaves an offense averaging 21.75 points per game while producing just 148 passing yards per contest.
Running the ball and controlling time of possession — the latter didn’t happen against the Chiefs in Week 14 — isn’t a formula that guarantees points or victories, leaving one to wonder if there’s another element to add to this revamped offense.
Are there ways to utilize Flacco’s throwing arm in smaller doses?
Some — like CBS Sports analyst and former NFL quarterback Tony Romo on Sunday — have suggested using Flacco in two-minute situations or when facing a multi-score deficit, but are there other possibilities? What about using a hurry-up attack — something with which Flacco has succeeded in the past — for a series against a winded defense after a long Jackson-led scoring drive and a quick three-and-out from your own defense?
Yes, playing two quarterbacks would be unconventional and doesn’t sound sustainable, but we’ve said the same thing about an offense running the ball more frequently than anyone in the NFL over the last month and we’re not talking about a 50-50 split here. If Ravens coaches were willing to risk disrupting their veteran quarterback’s rhythm to get Jackson on the field earlier in the season, why wouldn’t they at least consider a Flacco package — a “Flacckage” — to occasionally mix into a run-heavy attack? That wouldn’t mean Jackson wouldn’t pass the ball or the Ravens would never run with Flacco on the field, but it would give opposing defenses something else to consider.
If the Ravens have already embraced the weirdness, why not ponder getting a little weirder? We hear all the time that two-quarterback systems don’t work, but it’s not something that’s been tried all that frequently in the modern NFL, especially with two options who are viable in different ways. Considering each of the last four games have been one-score encounters in the fourth quarter and the Ravens can’t assume they’re going to keep getting touchdowns from their defense and special teams, why not consider a wrinkle that could potentially net an extra score over the course of 60 minutes?
Of course, that’s assuming all egos can be put aside. No veteran quarterback is going to be doing cartwheels at the notion of playing second fiddle after a decade as the starter, but Flacco should be eager to prove he’s both healthy and a legitimate starting option for another team next year. Why wouldn’t the Ravens try to benefit from that motivation as their rookie quarterback still searches for consistency as a passer?
No matter what the Ravens roll out against the Buccaneers on Sunday, it figures to be a fascinating week with Harbaugh not tipping his quarterback hand just yet.
“I’ll just have to let you know. It could entail anything right now,” Harbaugh said. “I know what we want to do; I have a plan. We have a plan. We talked about it. We have to talk to the guys about it, and whether we share that publicly, we’ll decide as the week goes on.”