The Ravens made their quarterback decision official on Wednesday.
With no remaining ambiguity regarding the health of Joe Flacco’s hip, head coach John Harbaugh revealed rookie Lamar Jackson would remain the starter while the greatest quarterback in franchise history assumes the backup role for the first time in his NFL career. The news was hardly shocking with the Ravens having won three of the last four games thanks in large part to their revamped run-heavy offense, but it made the announcement no less delicate when demoting an individual who’s meant so much to the organization.
Whether you agreed with the decision or not, Harbaugh deserves credit for controlling the story and not subjecting the 33-year-old quarterback who helped win him a Super Bowl, a rookie preparing for his fifth NFL start, or the rest of the locker room to media questions about who would — or should — play on Sunday. Any perceived competitive edge gained by delaying the announcement just didn’t outweigh the human element this time around.
In truth, the epilogue for the Flacco era can wait a few more weeks as even Harbaugh acknowledged the distinct possibility of the veteran being called upon to help win the Ravens a game for any number of reasons, but things are now different for Jackson despite his best efforts to suggest otherwise. The first-round pick from Louisville and 2016 Heisman Trophy winner is no longer just the talented understudy filling in for the injured starter or the quarterback of the future gaining some experience.
He’s the guy.
“It’s our team — all of us together. It’s our team,” said Jackson when asked if Wednesday’s announcement made the Ravens “his” team. “I don’t go out there and block. I don’t go out there and catch the ball. I don’t make tackles. I just do my part. It’s all of our team.”
Of course, we know it’s a team game and the 21-year-old’s humility is impressive, but the starting quarterback is different from any other player. It’s why they make the big bucks for achieving glory and often receive too much blame when things go awry. Flacco knows that all too well by now.
Over the last four weeks, Jackson was being graded on two scales: his present play and his long-term viability as a franchise quarterback. That still holds true, but current expectations are heightened when you’ve been deliberately chosen to start over a veteran with a proven track record.
To be clear, Jackson doesn’t suddenly need to become someone he’s not. The game plan shouldn’t change as this decision was much more about the best team fit than one quarterback being better than the other. But Jackson is no longer “just a rookie” being pressed into starting duty anymore like he was last month or even this past Sunday.
Fellow 2018 first-round picks Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen are starting for teams already eliminated from postseason contention, minimizing any pressure for results. Top overall pick Baker Mayfield has been the star of this year’s quarterback crop, but his playoff hopes are microscopic at this point. Even a rookie Flacco had only an equally-unproven Troy Smith and journeyman Todd Bouman waiting in the wings in 2008, meaning the Ravens were going to sink or swim with their rookie quarterback.
This situation is different with so many players and coaches fighting for their futures with an organization entering a transition period as Eric DeCosta becomes the general manager this offseason.
Two Jackson first-half interceptions like we saw against Oakland or three fumbles as witnessed in the Atlanta game won’t be viewed through the same lens with an active Flacco waiting on the sideline rather than Robert Griffin III. That’s not to suggest perfection is expected by any stretch — Flacco is far from flawless — or that Jackson should be pulled at the first sign of trouble, but he’s starting meaningful December games for a franchise desperate to return to the playoffs for the first time in four years.
Based on the poise he displayed in Kansas City — the best performance of his four starts — that sealed the Ravens’ decision to stick with him, Jackson should be up for the challenge, at least in terms of the moment not being too big for him.
But Flacco’s hip injury and pending return is no longer the safety net as it was these last few weeks. And while Jackson said Wednesday was “the same as any other day,” that’s just not the case. A new job description brings greater expectations, and it will be exciting to see how he handles the pressure.
The Ravens are putting much trust in him as they leave past glory standing on the sideline.