Until Joe Flacco went down Sunday, the Ravens were enduring what I would call a standard-issue season gone wrong, springing leaks in various places, suffering key injuries and inventing ways to lose close games. It was surprising, but given how quickly fortunes can change in today's NFL, harmless enough in the big picture.
Flacco's season-ending knee injury is a more ominous development, posing a long-term threat to the natural order the Ravens have established while making a half-dozen playoff appearances in recent years. Suddenly, there's a degree of uncertainty where they can least afford it – under center.
Stability at quarterback is imperative if you're going to win in the NFL. It's the most important ingredient of any recipe for success, and Flacco has given it to the Ravens from the moment he joined the team in 2008.
Sure, he has experienced some ups and downs, as all quarterbacks do, but his 75-47 regular-season record as a starter is the ultimate measurement of his influence. Even though Flacco was mistake-prone in 2015, throwing too many interceptions, he was always going to be a central part of the solution going forward, the foundation of any bounce-back effort by the Ravens in 2016 and beyond.
That's still going to be the case … as long as Flacco is healthy and back to his old self next year after surgery and months of rehab.
That's where the uncertainty comes in.
Sure, the Ravens and their fans are hoping Flacco makes an on-time return from the ACL/MCL tears he suffered in the final seconds Sunday. It's encouraging that Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer is playing well this year after going out with the same injury last November. Terrence Brooks, the Ravens' second-year safety, also was back on the field from the get-go this year after suffering an ACL/MCL tear late last season.
But not every story is that positive. Some players are never the same. Knee injuries can be tricky. Flacco may have to wear a brace. How will that affect him? And can he really be ready from the get-go in 2016 after skipping months of offseason workouts?
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh sounded optimistic Monday, citing the sophisticated technology doctors and trainers now use to bring players back. "There's no reason to think he won't come back better than ever," Harbaugh said.
But Harbaugh also warned that it's "way early" and, well, sometimes things happen. It will be "interesting to see" if Flacco comes back the same, he said.
This much is certain: the Ravens have more on their plate now because of his injury.
There's the little matter of his contract, which Flacco and the Ravens need to rework this offseason to lower his staggering $28.5 million salary cap hit for 2016. The injury doesn't help his bargaining position, but I'm not sure it hurts him much, either. He's still the Ravens' quarterback, presumably for a long time. It will be "interesting" to see how the sides navigate this tricky situation.
There's also the little matter of the Ravens planning for Flacco to not be ready or the same or whatever. It's now mandatory that they develop a substantial (i.e., expensive) Plan B, as they did this year with Matt Schaub.
Is it time for them to invest a high draft pick on a quarterback who can be groomed to take over? I don't think so. We're not there yet. Flacco's reasonable prognosis keeps quarterback from becoming a top priority. The Ravens' high picks should be used to address their more urgent needs, such as cornerback, tackle, rush linebacker and receiver.
Still, there's enough uncertainty that the Ravens have to be ready for the possibility that Flacco has issues. By default, that's now a permanent part of their blueprint.
No matter what happens, the volume of Flacco chatter is going to rise. Even when he was healthy, his every move was analyzed, often overanalyzed. Remember the "crisis" that arose because he didn't get together with receivers for informal throwing sessions during the offseason? Well, there aren't going to be any throwing sessions this offseason.
The scrutiny and/or hyperventilating analysis of Flacco is only going to become more intense now that an injury is factored in. Heaven help us.
If he comes back strong, this could be nothing more than a painful hiccup. But we won't know for months if that's the case.