After last season, the Ravens knew a huge key to 2017 success would be the man under center. Franchise quarterback Joe Flacco had to play well – really well – for the Ravens to get back into the playoffs.
Now, as the Ravens sit on the outside of the postseason looking in for a third straight year, Head Coach John Harbaugh was asked Thursday for his evaluation of Flacco's 10th NFL season.
There was no over-arching quote, but Harbaugh's main point was that Flacco performed as well as he could given the circumstances and showed considerable progress in the second half of the year when healthy.
"As far as numbers and things like that, the first half of the season to the second half of the season was dramatic," Harbaugh said. "The number of interceptions, the touchdown passes, those kind of things, it's a dramatic turnaround. And it speaks to his health."
Here are the numbers Harbaugh is referring to:
For a 16-game season, Flacco posted career-lows in passing yards (3,141), touchdowns (18) and quarterback rating (80.4) since his rookie year. He completed 64.1 percent of his passes, which is the third-highest mark of his career, but his 5.72 yards per attempt was the lowest in the league.
However, when focusing on Flacco's performance once he was healthy, it's a different story. Over the final seven games, his quarterback rating was 89.5. He tossed 10 touchdowns to three interceptions.
Flacco didn't put up eye-popping passing yards, but he was highly efficient and led the league's second-highest scoring offense from Week 8 on. There was nationwide chatter about the emergence of "January Joe."
A more accurate evaluation of his ability going forward is probably best done looking at the two halves of the year separately.
Harbaugh pointed out that Flacco dealt with injuries the past two years. He was coming off a torn ACL last year and injured his back before training camp this year. The back injury knocked Flacco out of training camp and the preseason and lingered into the regular season.
Flacco has never been one to give excuses, and he often downplayed his back issues when talking to the media, but it had a major impact early on.
"To say that wasn't a factor in our passing game early, combined with our personnel issues we had there, it wouldn't be fair to Joe," Harbaugh said. "I think Joe did a great job of fighting through that."
Even once he returned from the back injury to begin practicing one week ahead of the regular-season opener, Flacco wasn't 100 percent healthy in practice and had to make up ground in terms of chemistry with his wide receivers.
It affected the Ravens' game plans early on as well. Baltimore took a more conservative offensive approach at the start of the season, opting to get the ball out of Flacco's hands quickly to expose his exposure to hits. That became even more of a priority after the Ravens lost All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda in Week 2.
Flacco clearly didn't move as well within or outside the pocket, making it difficult to escape pressure and set up big chuck plays. Often, Flacco was left dumping the ball to his check-down receivers, which explains his low yards per attempt.
"Maybe sometimes he got the ball out quick, but I think he was under duress a lot of times early in the year when we lost both of our guards," Harbaugh said.
"He did a good job managing that situation, and I feel like toward the second half of the season, we were completing some more balls down the field. The fact that he was protecting the ball in the pocket and didn't take very many sacks speaks very well to the kind of season he had."
Flacco helped the Ravens overcome some of their biggest deficiencies. A patchwork offensive line gelled throughout the year, but Flacco helped the unit by getting rid of the ball and avoiding sacks. The Ravens gave up the seventh-fewest sacks in the league. Flacco didn't lose a fumble all year.
The Ravens didn't get much production from their wide receivers outside of Mike Wallace, and Flacco's targets dwindled in the stretch run with the injury to Jeremy Maclin (knee) and Breshad Perriman's unproductivity and resulting deactivation.
Drops were also an issue, as a couple led to critical interceptions in key losses. They proved to be especially costly in the season-ending loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Still, Flacco can be even better moving forward. Harbaugh was asked about whether the team would consider adding a quarterbacks coach to work on Flacco's footwork. Harbaugh said if he finds one that fits the team and what Flacco wants, it could happen.
"If we can do that, we'll do that," Harbaugh said. "As far as his mechanics and all that, when you miss training camp and you're working with a back tweak, all being considered, I think Joe's mechanics were pretty good."
Harbaugh said Flacco made some impressive throws off his back foot and conceded that he missed some too, just like any quarterback would.
But with potentially more weapons and better health next year, Harbaugh seemed confident Flacco can pick up where he left off in 2017, or better.
"He needs a healthy training camp and a healthy OTAs and all that to be his best, just like any player does," Harbaugh said. "And I'm excited about that going into next year."