The Decision to Start Lamar Jackson is Correct Because of Lamar Jackson
Yesterday was not a normal day at the Under Armour Performance Center, with Head Coach John Harbaugh announcing that rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson would start Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, despite Joe Flacco being healthy enough to play. This will be the first time that a healthy Flacco is on Baltimore's active roster for a game, but won't start.
Without a doubt, this was a big moment for the organization. Flacco and Harbaugh's 106 wins together since 2008 rank fourth-most by a quarterback-coach duo in the league during that time period. And to his credit, Flacco was, unsurprisingly, very professional and classy during his first time speaking with the media since injuring his hip in Week 9.
This must have been a difficult decision for Harbaugh to make. Ultimately though, ESPN believes it was the right one, and that isn't because Flacco can no longer start in the NFL.
"In the end, Jackson won the job more than Flacco lost it," ESPN wrote. "The positives and the wins delivered by Jackson outweigh going back to the most successful quarterback in team history."
There was a lot of uncertainty when Flacco was first injured and it became evident that Jackson would have to start against Cincinnati in Week 11. How would Jackson look? Would the rookie be able to compete for an entire NFL game or be overwhelmed by the moment?
Though he has not played flawlessly, Jackson has not been overwhelmed despite being just 21-years-old. His 336 rushing yards are the most for a quarterback in his first four starts, and he is now Baltimore's leading rusher for the season.
"The Ravens decision to stick with Jackson after going (3-1) in his first four starts despite a healthy Joe Flacco is the right choice. But it's no fault of Flacco's," Russell Street Report’s Tony Lombardi wrote. "Jackson's ability to run, to open up the entire running game while possessing the football in a game of keep away with opponents hides the team's deficiencies in pass blocking, [and] it keeps an aging defense fresh."
Baltimore retooled its offense around the rookie's skill set to being a more run-heavy approach, and it has yielded great results. The Ravens have averaged 27 points per game in Jackson's four starts, which is eighth in the NFL during that span. As Deadspin’s Tom Ley put it, "at this point, abandoning the new system, which has produced good results … out of loyalty to Flacco would be unwise," while Ebony Bird’s Richard Bradshaw believes "The offense is as explosive as it's ever been in franchise history."
"Jackson has brought an energy that helped end a three-game losing streak and propel Baltimore back into the playoff hunt," ESPN wrote. "He's brought a much-needed identity to the offense, and he's the key figure in a winning formula of a strong running game paired with a dominant defense."
Though he has had some struggles with his passing accuracy, completing 58.4 percent of his throws over the past four games, Jackson has also had good moments throwing the ball.
He hasn't thrown an interception in his past two games, and against Kansas City, he had his first multiple passing touchdowns game. One of those touchdowns came on a fourth-and-2 with the Ravens trailing, and the other came on a third-and-5 to give the Ravens the lead. In other words, make or break moments in the game, and he delivered.
This also does not mean that we will never see Flacco play for the Ravens again. Harbaugh noted during his press conference that "everything is on the table" as far as Flacco's role in the offense.
The Athletic's Frank Isola said he agreed with having Jackson start on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" yesterday, and that part of the reason is that it gives Jackson the opportunity to continue to develop, but Flacco can remain involved. ESPN's Tony Kornheiser agreed, saying "I think it would be wise to get [Flacco] into the game."
"[Jackson is] inexperienced. He's young, the only way you're going to get better is by playing," Isola said. "I don't mind the move because I know that John Harbaugh doesn't have any second thoughts about going to Flacco. If he struggles, why not?"
That is certainly a possibility, and if Jackson's play starts to decline, bringing Flacco back in to start could be an option.
What's Next for Joe Flacco?
While Jackson being named the starter made a lot of headlines, plenty of pundits began to focus on Flacco's future. Flacco himself was asked about it, but he responded by saying he's focused more on how he can help the Ravens win games this season.
As for the speculation, it's tough to find analysts who think it's likely that Flacco will be in Baltimore next season. There's no doubt if it was purely based on ability, the Ravens would like to keep Flacco as an insurance policy should Jackson get hurt, but Flacco is due to make $26.5 million next season, according to Spotrac. That's a lot of money for a backup.
If the Ravens release Flacco at the end of the year, they could save $10.5 million. The savings total could also rise if the team moved on from Flacco after June 1. That's a good chunk of change that the front office could invest in another area of need for the team.
Other pundits, like Russell Street Report’s Adam Bonaccorsi, believe the Ravens may have the opportunity to trade Flacco.
"The incoming quarterback crop in the NFL draft is looking barren, with the top quarterback prospect in Justin Herbert potentially going back to Oregon, and no other quarterback being worthy of a first-round pick…. In contrast, the 2020 crop of quarterbacks is slated to be phenomenal (better than this year's rookie class) and teams will be in need of a stop-gap," Bonaccorsi wrote. "As for the free agent crop, unless you plan on going after [Cleveland's] Tyrod Taylor, [Tampa Bay's Ryan Fitzpatrick] or maybe [Seattle's] Brett Hundley, there's not much to be had."
Flacco is a Super Bowl MVP that has been the model of consistency throughout his career. He's a consummate professional that has been praised for being an excellent teammate and leader. A lot of teams would love to add a quarterback like that to their roster, and if there aren't a lot of options, it could raise Flacco's already high value.
"Given the stratospheric salary scale for quarterbacks, the price could be right for an organization with sufficient playmakers to surround Flacco," USA Today’s Nate Davis wrote.
As for what the Ravens could expect in return, Bonaccorsi believes a deal similar to what the Kansas City Chiefs received for quarterback Alex Smith this past offseason – a 2018 third round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller – is realistic because the two stack up similarly over their careers, and would be of similar ages whenever a trade involving Flacco would happen this offseason.
As for where Flacco could land, either via free agency or trade, a lot of pundits have made guesses, including the Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos. A few even mentioned Flacco going just a few miles south on I-95 and becoming a Washington Redskin.
It looks like this is shaping up to be one of the main offseason storylines for the Ravens. Whether if it is via trade or getting waived, most pundits believe the end result will be Flacco not wearing purple and black next season.
Secondary and Brandon Carr Set for Another Big Challenge
Plenty of pundits focused last week on how the secondary was set for a significant challenge going up against the Chiefs' various playmakers and their star quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. Though the Buccaneers have utilized two quarterbacks this season – Jameis Winston (Sunday's expected starter) and Ryan Fitzpatrick – their passing attack has remained one of the best in the NFL.
In fact, Tampa Bay averages the most passing yards per game in the NFL (331.4). They've also done it by relying on a variety of receivers, as more than five Buccaneers have over 550 receiving yards.
"Even with tight end O.J. Howard on injured reserve and wide receiver DeSean Jackson nursing a thumb injury, the Buccaneers can surround quarterback Jameis Winston with a plethora of playmakers," PennLive’s Aaron Kasinitz wrote. "This deep and talented set of pass catchers has allowed Tampa to put up some of the best passing numbers in the NFL with either Winston or Ryan Fitzpatrick behind center."
For Russell Street Report’s Carey Stevenson, a key man the Ravens will want to slow is wide receiver Adam Humphries. While wide receiver Mike Evans is the premier threat among Tampa Bay's pass catchers, Stevenson feels slowing Humphries could be crucial to getting a win.
"Humphries will likely be their primary vehicle to extending drives and the Ravens should take a page out of their playbook when defending [New England Patriots wide receiver Julian] Edelman and the Patriots by absolutely bludgeoning him at the line of scrimmage," Stevenson wrote. "With the depth they have and [cornerback] Brandon Carr's success in the slot as the season has progressed, this is a strategy that should be relatively easy to implement."
Stevenson isn't the only pundit who thinks Carr will have a big part to play on Sunday, with Kasinitz naming him among his key Ravens for the game this weekend. To Kasinitz, with cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young battling groin injuries, it means that Carr will have to be on his A-game if the secondary is going to stick with Tampa Bay's dynamic pass catchers.
"Carr's durability and versatility [are] even more valuable than usual [this week]," Kasinitz wrote. "Carr can slide into the slot to cover Adam Humphries, defend a bigger outside wide receiver like Mike Evans or pitch in a variety of other facets."
Matt Birk Sees Parallels Between Minnesota Vikings and 2012 Ravens
The Minnesota Vikings made headlines on Tuesday when they fired well-respected Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski.
It was a move many pundits questioned. While the Vikings have struggled and averaged just 21.7 points per game (No. 20 in NFL), the team currently holds the No. 6 wild-card spot in the NFC. Why make such a change when the team is in the midst of a playoff push?
Someone who is familiar with what Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer just had to do is Harbaugh, who fired Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron and replaced him with Jim Caldwell after Week 14 in 2012. At the time, the Ravens were 9-4 and had a two-game lead atop the AFC North, but were just the No. 18 scoring offense.
As many, including 2012 Ravens center (and longtime Minnesota Viking) Matt Birk pointed out, Baltimore went on to do pretty well after the change.
Birk isn't the only one drawing parallels between Minnesota's situation and the 2012 Ravens. NFL Network's Peter Schrager on "Good Morning Football" yesterday said that Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins needed to channel Joe Flacco's energy from 2012 to lead Minnesota on a postseason journey.
"Cousins needs to go Flacco, Stefanski needs to go Caldwell, and Zimmer needs to go Harbaugh," Schrager said. "They need to channel some other purple team, and that's the Ravens from 2012."
While the parallels are there, let's hope the Ravens are the purple team that catches fire like they did in 2012, and go on a deep postseason run.
- Pro Football Focus’ Michael Renner revealed his early picks for the Pro Bowl this season, and four Ravens got selected: left tackle Ronnie Stanley, right guard Marshal Yanda, punter Sam Koch and kicker Justin Tucker.