Days could be dwin­dling for Ravens QB, coach

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

RAVENS, seemed as in­ex­tri­ca­ble from the abil­ity (and avail­abil­ity) of his quar­ter­backs as this past one. Joe Flacco is un­likely to suit up for a must-win home show­down. Lamar Jack­son has yet to start in his NFL ca­reer. Robert Grif­fin III hasn’t played in a game since 2016.

A three-game los­ing streak mid­way through a sea­son headed, at the mo­ment, for a fourth straight play­off ab­sence and an off­sea­son of turnover was oner­ous enough. Now Har­baugh must en­ter M&T Bank Sta­dium to­day wait­ing for up­dates on the con­di­tion of his start­ing quar­ter­back’s in­jured right hip, and hop­ing his rookie can call a full game if called upon, and per­haps won­der­ing whether the third-string vet­eran who hasn’t played since the pre­sea­son might ac­tu­ally be the team’s best op­tion un­der cen­ter.

Har­baugh can­not err, not now. A win, and the Ravens could en­ter Week 12 in the AFC’s fi­nal wild-card spot. A loss, and the Ravens would drop to 4-6, a record just seven teams since 1970 have over­come to make the play­offs. A loss, and the fo­cus in Owings Mills and else­where turns to Har­baugh and Flacco, and how much time the fran­chise’s most suc­cess­ful coachquar­ter­back part­ner­ship might have left to­gether.

“It’s just noise; it doesn’t mat­ter,” Har­baugh said Mon­day of re­ports cast­ing doubt on his fu­ture with the Ravens. “It means noth­ing. It’s not some­thing that I’m go­ing to think about or con­cern my­self with. … You know what we want to do as an or­ga­ni­za­tion? We want to win; that’s what we want to do. We want to win. We’re fight­ing as hard as we can — coaches, play­ers — as an or­ga­ni­za­tion to win. That’s it. All the other stuff, who cares?”

The prospect of a Ravens sea­son without Har­baugh and Flacco was in­con­ceiv­able not long ago. Since 2008, the duo’s first sea­son in Bal­ti­more, the Ravens are sec­ond in the NFL in play­off wins (10), tied for the fourth-most play­off berths (six) and fifth in to­tal wins (108). Flacco’s 72 reg­u­lar-sea­son wins from 2008 to 2014 are the most in NFL his­tory for a start­ing quar­ter­back’s first seven sea­sons.

But for­tunes fade quickly. In Fe­bru­ary, Ravens owner Steve Bis­ciotti ac­knowl­edged for the first time that he had con­sid­ered fir­ing Har­baugh. The Ravens were com­ing off a sea­son that ended short of the play­offs for the fourth time in five years. They had won as many games as they’d lost (40-40) since win­ning Su­per Bowl XLVII.

Many blamed the former Most Valu­able Player of that sec­ond NFL ti­tle. Among qual­i­fy­ing quar­ter­backs, Flacco had the eighth-worst passer rat­ing and the low­est yards per pass at­tempt in the NFL. But his $24.75 mil­lion salary cap hit for 2018 made him un­touch­able.

Not im­per­vi­ous to pres­sure, though. In April, the Ravens took their first steps to pre­par­ing for life af­ter Flacco, tak­ing Jack­son with the No. 32 over­all pick in the draft. No quar­ter­back con­tro­versy emerged; the only real ques­tion was whether Grif­fin, maybe the team’s most im­pres­sive quar­ter­back in the pre­sea­son, would start the sea­son No. 2 on the depth chart. (He didn’t.)

Flacco’s strong Septem­ber fore­stalled any ques­tions about Jack­son’s as­cen­dance. But the Ravens have lost four of their past five games af­ter a 3-1 record, a stretch in which Flacco has thrown for as many touch­downs as in­ter­cep­tions (four) and com­pleted less than 59 per­cent of his passes. Af­ter a Week 9 loss to the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers, Har­baugh ac­knowl­edged that the coach­ing staff was con­sid­er­ing hand­ing more con­trol of the of­fense to Jack­son.

If Flacco can play to­day, Har­baugh said, he will. But if he can’t, the fran­chise will have reached a pos­si­ble in­flec­tion point, a hand­ing of the torch from one quar­ter­back to the next with the chance of no re­turn.

“Gen­er­ally, you don’t make a change while you’re in a play­off hunt to go to an in­ex­pe­ri­enced quar­ter­back if your quar­ter­back is healthy,” said NFL Net­work an­a­lyst Charley Casserly, who won a Su­per Bowl as gen­eral man­ager of the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins. “If he’s strug­gling, then you’d bet­ter have a lot of con­fi­dence that the guy you put in there is an up­grade. … Just be­cause he’s a young, tal­ented quar­ter­back, to go in and play him, that’s not good enough. You have to feel con­fi­dent that he can go in and run the of­fense, to the point where you can be com­pet­i­tive with it. And that’s a tricky sit­u­a­tion. There’s no per­fect an­swer to that.”

The fall­out from to­day’s game will be just as scru­ti­nized as the re­sult. The Ben­gals last week be­came the first team in NFL his­tory to sur­ren­der more than 500 yards in three straight games. Five of Cincin­nati’s past six op­po­nents have fin­ished with at least 481 yards of of­fense. How would an in­ef­fec­tive of­fen­sive per­for­mance un­der Jack­son af­fect the Ravens’ plans for him this sea­son and be­yond?

Con­sider the op­po­site as well: How much credit would Jack­son get for en­liven­ing an of­fense that hasn’t scored more than 23 points since Week 4? Would the job be Jack­son’s to lose, or would the Ravens re­turn to the sta­tus quo when Flacco re­turns to health? The last time Flacco spoke to the me­dia, af­ter the loss to the Steel­ers, he ac­knowl­edged that there’s “al­ways pres­sure on ev­ery team to go win foot­ball games.”

The Ravens’ reck­on­ings could de­ter­mine the fu­tures of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s two most vis­i­ble fig­ures. Har­baugh has been one of Flacco’s staunch­est de­fend­ers, and on Wed­nes­day said that he hopes Ravens fans re­spect Flacco’s tough­ness as much as he does. Divorc­ing sen­ti­men­tal­ity from strat­egy is “tough,” Casserly said, “but you have to do it.” He pointed to the San Fran­cisco 49ers’ 1993 trade of four-time Su­per Bowl win­ner and then-oft-in­jured vet­eran quar­ter­back Joe Mon­tana, a move that cleared the path for reign­ing NFL MVP Steve Young.

“It’s a tricky thing,” Casserly said. “There was the phrase years ago coined first by [Hall of Fame base­ball man­ager] Branch Rickey that I re­mem­ber: ‘Bet­ter to trade them a year early [than a year too late].’ … Of course, you want to have some­body in there that you’re con­fi­dent in.”

Flacco and Har­baugh would be some­what in­su­lated from con­tin­ued strug­gles, al­beit in dif­fer­ent ways. Given his con­tract, Flacco could not start in 2019 and still be paid like a starter. The Ravens would ab­sorb a salary cap hit of $16 mil­lion in dead money if they re­leased Flacco next year, but only $8 mil­lion if they held off un­til 2020. Har­baugh, mean­while, would not have to wait out un­em­ploy­ment long, given his pedi­gree.

For now, though, Har­baugh and Flacco are bound to­gether, just as they have been for over a decade. As for how much longer? That will de­pend partly on what hap­pens if and when they’re apart Sund.

“Ob­vi­ously, it’s not ideal that our record is what it is, but we al­ways talk about, when you’re wor­ried about the out­comes of things, and you’re look­ing too far ahead and wor­ry­ing about things that aren’t in our con­trol quite yet, you get your­self in trou­ble,” Flacco said. “It’s tough to do that, but you have to be men­tally strong, and just be able to fo­cus on the task at hand and move on.”

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