The Baltimore Ravens have a massive value discrepancy at the NFL's most important position, and there isn't much they can do about it in the short term.
In March 2016, the Ravens signed Joe Flacco to a three-year, $66.4 million contract extension when he had three seasons left on the six-year, $120.6 million extension he signed in 2013. That original extension seemed valid; Flacco had a marvelous postseason at the end of the 2012 campaign. He threw 11 touchdowns and no interceptions through the playoffs, and Baltimore beat San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII.
But since that first extension, Flacco has not been the same quarterback. In 2013, he threw 22 interceptions to 19 touchdowns, and though he turned it around in 2014 with a 27-touchdown, 12-pick season, he's been entirely unremarkable in the three years since. In fact, as measured by Pro Football Reference's adjusted net yards per attempt metric, only Brock Osweiler has a lower level of efficiency from 2015 through 2017 among quarterbacks who have thrown for at least 5,000 yards during that time. And using the same 5,000-yard floor, only Osweiler, Trevor Siemian and Ryan Fitzpatrick have posted a lower combined passer rating during that three-year span than Flacco's 82.4.
Certainly, the Ravens didn't expect this downturn when they doubled down on Flacco's contract, but it's also clear they're reading the tea leaves and planning for the future. At the end of the first day of the 2018 draft, general manager Ozzie Newsome engineered a trade up to the 32nd overall pick, and the Ravens selected Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. Having already signed Robert Griffin III as Flacco's backup, Baltimore seemed to be going all-in on a different style of quarterback as its franchise quarterback continued to regress.
Griffin, of course, has seen his own serious downturn over the last few seasons—injuries have sapped most of the skill that saw him earn the 2012 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award—but Jackson is another matter entirely. Playing in Bobby Petrino's multifaceted and pro-style passing offense from 2015 through 2017, Jackson racked up 9,043 yards, 69 touchdowns and 27 picks and completed 57 percent of his passes. He also became one of the most electric runners in the NCAA, totaling 4,132 yards and 50 touchdowns on 655 carries.
Whether Jackson is ready for the rigors of the NFL as a starter is one issue the Ravens coaching staff has to consider; the equally important dilemma is what to do with its longtime franchise quarterback if he's past the point of ever playing like one again. Per Over The Cap, the team would be on the hook for a $12.75 million dead cap hit if it releases Flacco as a post-June 1 cut, and that's not going to happen. A release after the 2018 season is more likely if Flacco continues to play as he has; at that point, as a post-June 1 cut, his release would cost the team just $8 million in dead cap.
Having hamstrung themselves with a consistently ineffective quarterback through at least the upcoming season, the best the Ravens can do is to put as many weapons around Flacco as possible. To that end, they signed free-agent receivers Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John Brown and selected South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst with the 25th overall pick.
They've also hinted at the possibility of Flacco and Jackson sharing the field at the same time, which would seem to place Jackson as a runner in various option packages.
"Gosh, I sure like him out there helping us," head coach John Harbaugh said in June, via ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley. "If you put two quarterbacks on the field at once, what options does it create for our offense? That's what we're trying to figure out."
Well, given what Flacco has presented over the last three years, at least giving Jackson a chance to wrest the starting job would be one way to figure it out. Flacco has a series of mechanical and diagnostic issues that haven't been fixed, and as he's going into his 11th NFL season, it's valid to wonder if this is all there is.
During his playoff streak at the end of the 2012 season, Flacco was far better at eluding pressure in the pocket than he is now. Back then, he was able to step out of the way of incoming defenders, reset his body and make the deep throw. Now, he's less mechanically sound—and this is highly detrimental to his pressured throws. With a clean pocket, Flacco can still hit a deep receiver in stride, but among the reasons he ranked 29th in passer rating on throws traveling at least 20 yards downfield, per Pro Football Focus, is that he doesn't adjust his body for optimal accuracy and velocity when he's pressured.
Flacco's receivers were hardly inspiring as downfield targets, though Jeremy Maclin had some decent opportunities and Mike Wallace deserved better than the throws he was getting from his quarterback most of the time. But in Flacco's case, we're talking about a franchise quarterback by every possible definition—he shouldn't need top-notch deep receivers to make contested deep throws under pressure. The truly great quarterbacks lift their receivers to another level, and there aren't many examples of Flacco doing that over the last few seasons.
This 40-yard reception by Wallace in Baltimore's Week 14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers shows that even when Flacco's receivers give him the advantage and he's operating from a clean pocket, things don't always go as they should.
On this play, Wallace is the slot receiver to the right side, and Pittsburgh has to adjust its coverage pre-snap when receiver Michael Campanaro (No. 12) runs a sweep motion. You can see deep safety Sean Davis (No. 28) aligning away from Wallace's side to keep an eye on Campanaro.
At the snap, Wallace runs his vertical route, and Coty Sensabaugh hands him off to Davis, who tries to run with Wallace but is still turned around by the pre-snap motion.
As a result, Wallace gets a free release all the way through his route.
The only thing that prevents this from being an easy touchdown for Wallace is that Flacco pushes the ball, throwing with an abbreviated motion despite the fact that he's under no pressure.
Wallace has to slow down to catch the underthrown pass, which gives Davis the time he needs to catch up and tackle Wallace. The 40-yard gain was nice, but this drive ended in a field goal—the 39-38 score indicates just how important a touchdown would have been.
Flacco's issues aren't just mechanical; he makes reads that lead to incompletions and interceptions far too often for a quarterback of his experience. He was picked off twice by Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard in Baltimore's Week 9 loss, and this intercepted attempt to receiver Breshad Perriman was especially disconcerting.
Here, Flacco has Maclin as the slot receiver and Perriman as the outside guy to the right.
At the snap, Maclin runs a vertical route up the numbers, while Perriman takes a shorter route to the sideline. From the start, Maclin is the more open receiver—Perriman has Byard (No. 31) pressing him with inside position to the boundary and linebacker Derrick Morgan (No. 91) covering underneath.
Meanwhile, Maclin has a step downfield on cornerback Adoree' Jackson (No. 25), and safety Johnathan Cyprien (No. 37) has to adjust his body out of a straight backpedal to catch up to Maclin for the overhead coverage.
Flacco has the opening to Maclin if he takes it, but inexplicably (and after a pump fake to try to shake the underneath coverage loose) he throws to Perriman even as Byard—one of the best coverage safeties in the league—has him wrapped up at the sideline.
Not that Jackson should be the pre-emptive starter going into the 2018 season, but he's got a lot working in his favor as a pure passer. Per PFF, he had a 71.7 percent adjusted completion percentage on passes traveling 20 or more yards in the air. And even a cursory view of his college tape shows a quarterback far more comfortable with deep throws than Flacco has been. In addition, Petrino's use of the Erhardt-Perkins offense (a staple of the New England Patriots' passing game throughout the Brady/Belichick era) gives Jackson more experience with route concepts and reads than your average "running quarterback." Not to mention most of Jackson's scrambles were by design; this isn't a player who tucked the ball and ran at the first sign of pressure.
The short-term question for the Ravens is how long it will take Jackson to transfer that kind of efficiency to a league featuring defenses that are far more multiple and complex—and stacked with far more talent. In this endeavor, he has two able lieutenants: Assistant head coach Greg Roman was Jim Harbaugh's offensive coordinator in San Francisco from 2011 though 2014, and it was Roman more than anybody who studied Colin Kaepernick's Nevada offense and put together a plan that would ease Kaepernick's NFL transition. And offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg served that same role for Andy Reid's Philadelphia Eagles from 2010 through 2012, when Michael Vick returned from his imprisonment and league suspension and made a remarkable transformation as a pure passer in a vertical West Coast offense.
The deck seems to be stacked for a quarterback coup: Griffin is far more like Jackson than Flacco, the coaching staff has a successful history with favorable concepts, and Flacco's Ravens have missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons—the longest postseason drought since the franchise's inception and subsequent four-year dry spell from 1996 through 1999.
Is Flacco beyond the point of no return when it comes to fixing what's wrong? One could argue he would succeed with better receivers and a more expansive playbook, but the results on the field over the last three years—a virtual lifetime in the NFL—indicate that this is a quarterback who's unable to turn the tide.
The Ravens of the new millennium are used to winning, and if Joe Flacco can no longer facilitate that, Lamar Jackson should be given every chance to take that job sooner rather than later. No matter the financial commitment to Flacco and no matter how much such a move would be an admission of a serious mistake in personnel evaluation. The best teams are able to manage their errors; they don't double down out of a misshapen sense of pride. This is what the Ravens must do if Flacco doesn't come out of the gate with different results in 2018.
For the Ravens, the future very well may be now.