Can the Ravens Actually Make a Run with Lamar Jackson?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 4, 2018

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 2: Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates after the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 2, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

With Joe Flacco as their starting quarterback, the Baltimore Ravens are 4-5 this season and 24-27 since the start of 2015. 

With Lamar Jackson as their starting quarterback, they're now 3-0. 

But a correlation between Jackson starts and Ravens victories does not mean there's a causal relationship between the two events, and Jackson's three-week sample as a starter is both small and cloudy.

The Ravens have won three consecutive games for the first time in a calendar year, but is this streak sustainable with Jackson under center? What about with Flacco? The former is a raw, mistake-prone rookie, but the latter has helped the Ravens get to the playoffs just once in the last five years.

It's a looming predicament, as it looks as though Flacco will soon be healthy enough to play after missing three weeks due to a right hip injury, complicating matters for a team that might not want to risk ruffling its own feathers in the midst of a hot late-season run. 

"He's done enough [to continue starting]," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said of Jackson following Sunday's 26-16 victory road victory over the Atlanta Falcons, per Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic. "He's played great. He's 3-0. He's played well. What way we'll go, what direction we'll go, we'll see."

Generally speaking, Jackson has not, in fact, played particularly well. But neither had Flacco before he hurt his hip. 

If qualified, Jackson's 73.5 passer rating would rank fourth-last in football, ahead of only three other rookies—Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen—who are piloting offenses for non-contending teams. He's rushed for 265 yards and two touchdowns in his three starts, but he's thrown just one touchdown pass to three interceptions while fumbling five times. 

Meanwhile, Flacco's rate-based statistics are qualified, and he's the league's sixth-lowest-rated passer, ahead of the aforementioned trio of rookies and two quarterbacks—Blake Bortles and C.J. Beathard—who have been benched by their respective teams. He has the league's third-lowest touchdown rate and third-lowest yards-per-attempt average, and this isn't just a 2018 thing. He ranked dead last in the latter category while posting the NFL's seventh-lowest passer rating in 2017.

In fact, among 29 quarterbacks with at least 32 starts in the last four seasons, Flacco's 82.7 rating ranks 29th, just behind those of Bortles and Ryan Fitzpatrick. He also ranks last with a 6.3 yards-per-attempt average (none of the other 28 are lower than 6.8) and last with a 64-to-46 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He's yet to make a Pro Bowl in his decade-long career, and he appears to be declining at the age of 33.

     

The element of the unknown might be too large for Jackson

In his three starts, Jackson has completed just one pass for more than 25 yards—a statistic that becomes even more concerning when you consider the opposition (or lack thereof). His first start came against a Cincinnati Bengals defense that ranks last when it comes to yards allowed. Then he faced an Oakland Raiders D that ranks last in terms of yards allowed per play. Sunday, he went up against an Atlanta Falcons team that ranks in the bottom five in pretty much every significant defensive category.

On paper, Baltimore's next two opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, aren't significantly better on that side of the ball. The Chiefs are the only team other than Cincinnati that has surrendered more than 5,000 total yards this season, while the Bucs have given up an NFC-high 6.4 yards per play and 29.6 points per game. 

The Ravens could win both of those games without getting a better feel for what Jackson is capable of right now. Can they really enter the playoffs with a quarterback who has such limited experience against playoff-caliber defenses?

Jackson serving as Baltimore's starting quarterback for a road wild-card game against J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and the Houston Texans' vaunted defense is a recipe for disaster, but that's exactly who the Ravens would meet if the playoffs started this week. 

Say what you will about Flacco's recent track record, but he and Joe Montana are the only players in NFL history to throw more than 10 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in an isolated playoff run. That was nearly six whole years ago, but you earn a lot of credibility when you throw three touchdown passes and post a 124.2 passer rating in a near-flawless Super Bowl victory. 

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Flacco has delivered on the largest possible stage, while the 21-year-old Jackson is a year removed from finishing a college career in which he completed just 57 percent of his passes. 

If you're not expected to make a Super Bowl run either way, you might be better off riding with the guy who once brought you there while facing similarly long odds before, right? 

     

A sequel to 2000?

Considering Flacco's recent struggles and Jackson's inexperience as a passer, the question is not, "Can Lamar Jackson (or Joe Flacco) carry the Ravens on a playoff run?" but, "Can the Ravens carry Lamar Jackson (or Joe Flacco) on a playoff run?"

That's essentially what happened in 2000 when Baltimore rode a historically dominant defense to the Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Like Jackson, Dilfer wasn't even Baltimore's starter at the beginning of that season. He completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes, threw nearly as many interceptions (11) as touchdowns (12) and ranked 20th or lower in passer rating and yards per attempt. And, statistically speaking, he was even worse than that in the playoffs. 

But it didn't matter, because that star-studded Ravens defense surrendered just 10.3 points per game during the regular season, which is an all-time low for a 16-game campaign. Then they followed that up by allowing just 23 total points in four playoff games. You could not run on that D, which made it easy for the Ravens to control games with their stellar running game on the other side of the ball. 

Dilfer's job was to take snaps and stay out of the way. 

That was a different time, and this is a different team. But it's worth noting that the Baltimore defense has performed exceedingly well. It's surrendered a league-low 17.8 points per game, 281.7 yards per game and 4.6 yards per play.

  • Opposing quarterbacks are completing just 57.9 percent of their passes against the Ravens, which is nearly three percentage points lower than the next-best defense in that metric. 
  • They've allowed 17 or fewer points in an NFL-best seven of their 12 games, with two of those coming in each of the last two weeks. 
  • Defenses have surrendered fewer than 3.0 yards per play on five occasions this season. The Packers did it once against the Bills, the Vikings did it once against the Lions, and the Ravens have done it three times—against Buffalo, Tennessee and an Atlanta offense that entered that game with the seventh-highest yards-per-play average in the NFL. 

Oddly, the Ravens have been stout without turning the ball over very often. They're incredibly the only team in the AFC with fewer than 10 takeaways this season, but they've now scored defensive touchdowns in back-to-back games. 

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - NOVEMBER 25: Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs #55 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates his touchdown after a fumble recovery against the Oakland Raiders with teammates during the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on November 25, 2018
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

With guys like Marlon Humphrey, Eric Weddle, Tony Jefferson, Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Za'Darius Smith, Brandon Williams and Tavon Young all rolling, you'd have to think it's only a matter of time before they start consistently creating more turnovers. And it's likely that plenty of opportunities lie ahead with the turnover-prone Chiefs, Bucs and Browns on their remaining December schedule. 

If that happens and they can continue to get production on the ground from Gus Edwards, Kenneth Dixon and Ty Montgomery behind a superb offensive line, it might not matter who's at quarterback in Baltimore.

     

Two-headed quarterback monster?

A potential solution is to use Jackson and Flacco in a virtual platoon, utilizing Jackson for his remarkable athleticism and mobility while taking advantage of Flacco's wisdom and experience without making it seem as though either quarterback has been benched. 

That's pretty much unheard of. When Flacco was healthy and games were within reach one way or the other, the 11th-year veteran was almost always on the field, while the rookie out of Louisville was usually limited to far fewer than 25 percent of the team's offensive snaps

That should change, as unorthodox as a close-to-even split would be. The two should be on the field together as often as practically possible, and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg shouldn't shy away from rotating them on a play-by-play basis, depending on the situation and the state of opposing defenses. 

Does this reek of desperation? Yes. Could the lack of stability and consistency backfire? Sure. 

But what does Baltimore have to lose? This team wasn't expected to compete in a major way this season as it eased into a transition from Flacco to Jackson while working out kinks elsewhere. The Ravens improved the receiving corps in the offseason, but an organization coming off three consecutive non-playoff campaigns was listed by Bovada as a 40-to-1 shot to win the Super Bowl in late August (only 14 teams had worse odds). 

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Now, with the gap between the Ravens the struggling Pittsburgh Steelers down to just half a game atop the AFC North, the window is open a crack.

They won't likely be able to leapfrog the Steelers and make a Super Bowl run with Jackson serving as the primary quarterback, simply because even the most well-honed rookie quarterbacks don't get to Super Bowls. It's actually never happened, and it ain't happening with Jackson. His decision-making skills aren't there, his accuracy isn't there, and he simply isn't ready to go up against teams like Houston, New England or Pittsburgh in January, especially on the road. 

And they won't likely be able to pull off a 2012-like run with Flacco, who hasn't rediscovered that magic in more than half a decade and probably won't be 100 percent the rest of this season. 

Instead, give your opponents something they've never seen before by maximizing confusion with a unique tandem—and then pray that your offense gets the best of both worlds while your defense keeps cruising. 

It wouldn't be easy, but it would probably be a hell of a lot of fun regardless.

          

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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