The Ravens knew fewer than 15 minutes after Sunday's 16-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams that quarterback Joe Flacco's season was over. A magnetic resonance imaging test taken Monday on Flacco's left knee confirmed the initial diagnosis: a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a torn medial collateral ligament.
For the first time since he became Ravens coach in 2008, John Harbaugh started preparation for a game with the knowledge that someone other than Flacco — in this case, 12th-year player Matt Schaub — will take the offensive snaps on Monday night against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Harbaugh, however, was optimistic that Flacco will be ready to return in time to prepare for the 2016 season.
"I think it's probably way early and obviously speculative, but the indications that I've been given would be that he would be back for the start of training camp and it wouldn't be an issue," Harbaugh said Monday. "However, as we all know, those are always things that get determined based on how the rehab goes."
Flacco, who was hurt on the first play of the team's game-winning drive when substitute left tackle James Hurst rolled into him, will have surgery when the swelling goes down. Harbaugh predicted that it will take at least a week for that to happen. Then, Flacco will start a long and arduous rehabilitation process that will continue throughout the offseason.
"The way technology is, guys bounce back from these things really well and I have every expectation he'll bounce back 100 percent and be stronger than ever, and be ready to roll next year, and be in great shape like he always is," Harbaugh said. "That's a long way away, but right now, there's no reason to think that he won't come back better than ever."
Harbaugh spoke of what a blessing it has been to be able to count on Flacco every game for seven-plus seasons. Including the postseason, Flacco has played in 137 consecutive games, the second-longest streak (behind Peyton Manning) in NFL history by a quarterback to begin a career.
Several Ravens, including outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil and cornerback Jimmy Smith, said Sunday they almost took Flacco's durability for granted because the quarterback not only doesn't miss games, but also rarely is sidelined for a practice. But typical of Harbaugh — and the NFL as a whole — the Ravens (3-7) were already looking forward Monday.
"This will be a change for all of us. It will be a big challenge for us, but it's a challenge that I wouldn't say we're looking forward to," Harbaugh said. "We'd rather it not be the case, but we're not going to shy away from it."
Harbaugh again expressed confidence in Schaub, who hasn't started a game since the 2013 season for the Houston Texans. Schaub had a rocky training camp and threw 10 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions over the past two regular seasons. But Harbaugh said the Ravens "have absolutely every expectation that he's going to play very, very well."
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was working Monday to add at least one backup quarterback because Schaub's the only healthy one on the 53-man roster andpractice squad.
Some of the options include Christian Ponder, Jason Campbell, Jordan Palmer and Ryan Lindley. Jimmy Clausen, who played under Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman in Chicago, is available via waivers after the Bears let him go Monday. The Ravens have also talked about signing quarterback Bryn Renner — who threw four touchdown passes and ran for another with them in the preseason — to the practice squad.
"There is progress on that," Harbaugh said. "It would probably be too early to say for sure. I don't want to make any statements that don't end up being true because nothing is finalized, yet."
Flacco's injury, though, spurs pressing longterm questions. Before the injury, the Ravens and the quarterback were prepared to discuss a restructured contract this offseason. Flacco's deal counts $28.55 million against the salary cap for 2016, which is close to untenable for the Ravens, who will need the cap space to upgrade other areas of the roster.
The uncertainty caused by his injury might complicate the talks a little bit, although it's probably naïve to suggest that it lowers Flacco's value, especially if team doctors believe that he'll be ready to start the 2016 season.
"It's wishful thinking that it will help the Ravens," said Joel Corry, a former NFL agent who now studies and analyzes contracts and the salary cap for CBS Sports and National Football Post. "The biggest thing that helps the Ravens more than the injury is the fact that this has not been Flacco's best year. … If you're his agent, you consider the injury irrelevant. Carson Palmer has torn two ACLs. He went down at this point last year and he didn't miss a game this season. And Carson Palmer is an MVP candidate."
Flacco has said on several occasions that he doesn't want to play anywhere else and doesn't view this offseason's negotiations as a significant hurdle.
But even if a deal does get done, is it realistic to expect that Flacco will be ready for the start of training camp? Precedent suggests that it is. Flacco's teammate, safety Terrence Brooks, tore his ACL and MCL in mid-December of last year, and he was back practicing in August.
"I don't know that you ever really know," Harbaugh said. "Most guys come back from those things pretty well. There have been quarterbacks who have had ACLs."
Palmer's successful and relatively quick recovery this year should provide some hope, although he didn't tear his MCL, too.
"I think the devil is in the details. The ACL and the [MCL] injuries are scalable," said Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, a California-based orthopedic surgeon for Santa Monica Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Group. Mandelbaum, who has done ACL prevention research for the NFL, hasn't treated Flacco. "The most severe of the [MCL] injuries might add four to six weeks to the recovery, but I would say with confidence that he'll be back by the 2016 season."