The question was inevitable. It was going to come as soon as the Ravens had their first serious losing streak of the season, and that moment arrived Sunday soon after they dropped their third straight game, 23-16, to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Is it time for rookie and first-round draft pick Lamar Jackson to replace veteran Joe Flacco as the starting quarterback?
Coach John Harbaugh answered the question properly Monday.
“Joe has played well, so I don’t want to get into all of that,” Harbaugh said. “We’re rolling right now with what we got.”
And that’s the way it should be for the remainder of the season barring major injuries to Flacco or No. 3 quarterback Robert Griffin III. There is always a demand for the backup quarterback when the top guy struggles, but there are two major reasons the Ravens need to stick with Flacco.
One, at 4-5 they are still in contention for a playoff spot and he gives them the best chance of winning. Secondly, Jackson isn’t ready to be a starter yet. In fact, he might be another year away.
“Of course, at some point in time, I mean, this guy's a quarterback,” Harbaugh said of Jackson. “We've said that from the beginning, and anybody that wants to dispute that, come to practice or you watch him play. He's improving all the time. He's getting better as a quarterback, an NFL quarterback, all the time.”
To bench Flacco at this time would be a huge mistake. He hasn’t played well in recent weeks, but he started the first month off strong. It’s been a typical Flacco season. He is inconsistent from half to half not to mention game to game, but has still completed 233 of 379 passes for 2,465 yards and 12 touchdowns.
If Harbaugh pulled him now, it would be an act of surrender almost as careless as if team owner Steve Bisciotti had fired Harbaugh at this point of the season. The Ravens (4-5) still have seven games left and a remote shot of earning a wild-card playoff berth.
Plus, Flacco is a leader. He might not be as charismatic or as flamboyant as former Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, but he still commands respect from his teammates. Benching him would cause problems on this team, especially among veterans such as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, safety Eric Weddle and guard Marshal Yanda.
Harbaugh is smart to just ride out this storm. Flacco will come around and play the way he has for most of his career. He isn’t great but good enough to win in any situation.
Jackson isn’t even close to that level yet, and he might never get there. But he does have time on his side and doesn’t need to be thrown out onto the field just for some game-day experience. There is nothing wrong with a young quarterback being patient and waiting for his time to play.
According to two NFL coaches, one who spent considerable time with him leading up to the draft, Jackson might have played in a sophisticated offense at Louisville but needs more time as far as reading NFL defenses. That’s one of the main reasons he dropped to the Ravens as the No. 32 overall pick in the first round.
During the preseason he made progress, but there were problems with his mechanics, such as properly gripping the ball and his footwork when he drops back and plants his back leg to throw.
There is upside if the Ravens can correct the fundamentals. Jackson might be the fastest player on the roster and is athletic. He fits more into the trendy new NFL offenses with quarterbacks who are versatile enough to get outside the pocket and use run-pass option plays.
As far as accuracy, the fundamentals and learning how to grip the ball will help him improve but maybe not enough to make him the next star in the NFL.
The question, though, is why do you want to throw Jackson out there now? The Ravens have no running game and an offensive line that has been depleted by injuries. Jackson is super-competitive, but he isn’t as strong as Flacco as far as dealing with the ups and downs of being a pro quarterback.
The Ravens have been getting Jackson playing time. It was understandable in the early part of the season because his presence gave defensive coordinators something else to prepare for on game day.
There doesn’t seem to be much of an advantage anymore. Using him as the option quarterback on short-yardage and 2-point conversion plays is perfect especially when rolling him out because he puts a lot of pressure on the perimeter.
But the Ravens are using him at times when it makes little sense. They have inserted him as quarterback after long gains or passes downfield, which can halt momentum.
When Jackson enters the game, the Ravens usually split Flacco out to one side as a makeshift receiver and they usually either run up the middle or a play to the opposite side of Flacco. They basically have neutralized one of their best offensive players, Flacco, for one who is very predictable.
There is a motive, here, though. Getting Jackson onto the field might be part of a mandate from Bisciotti. But Harbaugh isn’t panicking and making rash major decisions about a new starting quarterback.
He is with Flacco, who still gives the Ravens their best chance of winning. Any questions about Jackson starting can be put on the shelf for a couple of weeks and probably for the remainder of the season.