Joe Flacco took the shotgun snap, dropped back three steps and then stood upright in the pocket. His eyes scanning the end zone, the Ravens quarterback patted the ball once, then stepped into a throw. The ball whizzed just between two diving Pittsburgh Steelers defensive backs that converged from each side and landed into the hands of wide receiver Mike Wallace in the middle of the end zone.
Requiring anticipation, accuracy, arm strength and an awful lot of guts, the 16-yard touchdown pass to Wallace last Sunday was one of those trademark Flacco throws that few NFL quarterbacks can make. It was also one fleeting moment through the Ravens' first four games where Flacco had the look of a quarterback at the top of his game.
Flacco will take the field Sunday afternoon at Oakland Coliseum for the Ravens' matchup with the Raiders in the middle of one of the worst stretches of his 10-year career. The 32-year-old's penchant for poor throws and perplexing decisions has longtime Flacco supporters wondering whether his days as a franchise quarterback are numbered.
His failure to take care of the ball and get the receivers involved has left the Ravens last in the league in passing yards per game and tied for second last in points per game. In back-to-back lopsided losses, the Ravens have been shut out in the first half. Over the first four games, the Ravens have really played only one good half of offensive football, the first 30 minutes against the Cleveland Browns in Week 2.
We want to talk about players individually and you just can’t. You can’t talk about players in a vacuum.— ESPN analyst Louis Riddick
The offense's ongoing ineptitude is threatening to sink a season that started with two victories.
"We need to get going, we need to start executing and like we said, that's all of us," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That's always a group effort. Joe takes that on his shoulders, he takes that responsibility as a quarterback, and that's part of what makes him who he is."
The Ravens offense's problems are wide ranging. They have run the ball better, but they still lack a game-breaking back that teams fear. Their offensive line, a makeshift group that is down two starting guards, has been overwhelmed the past two weeks. The wide receiver corps has been plagued by drops.
But like in every NFL city, the focus is on the quarterback and Flacco's shaky play after returning from a back injury that sidelined him for the preseason has been cause for consternation. He's last in the league among every-week starters in passing yards (601) and yards per attempt (5.1). If not for Browns rookie DeShone Kizer, Flacco would be last in quarterback rating (65.0) and first in interceptions (six), too. He's been picked off in a league-high 10 straight games.
"We want to talk about players individually and you just can't. You can't talk about players in a vacuum," said former NFL player and executive, and current ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, who breaks down tape and performance on the NFL Matchup show. "With Joe, it's no different. The wide receiving corps has been wildly inconsistent in Baltimore over the past couple of years. No Dennis Pitta, huge security blanket taken away. Running game, up and down. Offensive line has been shuffled. Losing Marshal Yanda is huge. Who knows what that does to his confidence?
"There are just so many different things. It's easy to bash on Joe. The league has its whipping boys at every position and Joe happens to be one of them at quarterback where people are so polarizing with their opinions on him."
Flacco has shouldered the blame for the offensive struggles. In a rare concession Wednesday, he agreed the offense isn't playing with the confidence it needs. He spoke for the group as a whole rather than addressing his own confidence level after two of the worst back-to-back performances in his career. His play has led to some analysts questioning Flacco's psyche.
"It looks like he's completely lost his confidence," former New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said on NBC's Football Night in America pregame show last Sunday.
Former NFL quarterback and current NFL on CBS announcer Trent Green said Flacco "hasn't exactly looked comfortable to say the least."
Flacco acknowledged he has to be more patient in the pocket and give his receivers opportunities downfield. He denied that his impatience is a result of his summer back injury and a reluctance to take big hits. He also has repeatedly defended the patchwork offensive line. Both, along with the missed summer practice time, are popular theories to explain Flacco's struggles.
There are also questions about whether Flacco fully recovered mentally and physically from the torn ACL and MCL in his left knee that prematurely ended his 2015 season.
"Some of it may be, 'I don't want to take the hit because I'm not sure,'" said Green, who is part of the CBS broadcast team for Sunday's Ravens-Raiders game. "I've had back issues and I also did the knee thing like Joe. The knee, you kind of throw a brace on it and you're like, 'I'm going in there and I'm just going to fire it.' Once, you get your strength and range of motion back, you're ready to roll. With the back, it's almost like mentally, 'Is this next little movement or tweak or turn or hit or whatever all of a sudden going to cause it into a spasm?' I'm not saying that's what is occurring with him. I'm just saying that I know mentally, coming back from a back deal is a lot different than coming back from a knee."
Green, nonetheless, believes forecasts of Flacco's demise are premature. Riddick said that it's a combination of things that could be triggering Flacco's struggles, but noted that injuries have a cumulative effect.
"The more advanced in your career you get, and there is going to be an inevitable downturn in terms of your talent and maybe even your ability to really dial in play after play after play because as you get older and you've gotten a little more beaten up, maybe you don't want to stay in the pocket as long, you don't want to keep your eyes downfield as long," Riddick said. "There are so many things that can start chipping away at your performance. You've got to massage all of that stuff and make things as strong as possible around him."
Flacco detractors like to say the quarterback has played poorly since he led the Ravens to a victory in Super Bowl XLVII after the 2012 regular season and signed a then-record six-year, $120.6 million deal. That, however, is ignoring that Flacco probably had his best regular season in 2014.
In leading the Ravens to a 10-6 record that year, he threw for 3,986 yards, 27 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions. He then threw six touchdown passes in two postseason games. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak left the Ravens after the season to become head coach of the Denver Broncos, and Flacco and the offense have never recovered.
Flacco played 18 games with Kubiak as the offensive coordinator and he didn't throw an interception in nine of them. He had a quarterback rating over 100.0 eight times and a rating over 90.0 13 times. In 30 games since, Flacco has played just seven games without a pick and registered just four outings with a quarterback rating over 100.0 and 10 with a quarterback rating over 90.0.
Kubiak and his top lieutenant, quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison, constantly drilled Flacco on his footwork and his fundamentals, believing a quarterback's feet take him to the right reads. In recent seasons, evaluators have noted that Flacco's footwork has worsened as he's often resorted to throwing the ball off his back foot, and he's shown tepid movement in the pocket.
Current Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who is also under fire, was asked Thursday about what he's working on with Flacco in terms of fundamentals and he declined to offer specifics.
Harbaugh and Ravens players voiced considerable support this week for Flacco, who remains a deeply respected and admired teammate. The organization and Flacco are probably married through at least the 2018 season. He has a $24.75 million salary cap number for 2018 and cutting him anytime that season would dent their cap flexibility going forward.
Cutting him after this season "would be tough because it's only going to save you $12 million in cap room this year as a post-June 1 designation," said Joel Corry, a former agent who analyzes contracts for National Football Post and CBS Sports. "You'd have to carry the cap number all the way until June 2, but then you have $16 million in dead money in 2019. You can't trade him until after June 1 and by then, everybody would have a quarterback and what could you get for him anyway with the way he's playing right now? Most likely, it's going to be 2019 when you make a move."
The Ravens understand what's at stake. That's why they badly need Flacco to stop the offense's slide and to play better. There would be no better time than Sunday.
"It definitely helps as individuals going through [adversity] before and having dealt with it when you're together as long as we have. You're used to having to stare this kind of stuff in the face and react to it," Flacco said this week. "Hopefully, it makes us as a team better."
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has thrown an interception in 10 consecutive games, the longest such streak in the NFL. Below are his numbers during the streak:
Date; Result; Comp.-Att.-Yds.; TDs; INTs; QB rating
10-1-17; Steelers 26, Ravens 9; 31-49-235; 1; 2; 64.6
9-24-17; Jaguars 44, Ravens 7; 8-18-28; 0; 2; 12.0
9-17-17; Ravens 24, Browns 10; 25-34-217; 2; 1; 97.3
9-10-17; Ravens 20, Bengals 0; 9-17-121; 1; 1; 71.0
1-1-17; Bengals 27, Ravens 10; 32-49-267; 0; 1; 70.7
Baltimore Ravens Insider
12-25-16; Steelers 31, Ravens 27; 30-44-262; 1; 1; 81.8
12-18-16; Ravens 27, Eagles 26; 16-30-206; 2; 1; 83.5
12-12-16; Patriots 30, Ravens 23; 37-52-324; 2; 1; 92.1
12-4-16; Ravens 38, Dolphins 6; 36-47-381; 4; 1; 119.2
11-27-16; Ravens 19, Bengals 14; 25-36-234; 1; 1; 84.7