There have been plenty of instances when Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has drawn on experiences from his career to gain motivation, get through tough times or just get an edge. This isn’t the first season in which he’s led an offense mired in struggles and faced weekly questions about whether the Ravens can do enough offensively to get into the playoffs and succeed once they’re there.
As most Ravens fans surely remember, that was the prominent question in December of the 2012 regular season. Flacco provided an emphatic answer by playing the best football of his career and jump-starting a Super Bowl run.
“I do not know if you look back at that year. I look back at other years, and we know we can make it happen,” Flacco said Wednesday. “2012 is a misconception, because we were a 9-2 football team and we went on a losing skid there at the end of the year, but I would not say that we ever dealt with so many issues that we can look back at that season and see how we came over it. Each one is different; each season is different. You always have something to deal with — injures [or] whatever it may be.
“Right now, we are just keeping our head down, and it may not look pretty moving forward, but we are going to do what we have to do to win football games and put ourselves in a good position at the end of the games to win them.”
This would be a fitting week for those associated with the Ravens to wax nostalgic. The Ravens (6-5) returned to practice Wednesday to continue preparations for Sunday afternoon’s game against the also-desperate Detroit Lions in a matchup that carries potential playoff ramifications for both conferences. The Lions (6-5) are coached by Jim Caldwell, who knows a thing or two about Flacco’s ability to shrug season-long struggles aside and find a rhythm at the most opportune time.
On Dec. 10, 2012, a day after an overtime loss to the Washington Redskins, Ravens coach John Harbaugh dismissed longtime offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and promoted Caldwell, then Flacco’s quarterback coach, to call the plays and direct the offense. Two months later, the decision was ultimately cited as one of the impetuses behind the Ravens winning the Super Bowl.
“You’re taking me back a little while, and those things are really over and done with,” Caldwell said Wednesday in a conference call with Baltimore-area reporters. “They were great times for us, but I can just tell you that Joe is always a winner. Joe understands how to win games and obviously, he’s got a lot of physical tools to go with it. So a smart guy and doesn’t make many mistakes.”
Caldwell was Ravens offensive coordinator through the 2013 season, a year they also scuffled offensively, before he was named the head coach of the Lions in January 2014. He carefully sidestepped a question Wednesday about whether he’s been surprised by Flacco’s recent struggles.
“What I look at more so than anything else is just overall how they function,” Caldwell said. “This is one of the better teams in our league. They do a tremendous job in all phases. They don’t make many mistakes. They force you into mistakes. A great defense, a great staff. I just think they create all kinds of problems for you.”
Two days after Flacco questioned, after a victory over the Houston Texans, whether the Ravens can continue to play in this manner offensively and still make noise in the playoffs, he was far more subdued Wednesday.
He acknowledged that’s he’s accepting of the fact that when the defense is playing particularly well, he has to be more game manager than gunslinger. He used to abhor the “game manager” label. He also talked around questions about whether the Ravens are too easy to prepare for and need to be more aggressive with the play-calling and the way they attack teams offensively.
“It is tough because you know that at any given moment something could change, and you are going to have to rise up and make that play and do those things. But you are not really thinking about that during the game. You are thinking about the flow of the game and just moving the sticks and seeing what you can do as an offense to keep that ball in your hands and keep going,” Flacco said.
“Whatever that is, whatever we have to do in order for that to happen, that is what we are going to do. My job as a quarterback is to do that. Whatever kind of situation we are in as a team — up by seven or up by three — it is to hold on to that lead and hold on to the ball and give ourselves and give our defense and give the whole defense the best chance of moving forward, whether that is kicking a field goal or scoring a touchdown, whatever it may be.”
With five regular-season games remaining, Flacco has thrown just nine touchdown passes to go along with 11 interceptions and 1,875 passing yards. He’s on pace for the fewest passing yards of his career, and that even includes his 2,791-yard season in 2015, when he played in just 10 games because he blew out his left knee.
Flacco ranks 25th in the NFL in passing yards, 26th in touchdown passes, 30th in quarterback rating (74.2) and last among qualifying quarterbacks in yards per attempt (5.34).
Criticism of the former Super Bowl-winning quarterback extended into the “Monday Night Football” Ravens-Texans broadcast when play-by-play man Sean McDonough said, “In talking to the [Ravens] coaches, they think that Joe has had opportunities this year to throw it down the field and just hasn’t spent enough time and energy trying to throw it downfield.”
Asked Wednesday about the comment, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who is a close friend of McDonough’s, said he didn’t hear it and wasn’t aware of it. He also reiterated that the organization has full confidence in the quarterback.
“You just go out and try to play quarterback as well as you can, and he does a great job of that,” Harbaugh said. “I believe in Joe, and I think he’s our best offensive player. He’s the guy that puts it all together for us. We have to build around him, for sure, and that’s what we try to do.”
Ravens wide receiver Mike Wallace also backed his quarterback Wednesday, saying: “We just have to make more plays, whether it is me, Joe, everybody. We have five weeks to make it happen and hopefully more. There’s going to be a time where we need our offense to step up and make plays. It’s up to everybody. It’s up to players, coaches, everybody. We have a game plan and we stick with it. We just have to make plays within it — whatever it is, running or passing.”