If we’re nearing the end of the Joe Flacco era in Baltimore — or we already got there when he was replaced as starting quarterback in mid-November — it’s only fair to give the man his due.
He is, obviously, the greatest quarterback in Ravens history, which is why the past several weeks have been a bit awkward for both him and the team. The only thing he did to lose his job was get hurt during the Week 9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Well, that’s not entirely true. The Ravens were 4-5 and in the midst of a three-game losing streak that undermined a solid start by their one-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback. Flacco, and everybody else on the team, certainly could have done more to stay above .500 heading into their Week 10 bye, but he was on pace to throw for the most yards in any of his 11 NFL seasons.
Even with so-so performances against the Carolina Panthers and Steelers in his last two games, he had 2,465 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and just six interceptions. His quarterback rating (84.2) was slightly above his career average, and we all know that career included six playoff appearances, three AFC championship games and a Super Bowl XLVII title in his first seven seasons.
The only way he was going to be replaced as the No. 1 quarterback once he was cleared to play after that hip injury was if something so otherworldly happened that intensely loyal head coach John Harbaugh had no choice but to make that earthshaking change.
Of course, that’s exactly the way it all went down. Rookie Lamar Jackson changed everything with his world-class speed, which facilitated a dynamic shift in offensive strategy that caught the rest of the league on its collective heels.
Jackson and the Ravens came back from the bye and made a mad dash for the playoffs, which rendered any possible quarterback controversy moot. The Ravens traded back into the first round of this year’s draft to get their quarterback of the future and the future arrived at least a half-season ahead of schedule.
What’s most important to note going into Sunday’s playoff game against the Los Angeles Chargers in what almost certainly will be Flacco’s final game at M&T Bank Stadium in a Ravens uniform, is that — throughout this sudden and unusual transition from star quarterback to the NFL’s highest-paid understudy — he has remained the same solid guy who brought this franchise its first long-term stability at the quarterback position.
He never whined when demanding fans and critical sports-talk hosts debated whether he was a truly elite quarterback, even as he won more games than any of the unquestioned elites during those first seven seasons.
He graciously accepted the responsibility that came with being one of the highest-paid players in the league and never complained about the outsized blame that lands on the quarterback when a season turns sour.
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And let’s not forget that in 11 years, Flacco never once embarrassed the team, the fans or this city, which is saying quite a lot in a league that has spent that period in a state of near-constant damage control.
Flacco’s career has been couched in a strange irony. When he was taking the Ravens to the postseason every year and winning more road playoff games than anybody else, he was celebrated as “Joe Cool” for his unflappable demeanor. When things went wrong, he suddenly became “Joe Too Cool” for not showing enough emotion on the field or the sidelines.
What he is is a throwback to an earlier NFL era, when players didn’t need to tell you how good they were and over-the-top emotional outbursts on the field — whether they were exhibitions of elation or deflation — were considered uncool.
He’s been a strong leader, a great teammate and solid family man who is a mortal lock to be inducted into the Ravens’ Ring of Honor and remembered fondly for all the things he has done for this organization.
Even so, there’s no question the Ravens made the right decision to stick with Jackson when Flacco was cleared to play going into Week 15, signaling the team is committed to Jackson going forward.
There might be a slight chance Flacco could return next year, but it’s more likely he could end up helping the team one more time during the offseason if the Ravens can work out a trade for him that brings back a draft pick or two.
One thing appears certain. He’s not ready to ride off into the sunset. Flacco can still play at a high level and he’ll land somewhere — maybe even somewhere nearby.