The Ravens’ season opener could have one of the most interesting undercards in franchise history: Lamar Jackson versus Joe Flacco.
Flacco, the Ravens’ all-time winningest quarterback and Most Valuable Player of their Super Bowl XLVII triumph, is in line to start in place of injured New York Jets starter Zach Wilson in their Week 1 matchup against Baltimore at MetLife Stadium. Wilson, who suffered a bone bruise and tore the meniscus in his right knee in the Jets’ preseason opener Friday, reportedly will miss two to four weeks after undergoing successful arthroscopic surgery Tuesday.
That leaves Flacco, 37, less than a month to prepare for the Ravens, who traded him after the 2018 season that launched Jackson’s career in Baltimore and ended Flacco’s. Flacco’s first game against his former team would mark just his second start since December 2020 and his 14th since the Ravens dealt him to the Denver Broncos for a 2019 fourth-round draft pick.
“We’ll prepare,” John Harbaugh said Monday of facing Flacco, whom he coached for all 11 of his seasons in Baltimore. “We’ll prepare for the Jets. We’ll prepare for all the quarterbacks. Obviously, we have great respect for all their guys, but Joe we know, and he’s a Raven. Once a Raven, always a Raven. So we’ve got a lot of respect for Joe. … But at this point in time, we’re preparing for the players on the Jets and the schemes and the things that they do, and that will be part of it.”
Flacco, drafted No. 18 overall in 2008, won 96 of his 163 regular-season starts (58.9%) for the Ravens. His 38,245 passing yards, 212 passing touchdowns and 136 interceptions are all franchise records. The Ravens won at least eight games in every season in which he started all 16 games and advanced to at least the AFC championship game in three of Flacco’s six playoff appearances as a starter.
Flacco cemented his legacy as a franchise icon with the Ravens’ playoff run in 2012, when he passed for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions, tying Joe Montana and Kurt Warner for the most touchdowns in a single NFL postseason. Flacco was named Super Bowl MVP after passing for 287 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-31 win over the San Francisco 49ers that gave the Ravens their second Super Bowl title.
But in the three-plus years since parting ways, the Ravens and Flacco have rarely crossed paths. He returned to the team facility in Owings Mills to honor guard Marshal Yanda at his March 2020 retirement. He recorded a congratulatory video for Sam Koch when the longtime Ravens punter announced his retirement in May.
Until this year, though, on-field reunions never materialized. Over one season with the Broncos (2019), parts of his first two seasons with the Jets (2020, 2021) and part of one season with the Philadelphia Eagles (2021), he never faced the Ravens, not even during the preseason.
Flacco, who started for the Jets in a Week 11 loss to the Miami Dolphins last season while Wilson recovered from another knee injury, re-signed with the team this offseason. He quickly emerged as the favorite for the Jets’ backup job, impressing onlookers in training camp. Just over a week before the talented but erratic Wilson suffered a noncontact injury while cutting upfield against the Eagles, coach Robert Saleh called Flacco “a starting quarterback in this league.”
His first test of the season could be as taxing emotionally as it will be physically and mentally. In Flacco’s final news conference with the Ravens, after a playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in which some fans chanted for him to replace the rookie Jackson, Flacco said he “can’t imagine a better 11 years with this place becoming my home.”
On Sunday, he acknowledged to Jets reporters that he’d already thought of former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr.’s “super emotional” 2014 reunion with the Carolina Panthers, whom Smith torched for 139 yards and two touchdowns in a blowout win.
“I’ve been in a bunch of games where guys have played their old teams and coaches have played their past teams, and usually, the emotions are definitely crazy,” Flacco said. “Guys try to act like they’re so cool during the week, and it doesn’t mean anything, so I know. I’ve probably thought about [playing the Ravens] a tiny bit, but it’s so far away, and who knows what’s going to happen at this point?
“But I’ve definitely thought about that a little bit, like: ‘Oh, yeah, it’s not going to be a big deal,’ but I know, deep down, like, ‘Oh, OK, I’m going to try to make sure it’s not the biggest deal in the world.’ But at the same time, I’ve been through it enough. I’ve seen guys go through it. It’s a different thing.”
The Ravens team he’ll see Sept. 11 in East Rutherford, New Jersey, won’t look much like the one he left. Just 13 Ravens who played with Flacco in 2018 are still on the team, three of whom — defensive linemen Michael Pierce and Brent Urban and safety Tony Jefferson — returned within the last year. Two former teammates, defensive back-linebacker Anthony Levine Sr. and Koch, are now on the Ravens’ coaching staff. Flacco’s last offensive coordinator, Marty Mornhinweg, has been out of the NFL for two of the past three seasons.
Most striking, though, is Jackson’s ascent since succeeding Flacco — and the echoes of history that have accompanied it. In Jackson’s first year as a full-time starter, he was named unanimous NFL MVP. Last season, he earned Pro Bowl honors for the second time. Now, nine years after Flacco became the NFL’s highest-paid player, Jackson is negotiating a contract extension that would make him one of the league’s richest players.
But for as much that’s changed since Flacco’s departure, there is still some strategic familiarity. Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald served as an assistant on the team’s defensive staff for Flacco’s final four years in Baltimore. Macdonald sidestepped questions Sunday about whether preparing for Flacco would be any easier given their shared history.
“We have to do the homework,” he said. “You’ve got to be ready for him in case he’s in there, for sure. But there’s more to be done, rather than just knowing that he would be a backup.”
Jets teammates and coaches have hailed Flacco’s experience and acumen this preseason. Rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson said Flacco knows how to make passes “receiver-friendly.” Center Connor McGovern said that “you can’t not have confidence in a guy” like Flacco. Former Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, now entering his fourth year with the Jets, said Flacco “looks the exact same” as he did during their time in Baltimore.
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“He still has that good arm, nice release, tall in the pocket,” he said. “Still running around, so you don’t see that too many times from a 35-plus guy. But he looks confident, he knows the offense, and if his number’s called, we all know he’ll be ready.”
Added Saleh: “He’s a pro, he’s a veteran, he’s been there, he’s done that. He’s a Super Bowl MVP, he’s a world champion, he’s gotten the big contracts. He’s pretty much checked every box you can check.”
Sunday, Sept. 11, 1 p.m.
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