Preston: If healthy, Flacco gives Ravens more balance and better chance to win than Jackson

Ravens coach John Harbaugh is deliberately holding back his decision on who will start at quarterback Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, but the team’s best chance of winning is to go with veteran Joe Flacco if he is healthy.

There has been a lot of debate about whether Flacco, out with an injured hip, should regain the starting role after rookie Lamar Jackson led the Ravens to two straight victories, including a 34-17 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, but it’s really not a tough decision.

Harbaugh can’t get caught up with development, experience and run-vs.-pass-ratio stuff. The key question is who gives the Ravens their best chance to win right now and possibly go deep into the NFL playoffs?

The answer is Flacco, if he is ready this week.

Some fans believe the Ravens don’t have a shot at the playoffs and if they get in they won’t go far so they might as well get Jackson prepared for next year.

Coaches aren’t wired that way.

Harbaugh knows his team is in contention for the second AFC wild-card spot with several others, like the Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins and fast-folding Cincinnati Bengals.

The Ravens have been able to rush the ball with rookie Gus Edwards the past two weeks, but that’s been against the worst run defenses in the NFL. Eventually, the good teams will start crowding the line of scrimmage and force Jackson to stay in the pocket and beat them with his arm. He can’t. Not yet. He is too inaccurate.

The best way to complement this newfound running game and put some balance in the offense is with Flacco. Whether you love him or hate him, Flacco has been at his best when he has a running game, which opens up play-action passes.

Only five games remain. It’s not as if Jackson is going to become a highly efficient passer overnight or even in Flacco’s class by the end of the season.

Jackson’s time will eventually come, but Harbaugh’s as Ravens coach might be running out. If he doesn’t get to the playoffs he will likely be fired. If he does make it to the postseason, he still might want to move on to another team at the end of the year.

Harbaugh will be patient and take in all the advice from doctors and team trainers before deciding on his starter. If the hip is healthy, it should be Flacco because he ultimately gives the Ravens their best chance to win against quality teams.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe Harbaugh’s instincts or the owner Steve Bisciotti is telling him to stay with Jackson. That would be a mistake.

The kid deserves credit. The Ravens have won two straight games and he has improved gradually as a passer during the past two weeks. But he still has problems reading the entire field and can’t jam balls into tight windows inside the red zone.

Critics will point out that Flacco struggled in the two previous games with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers before he injured his hip against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Ravens lost all three of those games, but all were among the better teams in the NFL at that time. Jackson played against woeful teams like Cincinnati and Oakland, which played poor defense and lacked leadership.

Oakland was no better than a first-year expansion team.

With Jackson as the starter the Ravens offense is pretty simple, comparable to what the Ravens ran in 2008 when Flacco was a rookie and competed with Troy Smith for the starting job. Back then the Ravens had more offensive weapons, with wide receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, tight end Todd Heap and running backs Willis McGahee, Ray Rice and Le’Ron McClain.

But the basic idea was still the same: run first, pass second. The difference was that Flacco could throw the deep ball. With Jackson it is quarterback run first and give-read second. You need a good downhill runner and the Ravens have one in Edwards. But they don’t have a strong intermediate or downfield passing game or a dependable outside runner.

In big games, quarterbacks take over. They don’t have to be great, but at least competent and effective. Flacco has been at least steady throughout his career and the Ravens will need a strong arm to compete against Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.

No one knows how Jackson will handle the pressure down the stretch. Basically, it’s a one-game season for the Ravens every Sunday the rest of the year. If Flacco is healthy and there is no swelling in the injured area, he should start.

If the Ravens had more imagination, they could use both quarterbacks and take advantage of their individual skill sets. Jackson doesn’t mind coming off the bench because he has done that most of the season. Flacco would have problems being declared No. 2.

The clock is ticking on Harbaugh in more ways than one. Right now, though, a rusty Flacco is a better option than Jackson.

If Flacco is healthy, he should start.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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