Yes, the Ravens went down with Lamar Jackson, but coach John Harbaugh kept the big picture in mind by sticking with him.
Jackson endured the most dispiriting game of his rookie season, failing to handle the ball cleanly, throwing inaccurately as the Ravens tried to build early momentum and fleeing for his life as Chargers defenders overwhelmed the blockers in front of him.
This performance was catnip for those who doubt Jackson can make it as a long-term NFL quarterback.
Calls for Joe Flacco to relieve Jackson practically choked Twitter, and fans at M&T Bank Stadium booed each time the rookie jogged back onto the field in the fourth quarter.
Teammates such as Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey felt moved to yell back at fans. “I wasn't surprised,” Smith said afterward. “I was more just a little bit pissed that we fought, this guy fought, [6-1] as a starter, and when it got a little rough at the end, people were booing. Come on, why would you do that? He's the same guy that helped us get here.”
Harbaugh said he considered pulling Jackson in favor of Flacco. In the end, he said everyone on the team’s sideline agreed that Jackson should remain in the game. It proved to be a fine call in the short term as Jackson used his improvisational skills to rally the Ravens for two late touchdowns. They had the ball with a chance to win the game in the last minute.
More importantly, Harbaugh made the right call for the big picture of the franchise. It has been clear for months now that Jackson will be the Ravens’ quarterback going forward and Flacco will be starting in another city.
The last thing Harbaugh needed was a whole offseason of fans wondering why the new face of the Ravens was yanked from a playoff game.
Jackson has many flaws to work through, from his inconsistency on basic throws to his persistent troubles with snaps and handoffs. He fumbled three times and threw an interception against the Chargers, and he’ll always court disaster until he reduces such mistakes.
Harbaugh said improved ballhandling will be a major offseason project for the Ravens as they continue to design a unique offense around Jackson’s unusual talents. “That’s the thing we have to be great at,” he said.
We all need to step back and remember that the flaws we dwell on with Jackson are common to many — maybe even most — rookie quarterbacks. What’s less common is for a 21-year-old to come in and win the favor of a veteran locker room when his team’s playoff ambitions are hanging in the balance. That’s a man worth betting on, even if the bargain is not always pretty.
“He’s the future,” safety Eric Weddle said. “He’s such a bright kid, unbelievable energy and personality. He’s likable. He works hard. As you guys can tell, he’s devastated right now, and that’s what’s going to drive him in the offseason. He’ll come back 10 times better than he was this year.”
The Ravens defense will look different next season, but its tradition of excellence is alive and well.
For all the talk about Jackson, the Ravens made the playoffs because they had one of the two or three best defenses in the NFL, a unit that could mash Pro Bowl quarterbacks, blanket elite receivers or build a wall against dynamic running backs, depending on the needs in a given week.
That defense played another outstanding game against the Chargers, holding a talented all-around offense to 3.7 yards per play with only one gain longer than 20 yards. Quarterback Philip Rivers failed to reach 200 passing yards three times this season. Two of those came against the Ravens.
Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and his players should be proud of what they accomplished after a run of seasons in which the Ravens were good but not great on defense. That said, the defense is probably headed for more change than the offense between now and September.
The dean of the group, linebacker Terrell Suggs, is a free agent. He wants to return to the Ravens, but will the team be as eager after Suggs produced just 1½ sacks over the last 10 games?
Weddle, who conducts the defense from the back end, said his 12th season could be his last. He said he could walk away with no regrets if that’s his inclination.
Linebacker C.J. Mosley, the leader at the heart of the defense, is a free agent and will receive substantial money from someone after he made his fourth Pro Bowl in five years. Mosley played another strong game against the Chargers, with 11 combined tackles, and the guess here is the Ravens will make a serious push to keep him. Martindale has campaigned for Mosley as the long-term pacesetter for the defense.
Linebacker Za’Darius Smith seems less likely to be back after finally blossoming into the team’s best overall pass rusher in 2018. The Ravens have generally let the hungry free-agent market take such players, and Smith will receive a big deal from someone because he can menace quarterbacks from the outside or the inside.
Veteran cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr could also be cut for cost-saving reasons, though both remain effective.
Even if the Ravens lose most of those players, they’ll be formidable on defense again in 2019. As we saw against the Chargers, third-year NFL linebacker Matthew Judon can be the most disruptive defensive player on the field any given Sunday. Patrick Onwuasor keeps defying the odds as a wide receiver turned safety turned inside linebacker. Humphrey is a legitimate star in the making at cornerback. Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams remain immovable problems for any opponent hoping to run between the tackles.
The Ravens need youthful reinforcements at safety and on the edges of their front seven, but they have plenty to build on, especially if the bold, creative Martindale sticks around instead of becoming a head coach somewhere else.
The Ravens’ offensive line picked the wrong week for its most disappointing performance of the season.
We didn’t talk much about the team’s offensive linemen in recent weeks as they giddily went about their business, smashing teeth in a run-first attack.
But the Chargers’ front seven ate their lunch, both inside and on the edges. They sacked Jackson seven times and held running backs Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon to a combined 36 yards on 14 carries.
Left guard James Hurst, who never seemed completely right after he returned from a midseason back injury, gave up sacks on two consecutive plays in the third quarter. He was bull-rushed on the first and left flat-footed by a spin move on the second. The Ravens replaced him with rookie Bradley Bozeman on the next series.
Right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who was such a bright spot after he seized the starting job in Week 7, struggled to hold the edge against the Chargers’ top-notch defensive ends, Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. So did Brown’s more experienced counterpart, left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Ingram finished with seven tackles and two sacks and Bosa with a sack and two quarterback hits.
Harbaugh said the Chargers didn’t do anything notably different than they had two weeks earlier. “I just feel like they executed better,” he said. “We didn’t execute in our blocking as well as they played defense. That’s why they deserved to win the game.”
The Ravens will go into the 2019 season with Stanley and Brown locked in at tackle, a good starting point. But they’ll have to decide whether Bozeman is a long-term answer at either guard or center, where Matt Skura is competent at best. They’ll wait to see whether right guard Marshal Yanda, still their best lineman in 2018, wants to return for one more year.
One way or another, they’ll look to add blockers in the draft or via free agency. As we saw Sunday, the offensive line remains a work in progress.
The biggest upset was the Chargers’ superiority on special teams.
If the Ravens had a clear advantage coming in, it seemed to be on special teams, where they ranked sixth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA analytic compared with 25th for the Chargers.
Instead, the game quickly became a nightmare for coordinator Jerry Rosburg’s group. Desmond King returned a punt 33 yards to set up a field goal in the first quarter, then returned the opening kickoff of the second half 72 yards (aided by a missed tackle from Tyus Bowser, who had a dreadful day) to set up another. The Ravens, meanwhile, averaged just 17.7 yards on six kickoff returns with Ty Montgomery subbing for usual starter Chris Moore, and they didn’t return a single punt.
Justin Tucker, generally better at his job than anyone else in the world, missed a 50-yard field-goal attempt that could have pulled the Ravens within six points in the third quarter. Chargers kicker Michael Badgley answered with five makes, including one from 53 yards.
The Ravens did block a field-goal try and a punt in the second half as they fought to rally, so it’s not as if their special-teams performance was a total write-off. But Rosburg has taught us to expect more.
Beyond the immediate happenings on the field, this was a day to say goodbye to one era of the team.
Harbaugh was unusually frank in discussing Flacco’s future after the game. “Joe can still play; I think we saw that in the first game of the season,” he said. “Joe’s going to have a market. A lot of teams are going to want Joe, because they understand that. I’ll be in Joe’s corner, wherever he’s at, unless we play him.”
For his part, Flacco said “it’s really not up to me” where he plays next season. But he left no doubt he expects to be an NFL starter again, and there’s no chance that will happen in Baltimore.
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So the Flacco-Harbaugh partnership, which has defined the franchise for 11 years, is no more.
If it was no fun for Flacco to finish his Baltimore run as Jackson’s backup, it was also no fun to watch a proud athlete sidelined by circumstances largely beyond his control. No, Flacco never became a quarterback who could transcend the flaws of the roster and offensive coaches around him. Few players reach that level. But he was tough as hell, threw as pretty a ball as you’ll ever see and played the best stretch of his career when the Ravens needed him to deliver a Super Bowl victory. Through 11 seasons, he remained a character worthy of his elevated position in the franchise.
Fans clamored for him to replace Jackson on Sunday, but Flacco refused to play into their dissatisfaction with the rookie. “Hey, just tell everybody to shut up,” he advised his successor. He went out of his way with reporters to praise Jackson’s resilience.
The Ravens could not have asked more from Flacco over the past eight months, as he watched the team draft and develop his replacement. Fans should and will remember No. 5 warmly.
As for the other institution who’s definitely stepping aside, there’s no way to summarize general manager Ozzie Newsome’s importance to the franchise in a few paragraphs. He’s the rock on which the Ravens’ self-image is built, a mentor to every football person in the organization and the architect of 11 playoff teams. He drafted Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis on the way in and Jackson on the way out. He’s a beacon for African-American executives and for great athletes looking to succeed in a second career.
We’ll have plenty of time to discuss Eric DeCosta, the successor Newsome raised at his right hand. But let’s look back for this brief moment.
Newsome will run from his due acclaim the way he once evaded NFL linebackers as a Hall of Fame tight end. But there will never be a more important figure in Baltimore’s second era of professional football.