On Sunday, two of the NFL’s longest-tenured head coaches will meet for maybe their final time as AFC North foes. The Ravens’ game against the Cincinnati Bengals will be the 185th of John Harbaugh’s career and 257th of Marvin Lewis’, postseason included. The two have stood on opposing sidelines 21 times.
How, Lewis was asked Wednesday, have they lasted so long in a league so chaotic?
“Well, I think we’ve been both fortunate to have good quarterbacks,” Lewis said. “I think that’s the No. 1 thing in this position. If you look around the league, and the people who have been in these jobs for a long time, they’re fortunate to have quarterbacks that lead the franchise and win games. I guess that, to me, is the main commonality.”
Over Harbaugh’s 11 seasons with the Ravens, there has perhaps never been a week in which his future in Baltimore seemed as inextricable from the ability (and availability) of his quarterbacks as this past one. Joe Flacco is unlikely to suit up for a must-win home showdown. Lamar Jackson has yet to start in his NFL career. Robert Griffin III hasn’t played in a game since 2016.
A three-game losing streak midway through a season headed, at the moment, for a fourth straight playoff absence and an offseason of turnover was onerous enough. Now Harbaugh must enter M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday waiting for updates on the condition of his starting quarterback’s injured right hip, and hoping his rookie can call a full game if called upon, and perhaps wondering whether the third-string veteran who hasn’t played since the preseason might actually be the team’s best option under center.
Harbaugh cannot err, not now. A win, and the Ravens could enter Week 12 in the AFC’s final wild-card spot. A loss, and the Ravens would drop to 4-6, a record just 15 teams since 1970 have overcome to make the playoffs. A loss, and the focus in Owings Mills and elsewhere turns to Harbaugh and Flacco, and how much time the franchise’s most successful coach-quarterback partnership might have left together.
“It’s just noise; it doesn’t matter,” Harbaugh said Monday of reports casting doubt on his future with the Ravens. “It means nothing. It’s not something that I’m going to think about or concern myself with. … You know what we want to do as an organization? We want to win; that’s what we want to do. We want to win. We’re fighting as hard as we can — coaches, players — as an organization to win. That’s it. All the other stuff, who cares?”
The prospect of a Ravens season without Harbaugh and Flacco was inconceivable not long ago. Since 2008, the duo’s first season in Baltimore, the Ravens are second in the NFL in playoff wins (10), tied for the fourth-most playoff berths (six) and fifth in total wins (108). Flacco's 72 regular-season wins from 2008 to 2014 are the most in NFL history for a starting quarterback's first seven seasons.
But fortunes fade quickly. In February, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti acknowledged for the first time that he had considered firing Harbaugh. The Ravens were coming off a season that ended short of the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. They had won as many games as they’d lost (40-40) since winning Super Bowl XLVII.
Many blamed the former Most Valuable Player of that second NFL title. Among qualifying quarterbacks, Flacco had the eighth-worst passer rating and the lowest yards per pass attempt in the NFL. But his $24.75 million salary cap hit for 2018 made him untouchable.
Not impervious to pressure, though. In April, the Ravens took their first steps to preparing for life after Flacco, taking Jackson with the No. 32 overall pick in the draft. No quarterback controversy emerged; the only real question was whether Griffin, maybe the team’s most impressive quarterback in the preseason, would start the season No. 2 on the depth chart. (He didn’t.)
Flacco’s strong September forestalled any questions about Jackson’s ascendance. But the Ravens have lost four of their past five games after a 3-1 record, a stretch in which Flacco has thrown for as many touchdowns as interceptions (four) and completed less than 59 percent of his passes. After a Week 9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harbaugh acknowledged that the coaching staff was considering handing more control of the offense to Jackson.
If Flacco can play Sunday, Harbaugh said, he will. But if he can’t, the franchise will have reached a possible inflection point, a handing of the torch from one quarterback to the next with the chance of no return.
“Generally, you don't make a change while you're in a playoff hunt to go to an inexperienced quarterback if your quarterback is healthy,” said NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, who won a Super Bowl as general manager of the Washington Redskins. “If he's struggling, then you'd better have a lot of confidence that the guy you put in there is an upgrade. … Just because he's a young, talented quarterback, to go in and play him, that's not good enough. You have to feel confident that he can go in and run the offense, to the point where you can be competitive with it. And that's a tricky situation. There's no perfect answer to that.”
The fallout from Sunday’s game will be just as scrutinized as the result. The Bengals last week became the first team in NFL history to surrender more than 500 yards in three straight games. Five of Cincinnati’s past six opponents have finished with at least 481 yards of offense. How would an ineffective offensive performance under Jackson affect the Ravens’ plans for him this season and beyond?
Consider the opposite as well: How much credit would Jackson get for enlivening an offense that hasn’t scored more than 23 points since Week 4? Would the job be Jackson’s to lose, or would the Ravens return to the status quo when Flacco returns to health? The last time Flacco spoke to the media, after the loss to the Steelers, he acknowledged that there’s “always pressure on every team to go win football games.”
The Ravens’ reckonings could determine the futures of the organization’s two most visible figures. Harbaugh has been one of Flacco’s staunchest defenders, and on Wednesday said that he hopes Ravens fans respect Flacco’s toughness as much as he does. Divorcing sentimentality from strategy is “tough,” Casserly said, “but you have to do it.” He pointed to the San Francisco 49ers’ 1993 trade of four-time Super Bowl winner and then-oft-injured veteran quarterback Joe Montana, a move that cleared the path for reigning NFL MVP Steve Young.
“It's a tricky thing,” Casserly said. “There was the phrase years ago coined first by [Hall of Fame baseball general manager] Branch Rickey that I remember: 'Better to trade them a year early [than a year too late].' … Of course, you want to have somebody in there that you’re confident in.”
Flacco and Harbaugh would be somewhat insulated from continued struggles, albeit in different ways. Given his contract, Flacco could not start in 2019 and still be paid like a starter. The Ravens would absorb a salary cap hit of $16 million in dead money if they released Flacco next year, but only $8 million if they held off until 2020. Harbaugh, meanwhile, would not have to wait out unemployment long, given his pedigree.
For now, though, Harbaugh and Flacco are bound together, just as they have been for over a decade. As for how much longer? That will depend partly on what happens if and when they’re apart Sunday.
“Obviously, it’s not ideal that our record is what it is, but we always talk about, when you’re worried about the outcomes of things, and you’re looking too far ahead and worrying about things that aren’t in our control quite yet, you get yourself in trouble,” Flacco said. “It’s tough to do that, but you have to be mentally strong, and just be able to focus on the task at hand and move on.”
An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect number of teams that have started 4-6 and made the playoffs since 1970. Fifteen teams have done so. The Sun regrets the error.