One hip injury, three wins and five weeks of uncertainty later, Ravens coach John Harbaugh announced Wednesday that rookie Lamar Jackson will remain the team’s starting quarterback Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Joe Flacco, a longtime face of the franchise and former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, will enter the game as a backup for the first time in his 11-year career.
The changing of the guard has felt inevitable since the Ravens took Jackson in the first round of the NFL draft this spring, but it wasn’t long ago that Flacco’s grasp on the starting job this season felt secure.
For proof, look no further than the comments from his coach. Harbaugh has been asked regularly about the team’s two quarterbacks since training camp, and their pecking order, specifically, for the past month-plus. His answers offer a window into the team’s decision-making process as it sought to balance strategy, privacy and respect at the sport’s most important position.
After the Ravens draft Jackson No. 32 overall, Harbaugh makes clear that there is no quarterback controversy.
“Joe Flacco is our quarterback — that’s the thing we have to remember. Lamar is going to have a great chance to develop. I think you get to this stage in a quarterback’s career ... it’s time to start thinking about drafting a quarterback. When the opportunity came to get a really good one, I think you have to jump on it and take it. This really doesn’t change things in a sense that we’re going to go with Joe, and Joe’s going to roll.”
At Ravens minicamp, Harbaugh is asked about the importance of a healthy offseason for Flacco.
“To me, it’s probably the major, No. 1 observation of the offseason. His health — the quarterback’s health — leads to everything else developing. So we have a new receiving corps. Obviously, those guys are going to be pivotal going forward. The fact that your quarterback is out there, he’s healthy, and he’s playing well, and he’s on target, he’s throwing the ball well, he’s running the offense — [that] allows everything else to develop. If you don’t have your quarterback out there, everything else kind of stagnates.
“Lamar has done well, Robert [Griffin III] has done well and Josh Woodrum has done well. All those guys are operating well, but Joe’s our top quarterback, and having him there makes a difference for everybody.”
At another day of Ravens minicamp, Harbaugh is asked about the team’s quarterback room.
“It starts with Joe. Joe’s our starting quarterback, so I think Joe has been great with both Robert and Lamar — new to the room. Josh has been welcoming. Josh has been very competitive and has done well. Robert has … shoot, we have two Heisman Trophy winners. Those two formed an instant bond. Robert has been very good. Then Lamar has done it exactly the way you would want a new guy to do it: respectful, asks the right questions, a kind of ‘speak when spoken to’ kind of thing.”
After a strong preseason by Griffin, the Ravens have entered the season with three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster. Harbaugh declines to say whether Griffin is ahead of Jackson, who struggled at times throughout the preseason, on the depth chart.
“I’m not saying. You guys can report anything you want anyway, so just go for it. Or whoever put the report out.”
After a narrow home loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Ravens are 4-3 with Flacco as their starting quarterback. Jackson has been used mainly as a Wildcat-style quarterback, and has to that point attempted just six passes.
Harbaugh says there’s “always going to a be a place” in the game plan for the rookie.
“But to what degree? That kind of determines how many plays are in, and how much you want to invest repping those plays in practice, because those plays take time to practice. Then of course, [in] the game, [offensive coordinator] Marty [Mornhinweg] has to make the decision about how much he wants to call, when it comes up and whether the situation comes up to make it the best. It’s really nothing written in stone.
“I think it’s just like anything else — it’s more art than science. I think as much as possible, within reason, if that makes sense — because we have a quarterback who’s playing at a high level. … Joe is playing at a very high level. I don’t want to lose sight of that. We try to do the best we can to put both of those guys in there in ways that help us score points and move the ball and things like that.”
After Jackson throws his first career touchdown late in a blowout loss to the Carolina Panthers, his first significant action since the season opener, Harbaugh defends the rookie’s passing ability.
“He’s a quarterback first, and I think people kind of forget that. I know he prides himself in being a quarterback first. He can sling the ball. I think when he gets the chance to, and goes in a game like that, he’s only going to shine. I think people are surprised by seeing that, but he’s been doing that all along since rookie camp. No one here is really surprised by anything.”
The Ravens lose at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-16, their third straight defeat, to drop to 4-5. Flacco finishes 23-for-37 for 206 yards and suffers a right hip injury that will sideline him for more than a month.
Afterward, Harbaugh is asked whether he feels the Jackson-specific packages are counterproductive.
“I don’t think counterproductive, because we’re gaining yards and making plays. I would like to find more of it, to be honest with you. I would like to see him out there more and find ways to get him on the field more, if we can. He’s a good player. That’s not easy to do.”
Harbaugh says the team is considering giving Jackson series at quarterback by himself, but he stops short of saying the starting job is unsettled. Reports on Flacco’s injury aren’t published until four days later.
“Joe has played well, so I don’t want to get into all of that. We’re rolling right now with what we have. But, of course, at some point in time, this guy [Jackson] is a quarterback. We’ve said from the beginning, and anybody that wants to dispute that, come to practice like you guys do, or you watch him play. He’s improving all the time. He’s getting better as a quarterback, an NFL quarterback, all the time. I love the guy. I love all of our guys.
“So it’s not one against the other. It’s all 53 guys. They all have specific talents, and they’re all here for a reason. And Lamar Jackson, just like Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews and Kenny Young and the other rookies, they’re talented guys, and I want to see them on the field, and I want to see Lamar on the field, too. How to do that is kind of what we’re working through, so that’s what we have to figure out.”
Harbaugh confirms Flacco has suffered a hip injury but expresses hope that he will be able to play that week against the Cincinnati Bengals. He also says he’s “absolutely” confident Jackson can start a game and play well, though he gives no indication he would do so ahead of Griffin.
“I don’t know who’s going to play. We’ll prepare all the guys to whatever degree we think we need to, in terms of what the plan is. The plan will be ours; we have a plan [for] any direction that we decide to go or are forced to go. It’ll be based on the health of Joe. If Joe can play, he’ll play. He’s rehabbing to play. Joe does not have to practice to play. He’s practiced the whole season; he’s practiced for 11 years. But he might practice.
“So we’ll just have to see how it goes. It’s up in the air; we’re not worried about it. We’re blessed with a good quarterback room, and that’s a good thing, that’s a positive thing. I’m really happy about that. We have guys that can play — three guys that can play. We have a good football team, and it’s just like any other position, in my mind. You go with the next guy, and you roll and go win the football game.”
After the Ravens defeat the Bengals in Jackson’s first start, Harbaugh is asked about the team’s plans for Flacco, who was not active for the game.
“That’s not a question up to me. I’m sure if Joe’s back healthy [next week], he’ll be in there.”
Harbaugh says Flacco has a chance of playing against the Oakland Raiders that week, but sidesteps a question about whether Jackson is “the guy.”
“I’m not getting into any of that, any of it.”
With Flacco still yet to return to practice, Harbaugh says the veteran now would need to practice to be “ready to go.”
“I don’t know if we’re going to rule him out for this game right now. I’m counting on Lamar being the starter in this game. I think that’s pretty straightforward. And Joe, at this point now, he would’ve had to practice to be ready to go, and he was not able to practice this week.”
After the Ravens win their second game with Jackson under center, Harbaugh again declines to answer whether Flacco will return to the starting job if his health allows.
“I’m not going to get into that for a number of reasons. Whether that decision has been made or not is not important for anyone to know but us. If I decide to do it one way or the other, I don’t want our opponent to know. So I’m probably not going to announce it for obvious reasons — just to make it tough on our next opponent. That’s the way we’ll go this week.”
Harbaugh says Flacco could risk dislocating his hip if he returns prematurely. Asked whether he believes a player shouldn’t lose his job to injury, Harbaugh reiterates that the team will do whatever he believes helps it the most.
“Whatever gives us the best chance to win, that’s what we’re going to do. And we like all of our guys. We love our players. We pretty well have established that over the years as well, so we’re going to put our guys out there [in] whatever way, whatever figuration, combination we think makes us the toughest team to play against and makes us the best football team. That’s it.”
Harbaugh says Flacco is “progressing very well,” but doesn’t know how many practices he would need to play that week against the Atlanta Falcons.
“I have no expectations on medical-type stuff. I’ve learned that over the years. You just let it play out. That’s beyond our control.”
Flacco returns to practice as a limited participant for the first time since before Week 9, getting on the field on Nov. 29 and Nov. 30. Harbaugh says he’s an “option” to play in Atlanta.
“I was thinking of the best way to describe this, because it’s not simple. It’s never as simple as one rule or one cliche, as we’ve talked about before, but there’s a formula involved. I think the biggest things with situations like this are the two biggest factors, [which] are time and circumstances. Those are things we just don’t know.
“Time, in terms of the medical aspect of it. Circumstances, in terms of our team and where we’re at and how guys are playing, including the players involved. To me, it’s like any other position that way. It just gets more attention because it’s the quarterback. We’ll see where we’re at as we go.”
After Jackson’s third win in as many starts, Harbaugh says he has done enough to remain the team’s starting quarterback but remains publicly noncommittal. He adds that Flacco was not cleared to play against the Falcons.
“What way or direction we’ll go, we’ll see.”
Harbaugh says he expects to know whether Flacco will be medically cleared to play against the Kansas City Chiefs by the end of the week.
“He’s cleared to practice, so he’ll practice. They’ll probably look at what he does in practice. They look at tape, and they’ll just let me know. They’ll let us know. We expect to ramp him up in practice a lot more this week, since last week was his first week, and we’ll just see how it goes.”
Flacco participates fully after two days of limited participation. Harbaugh acknowledges that there’s a “scenario” in which Flacco could be a backup in Kansas City. Again, he declines to say whether there is a quarterback decision to be made.
“Like I said, I’m not getting into all that. … It’s not something that we’re even going to have to talk about. I’m not trying to be coy or clever or anything like that. It’s just … we’re rolling, we’re going to play the games. We don’t feel like we owe any explanations to anybody or anything like that. We’re just going to put our best team out there and try to go play some football.”
The Ravens fall to the Chiefs in overtime, Jackson’s first loss as a starter. Harbaugh says Flacco, who was inactive for the game, had been cleared to play.
“We just did not have him prepared enough.”
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Harbaugh says he has a “plan” for the team’s quarterback situation, but has not yet shared it with “all the parties” involved. But he says that if Flacco is ready to play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he will be part of the team’s game plan.
“It’s a football decision. Everybody understands what we’re trying to do. [We’re] trying to put the best football team out there from one play to the next that we can — that’s all. That’s always what it’s about. All the guys sitting in those chairs, where you’re sitting right now, they understand that. We don’t make it about anything other than football.”
Harbaugh announces that Jackson will start over a fully healthy Flacco on Sunday. It’s the first game in Flacco's 11-year career in which he will serve as a backup.
“The starting quarterback will be Lamar. Joe will be the No. 2 quarterback, and Robert Griffin will the backup to those two guys, and we’ll proceed with our game-planning and play the game.
“We just try to go out there [and win]. Like we say from the beginning, every decision is based on what makes us the strongest possible team we can be, and that’s — whether it’s quarterback or defensive line or whatever — that’s the bottom line. That’s what it boils down to, and that’s how we feel about this decision, and we’re rolling.”