By now, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has answered just about every question.
He has stayed healthy, become the offensive leader and guided the Ravens to 73 regular-season victories in eight seasons. He has won on the road and in the postseason, and was at his best during the team's stunning run to a Super Bowl XLVII championship. But as the Ravens prepare to play the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, there is only one lingering question that seems to matter.
Can Flacco carry an inexperienced and relatively unknown supporting cast, and raise the level of everybody around him? More than at any point in his career, that's the challenge that he now faces.
"Joe has to pick up the slack," said former NFL coach Herman Edwards, now an ESPN analyst. "That's what great quarterbacks do. Joe got paid a lot of money for obviously betting on himself when they went to the Super Bowl, so now all eyes are on Joe Flacco the quarterback."
With Flacco at the helm, the Ravens are 13-1 against the Browns, but the quarterback doesn't enter the latest matchup with the usual weapons at his disposal. Wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. (doubtful) and tight end Crockett Gillmore (out), who have caught four of Flacco's five touchdown passes this year, will both likely be sidelined with injuries. Wide receiver Michael Campanaro's season is over because of a back injury, and Breshad Perriman's hasn't started because of a knee injury that the first-round pick sustained in training camp.
Their absences leave Kamar Aiken, who has 35 career catches, heading a wide receiver group that includes Marlon Brown, rookie sixth-rounder Darren Waller, Chris Givens, who was acquired from the St. Louis Rams on Oct. 3, and Jeremy Ross, who was promoted to the active roster Saturday. The team's only two healthy tight ends, Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle, are both rookies.
Aiken, Brown, Givens and Ross combined to make 83 catches last year. The three rookies have 13 catches between them through four games this year.
"It's definitely not ideal," Flacco said. "It's going to be a little bit challenging for us as an offense, but it's just the way it is. We wouldn't want it any other way. These are the guys that are going to go out there and make plays for us, start making a name for themselves and help us win, so I'm excited about it."
Flacco has seen significant turnover with his targets every year, but the one constant has been the presence of at least one accomplished receiver. In his first couple of years, he had Derrick Mason and Todd Heap.
Anquan Boldin arrived in 2010, and he, Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta all were go-to targets during the Super Bowl season. The following year, Torrey Smith became the undisputed No. 1, and then Steve Smith joined him the next season.
"Joe has been afforded a luxury that not many other quarterbacks have had," Mason said. "He's had veteran guys in that building — myself, Anquan, Steve. Him raising the level of those players, we were playing at a high level anyway. Now, you've got to do this with these younger guys. Can he do it? I don't know, but he's going to have to, especially if Steve Smith misses more than one game. He's going to have to be the guy that does what Aaron Rodgers does, does what Peyton Manning does."
Edwards called such expectations fair, given Flacco's status as a franchise quarterback who was rewarded handsomely following his Super Bowl performance with a six-year, $120.6 million contract.
"He's the guy that has been there for quite some time. He is the leader of the football team and he knows that he has to make plays offensively because this team has struggled scoring points," Edwards said. "Their defense is a good defense, but it needs some help. The way you do it is you have to put points up on the board and Joe has to be able to do that."
Flacco has had an uneven start to the season. His completion percentage is up and he ranks eighth in the NFL in passing yards. However, he has also thrown as many interceptions (five) as touchdowns, and he's averaging well under seven yards per passing attempt.
Even after the offseason departures of Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and veteran tight end Owen Daniels, and even as his supporting cast has been whittled down by injuries, Flacco has made no excuses. He joked this week that it's on him to "stop throwing to the other team."
While Smith was prospering before sustaining microfractures in his back last week, the other receivers struggled to find consistency or in Perriman's case, to get on the field. Aiken had five catches against both the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers, and one total catch for minus-1 yard in the Ravens' other two games. Brown, meanwhile, has been targeted just 15 times in four games.
Mason said that Smith's injury, assuming it's short term, could be a blessing in disguise for the Ravens because it forces Flacco to build a rapport with other targets and could ultimately reveal who the team can count on to make plays going forward. Mason said that in watching the Ravens, it felt like Flacco was targeting Smith on almost every play. That will change out of necessity.
"When you have Steve as a target, it is part of how you're calling plays, certainly, and I've kind of explained it like this: We've got to find that kind of productivity amongst the group that's playing," offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. "Whether it's through [running back Justin Forsett] or tight ends or receivers, we've got to try to find a level of productivity to allow us to have the kind of passing game that we want to have."
Trestman and coach John Harbaugh were adamant during the week that it's not all on Flacco.
"His job is to do his job, right?" Harbaugh said. "That's where you have to believe in one another. You have to trust in what guys are doing. You have to trust in the work that you put in. It's those guys' jobs to be where they're supposed to be, running the route the way they're supposed to run it and make the play. That's never going to change. And it's Joe's job to go through his reads, progressions, footwork and put the ball where he's supposed to put it, which Joe does a good job of. I don't care who's on the field — what they're doing — it's about executing your offense, and we're fully capable of doing that."
Trailing the Steelers in the fourth quarter last week in a game the Ravens needed to win to avoid falling to 0-4, Flacco was forced to lead the game-tying drive with only three healthy receivers — Aiken, Brown and Waller — and with the two rookie tight ends. Waller had heard about how calm Flacco was in the huddle in key moments, but the rookie still marveled at the quarterback's demeanor when given a chance to experience it at Heinz Field.
Flacco said he looked his receivers in the eyes and wanted to make sure they knew that he had faith in them and he would be coming to them if they got open.
"That's part of being a leader, being the guy that people look to and making everybody around you better," Flacco said. "You can't go out there and force that. You just have to go play your game and stuff like that will happen. I don't look at it any way. I look at it as, just going out there and trying to find a way to get us wins. It's always been my job to go out there and lead the team and do whatever I have to do to pull us through."