With his 34th birthday fast approaching and 163 NFL starts behind him, Joe Flacco has faced almost every dip, rise and curve professional football can throw at a man.
For more than a decade, he’s held the job thousands of athletes pursue and few ever attain — unquestioned leader of an NFL offense. He’s seen countless Baltimoreans wear his name and No. 5 on their backs. He’s appeared in ubiquitous television commercials as the face and voice of a Super Bowl-winning franchise.
On Sunday, however, Flacco will do something he’s never done in his 11 seasons with the Ravens; he’ll show up to M&T Bank Stadium eager and fit to play quarterback only to remain on the sideline as another player performs the job — his job.
With coach John Harbaugh’s announcement that Lamar Jackson will start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a crucial game, Flacco officially entered a different phase of his career. He recognized the change coming as soon as his team drafted Jackson in the first round in April. But that does not mean he welcomed it or that he believes it’s just.
Regardless, other quarterbacks who’ve walked in similar shoes say Flacco’s next era need not be unpleasant or unproductive. A twist of fate could put him back at the helm of the Ravens, or he could move on to lead another team in a strange city.
“I would say the most important thing, and I’m sure this will resonate with Joe, he has to be ready at a moment’s notice,” longtime quarterback turned NFL on CBS analyst Rich Gannon said. “My sense is he will play before the season is over. I just look at Lamar and the way he runs and the hits he’s taken, with his build. If you’re Joe Flacco, all it takes is for Lamar to bruise a thigh or fall down and get the wind knocked out of him, and you come in and put a series together where they go 10 plays, 80 yards. The next thing you know, they put four or five series together, they win the game and now all of a sudden, [Joe is] back in there. It can change so quickly.”
Gannon experienced both sides of the Flacco-Jackson dynamic during his 1997 season with the Kansas City Chiefs. He replaced injured starter Elvis Grbac and led the Chiefs on a five-game winning streak. Then he handed the job back to Grbac in time for Kansas City to lose in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.
“For the most part, it happens to everybody at some point,” Gannon said. “A bad game or a couple bad losses in a row, and they’re looking to shake things up with a young quarterback. But he never experienced that, so I’m sure this is foreign to him, that whole feeling of coming into the room, when he’s used to every conversation starting with, ‘Hey Joe, we’re going to do this,’ and now it’s, ‘Lamar, how do you feel about this?’ It’s really uncomfortable. Trust me, it’s not a pleasant thing to have to go through.”
Steve Beuerlein, a 15-year pro turned NFL on CBS analyst, also empathizes with Flacco.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he’s very disappointed, and he’s probably ticked off,” he said. “But I’m sure he’ll handle it the right way and not be a distraction to the team, which is the key. My feeling is that if Baltimore is going to make a run at this — and they need to win two of the next three — I don’t think John Harbaugh in any way, shape or form intends to stick with Lamar Jackson if things turn south or if the game is in jeopardy.”
He added that Harbaugh made the right call to ride Jackson for the time being, but called it “an incredible luxury” for the Ravens to have a healthy Flacco waiting on the sideline.
Beuerlein said his personal advice to Flacco, whom he’s praised over the years, would be: “Don’t take it personally. It’s a business. Everybody wants to win. Coach made the decision, and he thinks that gives them the best chance right now. The next point would be to look at this as an opportunity. How he handles this situation is going to go a long way toward determining how many teams may be interested in him if he doesn’t stay in Baltimore. It’s kind of an audition for a guy to say, ‘Hey, I’m not done yet.’ ”
Ravens third-string quarterback Robert Griffin III agreed, suggesting he has his job in Baltimore in part because he did not pout when injuries cost him his starting role with the Washington Redskins.
“The old cliché is you should never lose your job to injury. That’s the unwritten rule. But it doesn’t always play out that way,” Griffin said. “Joe, what he’s got to realize is right now that might be his situation, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be his situation forever. … You have to look at it like, ‘I’ve grinded with these guys.’ Joe’s been here for 10 years. He’s invested in this locker room, and guys in this locker room are invested in him. I tried to look at it that way when I was in Washington and do what was best for the team. What was best for the team at that time wasn’t for me to go throw a fit or go on social media and say something or be a cancer.”
Flacco has done his best to handle the situation gracefully, both when he was the starter and on Wednesday, when he fielded questions about his demotion and the hip injury that initially forced him out of the lineup.
Jackson, in turn, appreciates their relationship.
“Flacco — he’s always helping me out whenever he can,” he said. “He’s on the sidelines, he’ll come up to me times throughout the game if he sees something. If he looks at me a certain way, he can tell I’m thinking about something, he’ll come up and talk to me regardless. Even in the film room he’s letting me know what he sees in plays, stuff like that.”
But everyone understands that Flacco does not see himself as a wise, supportive backup for the long haul. He still thirsts to play every week.
He said he won’t discuss his future until after the season, but he’s surely aware that at least a half-dozen teams — the Jacksonville Jaguars, the New York Giants and Redskins among them — will go into the offseason seeking greater stability at quarterback. If the Ravens move on with Jackson as their starter, he’ll find work.
Gannon or Beuerlein would be happy to tell him late-career stops sometimes bring unexpected joys.
Gannon was 34 and playing for his fourth team when he hooked up with coach Jon Gruden in Oakland. He made the Pro Bowl each of the next four seasons (1999 to 2002), easily the most productive stretch of his 17-year career.
Beuerlein was also 34, and playing for his sixth team, when he finally started all 16 games in a season. He threw for 4,436 yards and 36 touchdowns to make the Pro Bowl for the 1999 Carolina Panthers.
“I’m not going to say it was easy,” Beuerlein said. “I would have much rather had a situation like Joe Flacco has had for most of his career, or Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady. All quarterbacks crave that stability but not a lot of them get it. For me, it was just business as usual — I have to prove myself again. … I think it probably is harder for Joe. I think it’s probably insulting. It’s very hard not to take it personally, but that’s what you have to do if you want to get yourself in best situation possible going forward.”
Neither Gannon nor Beuerlein ever had the career stability Flacco has experienced in Baltimore. So they were more used to scrapping for the next opportunity. But neither dismissed the possibility of Flacco finding new life with a different franchise.
“When he’s healthy and able to stand strong in the pocket, throw it full-go, his release and his power and his accuracy as a passer are, there are maybe five guys in the league who can spin it like he can,” Beuerlein said. “And he’s shown that he can win big games. He’s had good days and he’s had bad days, but over the course of time, he’s shown up.”
Gannon said the key for himself was finding a system, under Gruden, that was similar to the one he’d mastered under offensive coordinator Paul Hackett in Kansas City. That gave him continuity even though he’d changed cities and teammates.
“There’s something to be said for that relationship between play-caller and quarterback and there being a comfort,” he said.
Gannon started at the University of Delaware before Flacco and generally plays golf with him a few times in the offseason.
“Physically, I mean, he’s still impressive,” Gannon said. “Big, strong, long, rare arm talent. He can make all the throws, throw it a country mile. So it’s just a question of putting it all together and being comfortable. Sometimes, a change of scenery can do wonders for a player late in his career.”
Gannon has been impressed with Jackson’s ability to improvise with his legs and his arm strength, but he still wonders how efficient the rookie can be playing from the pocket. He’s one of many seasoned observers who have said Jackson can’t hold up physically if he continues running as often as he has in his first four starts.
In that uncertainty resides a seed of opportunity for Flacco.
“We have no idea how this script is going to end,” Gannon said. “And my sense is Joe could well be a part of it over the next couple weeks.”