Seven years before he lost his starting job under center, Joe Flacco couldn’t hold on to the ball. In the second game of the Ravens’ 2011 season, Flacco fumbled. In their next game, two more fumbles. And another fumble the game after that, and after that, over and over, again and again.
When Flacco’s stretch of ball insecurity ended, mercifully, in Week 10, he had fumbled at least once in seven straight games, then the second-longest such streak in NFL history. He would finish with 11 overall that season, tying a career high. Flacco fumbled at least eight times in each of his first six seasons.
As the franchise prepares for life after Flacco this offseason, it will hand over the keys on offense to a quarterback whose rookie year raised concerns about his sure-handedness. Team officials face an unenviable prospect: that Lamar Jackson might prove even more fumble-prone than his predecessor.
Which is saying something. Since Flacco’s NFL debut in 2008, only the New York Giants' Eli Manning has fumbled more often (88 times) than Flacco (80). Fumbles are an occupational hazard for all quarterbacks, from the elite to the mediocre, but they pose a fundamental threat to a talent as unique as Jackson. He gave the Ravens their best chance to win when he was running wild. But running quarterbacks have long been the players most vulnerable to losing the ball.
“The ball-handling in an offense like this is the thing,” coach John Harbaugh said after the Ravens’ season-ending loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, a playoff game marred by four Ravens fumbles, three by Jackson. “That’s the thing we have to be great at. We’ll become a good drop-back-pass team. We’ll become a good play-action-pass team. All of those things will be very important. But when you’re basing the offense on the principles on which we’re basing the offense on, you have to be a great ball-handling team.”
The Ravens, 29th in fumbles (1.6 per game) and tied for 25th in fumbles lost (0.7 per game) last season, were not a great ball-handling team. Every Ravens running back and punt returner fumbled at least once, except for tailback Gus Edwards. But Jackson, like most quarterbacks, was the team’s worst transgressor.
After fumbling just twice in sporadic action over the Ravens’ first nine games, Jackson began a Flacco-esque streak after taking over for his injured teammate in Week 11. Then he surpassed it.
With a fumble in Flacco’s final start, at least one fumble in each of his seven regular-season starts and his three-fumble game in the Ravens’ AFC wild-card-round defeat, Jackson set the NFL single-season record for consecutive games with a fumble, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. He also lost four, a team high. With a fumble in his next game, Jackson would tie Matt Cassel’s record of 10 straight games, a streak set over the 2011 and 2012 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Equally troubling is the volume. In Jackson’s eight starts, including the playoffs, he fumbled 13 times — a total that would have led the NFL. (He instead finished tied for first, with 12, with three other quarterbacks). With that rate, Jackson would have fumbled 26 times over a 16-game season. The NFL record for a single season is 23, set by Kerry Collins in 2001 and tied by Daunte Culpepper the following season.
“We can't have those,” Jackson said in December, after a win over the Atlanta Falcons in which he fumbled three times, losing one that was returned 74 yards for a Falcons touchdown. “We just can't be risking that down the field. … We're just going to try to do a good job and keep the ball in our hands.”
Fumbles are not necessarily the scarlet letter for quarterbacks that, say, holding penalties are for offensive linemen or pass-interference calls are for cornerbacks. Brett Favre is the NFL’s all-time leader in fumbles, while fellow Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks Warren Moon and John Elway rank in the top five. It’s as much a testament to their longevity as an indictment of their fast-and-loose playing styles.
In the modern NFL, with the rise of run-pass-option plays, the growing reliance on passing attacks league-wide and the proliferation of freakishly athletic edge rushers, quarterbacks risk losing the ball every time they take a shotgun snap. Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff has a seven-game fumble streak heading into Sunday’s NFC championship game against the New Orleans Saints. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson and Philadelphia Eagles' Nick Foles likewise had streaks of at least seven games over the past two years.
But Jackson is not necessarily doomed to another year of chasing after loose footballs and madcap scrambles for possession. Despite the promotion of running-game guru Greg Roman to offensive coordinator, the Ravens have indicated they will ask for more from Jackson as a passer next season, his first as the unquestioned starter. Harbaugh said Jackson worked on ball-security drills throughout the season, but he lamented that the team hadn’t gotten “enough work” in the preseason.
Even Jackson’s fumbles in the running game weren’t entirely his fault. As a starter, two were caused by bad snaps from center Matt Skura. Another two were because of strip-sacks allowed by the team’s reliable bookend tackles, Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. And four came on bad exchanges between Jackson and Gus Edwards at the “mesh point,” the point in an option play where the quarterback decides whether to keep the ball or hand it off to the running back.
“To be a great ball-handling team, you can’t put the ball on the ground,” Harbaugh said after the loss to the Chargers. “That’s something that [Jackson] knows, the backs know, everybody knows. Even our snaps — our snaps are not where they need to be — [they’re not] consistent enough. They need to be right there, because that goes into the ball-handling on the read option. That’s something that we’ll go to work on when we come back. That will be priority [No.] 1: to be a great ball-handling team.”