In their first preseason together, Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson never gave the Ravens a quarterback controversy. They gave the team an easy decision instead: Flacco under center Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, his 11th Week 1 start in as many NFL seasons.
In Flacco’s wake are the embers of another mystery. It is not quite a backup-quarterback controversy — if a roster decision doesn’t affect fantasy football lineups, does it really rise to the level of a controversy in the NFL? — but it is still possibly a quarterback quandary, a quarterback conundrum.
At the very least, it is a quarterback question: Who will the Ravens’ backup quarterback be? And will there be a third joining him on the 46-man game-day roster?
On Monday, coach John Harbaugh was coy. Either he didn’t know yet, or he did and preferred not to say.
“We’ll do whatever is best for our team,” he said at his first news conference since the Ravens finalized a 53-man roster that includes both rookie Lamar Jackson and quarterback Robert Griffin III. “Any given Sunday, we’ll have the 46 guys up that give us the best chance to be successful, and we’ll just see what that is every week.”
The comments amounted to a minor walk-back of Jackson’s role with the Ravens. In mid-June, on the first day of mandatory minicamp, Harbaugh said he "fully expect[ed]" Jackson to be active on game days, adding: "I'd sure like him out there helping.”
But over the next month and a half, Griffin impressed with his command of the offense. Jackson, meanwhile, struggled somewhat in the Ravens’ first three preseason games before flashing his enormous potential in the team’s final two, including a start Thursday night against the Washington Redskins.
Harbaugh had voiced his support for keeping Griffin on the active roster. On Monday, that meant also answering whether he endorsed a three-quarterback game-day roster.
“It could mean anything,” he said. “It won't be any more than three, it won't be less than two. So we'll see. I really don't know. It's day-to-day. Any quarterback will tell you, any player, you're one play away from being the guy. Those guys have to prepare that way.”
For most organizations, worrying about the No. 2 quarterback would be like worrying about having an umbrella during a heat wave. That had been the norm, too, in Baltimore, where Flacco has started all 16 games in every season but one throughout his career.
But Jackson is different from Ryan Mallett and Matt Schaub. His self-reported 40-yard-dash time is under 4.4 seconds. He led the Ravens in rushing touchdowns this preseason. There is a reason the Ravens had Jackson lining up at positions other than quarterback throughout the offseason, a tease of future razzle-dazzle with Flacco.
With only Griffin on the game-day roster, Harbaugh said the Ravens could still be “creative” with their play-calling. Griffin is plenty athletic, too. The former Washington Redskins star “makes our quarterback room stronger,” Harbaugh said. But no one, at least publicly, has said Griffin’s play evokes Michael Vick. It is a regular comparison for Jackson.
The backup choice could hinge on a number of factors, many of them unknown. The confidence of Ravens officials in their offensive line might weigh on their minds. So, too, might the need to dress another defensive back instead of a third quarterback. And only those inside team headquarters will know who has better grasped the Bills’ defensive schemes.
And then there’s the simplest way to declutter the many messy possibilities: Griffin could get traded.
“That’s just so hard to predict,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve been in this league now for 21 years and 11 as a head coach, and I still don’t understand why certain trades get made and some other ones don’t. It’s just mind-boggling. You can try to speculate all you want, and you’ll see a trade and you’ll be surprised. Or you’ll see a trade not get made, and you’ll be surprised. There’s always trade possibilities for every player. …
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“It’s the old saying, ‘Every man has his price.’ I guess every team has their price. It just depends on what someone is willing to offer for a player. It’s business. That’s just kind of the way it works, and there’s always options and possibilities that way.”