For the first time in his 11 years in Baltimore, a healthy Joe Flacco will not start at quarterback for the Ravens.
Coach John Harbaugh announced Wednesday that Flacco will be ready to play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday but that rookie Lamar Jackson will remain the team’s No. 1 quarterback.
Though the Ravens did their best to treat the move as routine, in-season business, it was a momentous change for one of the most important people in the team’s 23-year history.
“It’s not easy standing on that sideline, knowing that you have no hand in what’s going on,” Flacco said. “This is a little bit of a different role, and it’s obviously going to take some getting used to and you’re not going to get the reps and things like that. But … you have to be a professional about it.”
Jackson took the job after Flacco suffered an injury to his right hip in a Week 9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It wasn’t clear if the change would be temporary or permanent, but Jackson made it difficult for the Ravens to go back by leading them to three straight wins and the front of the race for the AFC’s second wild-card berth.
“Every decision is based on what makes us the strongest possible team we can be,” Harbaugh said. “Whether it’s quarterback or defensive line, that's the bottom line. That's what it boils down to. That's how we feel about this decision, and we're rolling.”
Flacco expressed no resentment, though he made it clear he wants to play. He praised Jackson, saying: “I think he’s done a great job. I’m really happy for what he’s been able to go out there and do. He and this team have put themselves — ourselves — in position to go out there and do some big things for the rest of the year.”
The changing of the guard — from the best and most enduring quarterback in franchise history to the player the Ravens hope will be their future — began with a text from Harbaugh to Flacco on Tuesday morning. He asked his longtime quarterback to stop by for a chat.
“We just talked a little bit,” Flacco said. “I don’t know if it was the hardest conversation, because I think in both of our minds, we probably knew the talk was coming at some point.”
Harbaugh talked to Jackson separately to tell him he would remain the starter.
"I pretty much didn't really have a reaction to when he was telling me,” the rookie recalled. “All it made me do is — I know I have to focus on everything a lot more, just bettering myself and trying to join with everyone around me a lot more.”
When he was asked if the decision will be reassessed every week, Harbaugh left little doubt that he wants Jackson to seize the job permanently.
“We have Sunday in front of us and that's what we're focused on,” he said. “I will say this: Lamar Jackson is the starting quarterback.”
If the decision was emotionally rending for Harbaugh, who arrived in Baltimore just a few months before Flacco, he did not let on. Instead, he praised his new backup quarterback for handling the situation graciously.
“Joe's been great,” he said. “Joe is a leader. He's excited, he's looking forward to having a role. I mean, hey, everybody wants to play. Every football player wants to have the biggest role they can possibly have. I'm sure Joe's no different. … Every player feels the same way, but Joe's a pro. He's got class. He's got complete respect in the locker room.”
Other Ravens seemed to take the news in stride.
“I really had no idea who was going to be the starter or what was going on moving forward. I kind of just left that up to the coaches,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said. “It might be weird after the fact, but I think during the game, we’ll just be focused on trying to win for the most part. I think they’ve handled it great. I think Joe has handled the situation great. He understands that injuries are part of the game, and the timing is unfortunate. And he understands that Lamar has done a great job.”
Wide receiver John Brown, whose production and targets have slipped with Jackson at quarterback, said: “Joe’s been handling it great. He’s been in Lamar’s corner. The whole time, every time he comes to the sideline, Joe is talking to him, telling him what he sees. He’s been a great teammate.”
As for the change of offensive style, he said: “It doesn’t matter, as long as we’re winning.”
The collision course between Flacco and Jackson was set as soon as the Ravens traded back into the first round to pick the former Heisman Trophy winner in April. Any potential controversy went on hold as Jackson threw the ball unevenly in training camp and Flacco led the Ravens to a winning start. But the intrigue resurfaced after Flacco hurt his hip against the Steelers, and it intensified when Jackson led the Ravens on a three-game winning streak with a refocused, run-first offense.
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Flacco did not offer medical details about his injury Wednesday but called the time he spent on the sideline “definitely one of the hardest things I’ve done in my career.”
“I know I wanted to get out there and play the week after it happened,” he said. “We had a bye week and I wanted to go play. At the end of the day, what I can say is what did happen, the risks of going back out there and playing at the end of the day were just a lot. If I just let it play the course and get to where we are today, the risks are nothing. Listen, it was really tough for me. I talked with John. It wasn’t even about the possibilities of something like this happening. As the starting quarterback, which I’ve been for a long time for this team, you play through things throughout the course of a 10-year career. I definitely wanted to get out there and be there for my guys that next week.”
Flacco did not speak to reporters over the five weeks he was recuperating, but he acknowledged that he could hardly avoid thinking about the possibility of Jackson keeping the job.
“It’s out of my hands,” he said. “I got hurt. They drafted Lamar in the first round. At some point, something was going to happen between the two of us. … This is just what it is at this point. I’ve had five weeks to think about it and prepare myself for this situation and the possibility of it. And yeah, I’m disappointed that I can’t be in that locker room in the same capacity that I’ve always been.”
Flacco could see the field again if Jackson suffers an injury or perhaps if a game situation calls for a pure passer. But it’s also possible he’s played his last snap for the franchise that drafted him in the first round in 2008 and won a Super Bowl on the back of his sublime playoff performance in the 2012 season.
Flacco played better in the first half of this season than he did during an injury-marred 2017, and if the Ravens cut him in the offseason, he would be an attractive option for teams seeking immediate help at quarterback. He’s confident he can play at a high level for years to come, though he mostly deflected questions about his future.
“There’s plenty of time for that,” he said. “Obviously, I think it’s only natural for people to kind of talk to you about that and all of that stuff. But there’s plenty of time for that. There’s plenty of months in the NFL offseason to think about what it’s going to mean and all that, but for now, I’m excited for what I can do and how I can help the team out.”