One of the greatest challenges an NFL head coach can face is an in-season quarterback controversy. That’s especially true when said coach is 5-5 and reportedly on the hot seat. John Harbaugh, welcome to the spotlight. You’ll be the talk of the NFL throughout Thanksgiving week.
On the surface, it might appear like Harbaugh faces no controversy at all. With Lamar Jackson playing for an injured Joe Flacco on Sunday, the Ravens snapped a three-game losing streak. Therefore, the future starts now—it’s Jackson’s team, simple as that.
Except it’s not that simple. Viewers of the Bengals-Ravens game on Sunday saw Jackson run the ball 27 times for 117 yards, and scamper around to make a handful of improvised throws. It was fun, if not downright electrifying. But what fans can’t see, and what coaches always consider, are the things that don’t happen:
• Passing concepts that were shelved because Jackson is not a developed field-reader.
• Throws that should have been made but weren’t.
• Throws that should have been made early but were made late, which hurts an offense’s rhythm and, more tangibly, a receiver’s run-after-catch production.
• Pre-snap audibles that went uncalled because you’d never ask a QB who rarely even made huddle calls in college to check in and out of plays as an NFL rookie.
Coaches tell you what they really think of a player by what they ask him to do. It’s clear that the Ravens view Jackson as the same quarterback they saw when they drafted him: He’s uniquely talented, but not close to ready to run a full-fledged NFL offense.
However, that doesn’t mean Jackson shouldn’t play; it just means the Ravens must discuss their QB situation in more philosophical terms: Should they stick with what’s familiar to everyone and play Flacco when he’s ready? (Remember, the Flacco system is what everyone on offense has diligently worked on over the last several months.) Or, should the Ravens morph into the offense they were against Cincinnati and hope they can hone things on the fly faster than defenses can adjust? This would mean a complete makeover, with the running game overwhelmingly at the front and center and the passing game featuring limited concepts off of it.
There’s no question that Baltimore’s ground game is better with Jackson than with Flacco. It averages 4.8 yards per carry with Jackson on the field and just 2.8 yards a carry when only Flacco is on the field. And if those numbers somehow aren’t convincing, they eye test is: Jackson is one of the most scintillating running QBs we’ve seen—not quite as scary as a young Michael Vick, but better than a young Robert Griffin III.
In accounting for this, a defense assumes a tactical disadvantage, as it becomes short in bodies and gap-filling abilities. The Ravens know this and exacerbate it by adding extra tight ends and fullbacks as movable blockers, creating misdirection possibilities and more post-snap variables. They were confident enough in these schematic benefits Sunday that they demoted veteran Alex Collins in favor of undrafted rookie Gus Edwards, a more decisive runner who will stick closer to the play’s design. (Edwards, by the way, rushed for 115 yards on 17 carries.)
The tricky part is that the only current team that regularly runs its quarterback by design even close to as often as Baltimore did Sunday is Carolina, whose quarterback is three inches and 33 pounds bigger than Jackson. (And even Newton has never cracked the 20-run barrier in a game.) Would the Ravens be comfortable running the much slighter Jackson 20-plus times again next week? How about again the week after that? And for every week after?
Yes, it’s possible Jackson can evolve quickly as a passer over that time. And it’s not like the Ravens would be giving up a world-beating aerial attack if he doesn’t. This offense lacks a true No. 1 receiver. Many of its best designs lately have featured flexible rookie tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews. (That dimension would carry over into a Jackson-led running offense.) And Flacco, before his injury, was not always reading the field sharply or throwing accurately.
Still, coaches hate discarding portions of their passing game, which they’d have to do with Jackson even if he improves quickly as a dropback QB. But Baltimore has coaches who have been here before. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and QBs coach James Urban were in Philadelphia in 2010 when Andy Reid benched Kevin Kolb for Michael Vick. But Vick, let’s remember, was 30 years old. A more apt comparison would be what Ravens tight ends coach and run game architect Greg Roman experienced in 2012 as San Francisco’s offensive coordinator. Those 49ers were 6-2 at the time when starting QB Alex Smith suffered a concussion. Colin Kaepernick came in, the running game expanded and the second-year QB never left, leading the Niners to within five yards of a Super Bowl win against Baltimore.
We forget now that the debate over whether to go back to Smith or change midstream with Kaepernick was hotly contested. But to 49ers coaches, it wasn’t. To them, the choice was clearly Kaepernick—he was just so much more dimensional and gifted than Smith. But Kaepernick in 2012 was a more advanced NFL passer than Jackson is now. The 49ers also had a more established and effective base running game around Kaepernick.
So what should John Harbaugh do? The guess is that he will kick the can down the road and decide that Flacco, who will still not quite be 100 percent recovered from his hip injury (because no one recovers 100 percent from anything in the middle of a season), needs just a little more time to get right. That, conveniently, gives the Ravens a week to expand their Jackson-centric offense and see how the rookie responds next week against a Raiders defense that will have seen at least a full game of film on him.
One of three things happens from there: 1) Jackson gets pummeled and Flacco returns; 2) Jackson performs well and Flacco gets ready to hit the dusty trail; 3) This debate resumes in full next week, only with more evidence to inform Harbaugh’s decision.
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