BALTIMORE — The Ravens opened the second half with a read-option keeper, a fake dive handoff that resulted in a three-yard sack, and a straight drop back pass from the shotgun that got Lamar Jackson planted nine yards in the backfield.
Joe Flacco, who was near midfield watching from a distance, walked back to the bench and plunked into his seat. He pulled a Baltimore beanie, complete with a pom pom on top, over his head and smoothed it against his temples. By the time Jackson got back to the bench, Flacco had assumed the position he held for most of the game: Watching the Chargers offense on the big-screen JumboTron hanging above the west end zone while the offensive between-series pit stop raged just a few feet to his right with a starter that wasn't him.
After Jackson went 2-of-8 for 17 yards and an interception in the first half (a passer rating of 0.0) there were plenty here in M&T Bank Stadium who seemed to want Flacco out there. The fans booed the offense after the Ravens’ second drive of the second half, after the defense recovered a fumble deep in Chargers territory and gained just six yards in three plays. Los Angeles was the first team to see the electric Jackson twice in one season, and it was showing. On the next drive, after the Baltimore top-ranked special teams unit blocked a punt, the Ravens gained six yards on four plays and missed a field goal. Jackson finished the third quarter with seven net passing yards (25 total). He finished the game with 194 passing yards after engineering two scoring drives late in the fourth quarter.
When is it OK to pull the plug on a rookie quarterback that ignited your season and got you here in the first place? Is it? How much faith can you have in a potentially-jaded veteran backup, who the team spent the entire preseason insisting was still the guy before giving him an early ticket to free agency around Thanksgiving? At what point, as the head coach, do you convince yourself that you can clean this mess up later, if you can only get a little movement from the offense? “We were just talking about all those possibilities,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not going to go into all that—in terms of what was said and what what was not said. I can assure you, we were considering putting Joe into the game and all that kind of stuff.”
The Ravens never found out in a 23–17, season-ending loss to the Chargers in Baltimore; on a decision that will be babbled about on local talk radio for months. Jackson was booed as he came back out onto the field in the fourth quarter. Fans started “Flacco” chants, but the veteran remained seated on the bench, or standing on the sideline from a safe distance with his hands stuffed in a black hand warmer. (Flacco, after the game, said Lamar did a great job, and was fine with the decision, given that the Ravens went all-in on his successor “weeks ago.” Says Flacco, “I told [Jackson] ... at some point, you're going to be proud of how you finished no matter what happens.”)
Some of us, including Ravens players apparently, can think John Harbaugh made the right call. Jackson plugged this offense into something sinister this season. After his first start on Nov. 18, Baltimore became the NFL embodiment of the Naval Academy. It was hell to play against the league’s best defense, and it was even worse when you realized you never got the ball back (the Ravens led the league in time of possession, keeping the ball more than six minutes per game over the last-place Cardinals). And Jackson got better, by design. His four best passer ratings of the season all occurred over his final four games of the year. They took the Chiefs to overtime. They beat the Chargers two weeks later, in part because of a 68-yard touchdown pass Jackson threw to Mark Andrews between two defenders. And late in Sunday’s game, he didn’t simply disappear. The crowd, and the Ravens’ sideline, was surging until the moment Jackson had the ball batted out of his hands by Uchenna Nwosu, with the Ravens driving down by just six points. He floated a beautiful deep-ball score to Michael Crabtree. He eluded a series of pass rushers to chuck a fadeaway completion to Kenneth Dixon that set up another. To some, John Harbaugh’s game management may have been more questionable than his quarterback management.
Some will probably never come to grips with the sight of a one-time Super Bowl MVP idling on the sidelines like a parent at a youth soccer tournament. Had Flacco’s play dipped over the years or was it just injuries? Would he have been able to move the ball better against this defense, or was Jackson’s mobility and improvisational skills the only thing saving Baltimore from a pass rush that couldn’t be stopped?
We’ll never know. A decision in the NFL can contain so many layers. Impulsivity in the moment. Fear of the future. We got to see it play out Sunday just like Flacco. Comfortable, but mostly seated. Watching the game on a big screen over our left shoulder.
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