BALTIMORE (AP) — Having worked in unison for 11 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco are under pressure to extend their extraordinary bond to an even dozen years.
The emergence of first-round draft pick Lamar Jackson and a three-game losing streak have raised questions about the future of a coach and quarterback who reached the postseason in each of their first five seasons together and capped the run with a Super Bowl victory.
Recently, however, the Ravens have stumbled. They’ve missed the postseason for three consecutive years and entered their bye week with a 4-5 record.
General manager Ozzie Newsome will step down after this season, and Baltimore’s performance over the last seven games could go a long way toward determining if the transition will extend to a change at head coach and/or quarterback.
Following a lackluster 2017 season that could be attributed in part to a slow-healing back injury, Flacco has been solid this year. He’s thrown for 2,465 yards and has 12 touchdown passes with only six interceptions.
Though Harbaugh has allowed the fleet-footed and elusive Jackson to receive several snaps each game, he’s not about to make a quarterback change at this pivotal point in the season.
“Joe has played well, so I don’t want to get into all of that,” Harbaugh said. “We’re rolling right now with what we have.”
Harbaugh took the job as Ravens coach in 2008 with Flacco as a rookie quarterback. Flacco started the opener, the first of his 163 regular-season games under Harbaugh — second-most in NFL history by a quarterback who’s spent his entire career with the same head coach. Only Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have more (260).
But the Ravens didn’t trade up to get Jackson just to keep the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner on the sideline. The former Louisville star ranks second on the team with 139 yards rushing and has completed seven of 12 passes, most of them during mop-up duty.
The challenge for Harbaugh is to determine when, and how often, to use the rookie. It’s a tricky problem, in part because the Ravens often keep Flacco in the game when Jackson enters so the defense won’t know who will take the snap when the huddle breaks. If Jackson is the quarterback, then Flacco lines up as a receiver who almost certainly won’t be a target.
“I sure hope not,” Flacco said with a grin.
Jackson ran for 4,132 yards and 50 touchdowns at Louisville. He’s far more of a threat with his legs than the 33-year-old Flacco, leaving the opposition to guess whether Jackson will keep the ball, hand it off or pass.
“The stats say we’re over twice as effective running the ball with Lamar on the field. That’s even with the 10-man football that people say we’re playing,” Harbaugh said. “The numbers don’t lie there. That’s probably why I say I’d like to get him on the field more, because you always want to do things that are effective more.”
Though unyieldingly loyal to Flacco, Harbaugh didn’t dismiss the possibility of using Jackson for an entire series.
“I would say that’s an option, yes,” Harbaugh said.
The strange thing about all this is that the Ravens have not made use of another quarterback who has started in 41 NFL games, including the playoffs. Retained as part of the 53-man roster in case Flacco or Jackson gets hurt, Robert Griffin III has been inactive every game this season.
Whether Griffin gets to play remains to be seen. For now, the Ravens are focused on finding the right mix between Flacco and Jackson.
Jackson enjoys contributing, though he would prefer better results.
“It’s very cool, but I feel like I need to do more,” he said. “We need to score more points. I’ve got to help my team move the ball.”
The Ravens planned to use the bye week to rest and get healthy. Starting tackles James Hurst (back) and Ronnie Stanley (ankle) missed a 23-16 loss to Pittsburgh last Sunday, and it’s essential that Baltimore have a full offensive line against Cincinnati at home next week.
The defense has to get better, too. After getting 11 sacks in a 21-0 rout of Tennessee on Oct. 14, the Ravens have yielded 83 points during a skid that has put their postseason chances in jeopardy.
“We’re not eliminated yet. We’re in a hole, and now we have to dig ourselves out,” safety Eric Weddle said. “We just have to get our minds refreshed and refocused, then come back and get after it.”