Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco injured his back while lifting weights on Wednesday and underwent an MRI. The extent of the injury is unclear as of now, with an initial report from Ian Rapoport suggesting he’d miss three to six weeks. But now the team hopes its franchise quarterback will be able to return after only a week of rest.
Regardless of how much time Flacco will miss, the injury is a scary development for a team that is already paper-thin on offense. Ravens offensive players have dropped like flies this summer. Tuesday, running back Kenneth Dixon tore his meniscus. It looked initially like he’d be out for two to three weeks, but after surgery, his diagnosis changed and he’ll now miss the entire 2017 season. In June, the Ravens released longtime tight end Dennis Pitta during OTAs after he dislocated his hip during a non-contact drill, the third hip injury of his career.
Even before those injuries, the Ravens had serious depth issues on offense, and their quarterback’s uncertain status means the team’s fans should now be concerned. Sure, Flacco’s back could end up being a nothingburger (he has missed only six games in his career, which came when he tore his ACL in the middle of the 2015 season), but back issues tend to linger. Last year saw some high-profile back injuries in the NFL. J.J. Watt re-injured his back in a Week 3 tilt with the New England Patriots that ended his season, while Tony Romo broke a bone in his back in the preseason, which (along with the emergence of Dak Prescott) ended his career. While those situations are not analogous to Flacco’s, lingering back injuries have undone players before.
Ravens fans will be holding their breath every time Flacco takes a hit. Though he isn’t exactly an MVP candidate, Flacco’s an above-average starter that gives a good Ravens squad the necessary production under center to make a playoff push. If Flacco’s injury does linger, altering his protection schemes could become a priority. Flacco was pressured on 27.5 percent of his pass plays in 2016, the 16th-highest rate in the league. Of 34 qualified quarterbacks, Flacco contributed to the 26th-best offense when pressured, as ranked by DVOA.
Ryan Mallett has been the Ravens backup quarterback since he signed with Baltimore in 2015. He was previously the Texans’ starter, but was cut midseason by Houston after infamously missing the team’s charter flight for a game in Miami, forcing him to make his own travel plans, which sounds like a stupid B-plot from an episode of Blue Mountain State. The only other quarterback on Baltimore’s roster is Dustin Vaughan, who has bounced around practice squads since going undrafted out of West Texas A&M in 2014. It’s unlikely he’s prepared to lead the Ravens on fourth-quarter drives while staring down a blitzing James Harrison or Vontaze Burfict.
If Flacco’s injury is worse than it seems, Baltimore could look for outside help. Robert Griffin III worked out for the Chargers on Tuesday, though they ended up trading for Cardale Jones instead of signing the former no. 2 overall pick. One long-shot candidate to compete for the job could be Colin Kaepernick, who remains unsigned.
Flacco may not be elite, but he is far superior to the Ravens’ in-house alternatives. Baltimore went 8–8 during the 2016 campaign, and in a crowded AFC North where the Steelers and Bengals figure to put up a tough fight for the division title, having Flacco at anything less than 100 percent would make fighting for a playoff spot an uphill march.