When the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson with the 32nd overall pick in April, my boss, a tortured Baltimore sports fan, nearly wept. Her excitement was not only because Jackson is a delight, but also because the end of the Joe Flacco era appeared nigh.
Since Flacco’s historic Super Bowl run after the 2012 season, he’s earned $112 million while accruing the lowest adjusted net yards per attempt and worst touchdown-to-interception ratio among quarterbacks with more than 1,000 pass attempts. Most distressingly, his 2017 season was the worst of his decade-long career, with just 196.3 passing yards per game (less than four more than DeShone Kizer) and his 5.7 yards per attempt ranked last in the league. His season (and recent career) was best encapsulated in the Ravens’ 44-7 loss against Jacksonville in Week 3, when Flacco completed eight passes (!) for 28 yards (!!) and a 0.6 QBR (out of 100!!!). Flacco, who has an average annual cap hit of $25.9 million over the next four seasons, used to embody the definition of mediocrity. In 2017, mediocrity would have been a dramatic improvement.
It is against this backdrop that the Ravens selected Jackson, the Louisville phenom who is everything Flacco is not—game-breaking, energizing, and cool. Understandably, Ravens fans are champing at the bit to end the Flacco charade, and Thursday night’s Hall of Fame Game between Baltimore and Chicago will offer the first glimpse of what Jackson can do at the pro level. If he does anything remotely exciting during the preseason it will only add to the chorus of voices demanding Jackson starts, which currently includes just about everyone in Baltimore—everyone except for Joe Flacco, who says he’s just trying to have a normal training camp while fans and commentators alike try to bury him.
“They want to act like I’m holding some grudge, and that’s not how it is,” Flacco told reporters in May (which is exactly what someone holding a grudge would say). “We welcome Lamar here with open arms … and at the same time, my approach doesn’t change.”
Flacco’s approach appears to have changed. For the first time since the 2011 lockout, the quarterback worked out with his receivers before training camp—a fairly routine annual tradition that Flacco strangely hadn’t been organizing as a veteran quarterback. The results on the field have changed, too. Ravens ESPN beat reporter Jamison Hensley tweeted that Flacco’s deep ball is the most accurate it has ever been, and a source told NBC Sports’s Peter King that Flacco is “far and away” having the best camp of his career. Negativity rarely floats around NFL training camps, but this year Flacco is earning a truly notable amount of positive reviews. Yet even some of that praise can sound a bit infantilizing for a 33-year-old, Super Bowl–champion franchise quarterback.
Ravens QB coach Jams Urban on Flacco: "Joe has not balked at a little thing, not any drill work, not any extra conditioning drill work, not extra meeting time. Nothing. He's been open, willing, ready and wants to do very badly. I love how he is competing in practice."— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiec) July 31, 2018
People around Flacco have detected a difference in his demeanor. “He does seem charged up, I guess,” head coach John Harbaugh told the Ravens’ official team website. “Joe’s pretty even-keeled, but I do see excitement. I think he’s excited.” Safety Eric Weddle said that Flacco is poised for a career year because “he’s obviously been challenged.”
Those words clash with Flacco’s insistence that he hasn’t changed this year.
“Does it matter what I say?” Flacco mused to reporters last month when asked if his newfound passion was because of Jackson’s presence. “You guys will probably link it to Lamar anyway.”
It’s hard not to when Flacco is impressing Ravens reporters who have grown increasingly hard on him in recent years. Flacco is clearly doing something differently in camp, and there’s really only one thing different about this offseason for him: competition. While there’s no outright battle for the starting job in Week 1, Ravens coaches have made it clear that they want Jackson playing in some capacity. “You’ve got to use your good players,” Harbaugh told reporters in June. Spoiler alert: Jackson is one of their good players. Watch how easy he makes this look:
Harbaugh’s edict includes putting Jackson on the field at the same time as Flacco. Earlier this week, Jackson even tossed Flacco a touchdown pass on a trick play.
If the Ravens coaching staff is already that dedicated to playing Jackson, it seems like only a matter of time before internal whispers begin—the NFL version of a middle school friend group slowly excommunicating a member. After the second training camp practice this year, Flacco told reporters he wasn’t going to be worried about those discussions.
“I think we’re going to win and we’re not going to hear about it,” he said.
If Flacco really did refocus this offseason and it results in the Ravens racking up wins, he can scream “I told you so” from the top of the Transamerica Tower. If he continues to be the least efficient passer in football (or logs one more game with a QBR that begins with a decimal point) Jackson will take over as quarterback, and Flacco will wonder why he didn’t change his approach years ago.