There was considerable potential for awkwardness, friction even.
In one corner, with a battered hip, sat the most accomplished quarterback in Ravens history — a former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and one-time owner of the richest contract in NFL history. In the other sat the team’s most recent first-round pick — a Heisman Trophy winner with dazzling legs and a suspect arm, at least if you listened to his sharpest critics.
Between them lay the fate of a team that had not made the playoffs in four years. Would coach John Harbaugh stay with the rookie, Lamar Jackson, or go back to Joe Flacco, the calm hand who’d won him so many big games?
Harbaugh texted Flacco on a Tuesday morning to tell him the news he would share with the world the next day: Jackson would be the Ravens’ starter going forward. “Every decision is based on what makes us the strongest possible team we can be,” Harbaugh told reporters.
With this blunt statement on Dec. 12, 2018, he kicked off a new era of Ravens football, one that has included gaudy regular-season records, innumerable Jackson highlights and less playoff success than the team achieved in the first five years of Flacco’s run.
The Ravens will face their former quarterback for the first time Sunday when he fills in as starting quarterback for the New York Jets in the 2022 season opener. This sets up an inevitable time of reflection on what the team achieved with Flacco, what it might achieve with Jackson and on the moment of transition from one quarterback to the other.
Jackson and Flacco never came off as close over their year together in Baltimore. When the Ravens traded for the last pick in the first round to select Jackson, they set a loudly ticking clock on the remainder of Flacco’s time with the franchise. It was just that no one knew exactly when the alarm would go off. The two men are 12 years apart in age and nearly as far apart in demeanor: Flacco so understated that teammates and coaches make fun of him for it, Jackson easygoing but boisterous. As quarterbacks, they could not be more different: Flacco the thrower of beautiful balls from a fixed position in the pocket, Jackson one of the most fluid improvisers we have ever seen on a football field.
For all that separated them, however, Flacco and Jackson handled the 2018 season gracefully. The rookie spoke deferentially, always reminding us that Flacco had been where he wanted to go. The veteran said he was not ready to concede his starting spot but that he admired the way Jackson ran the team when he had to step in.
“They both handled it great,” Harbaugh recalled. “If I think back quickly, Lamar was excited to be with Joe and learn from Joe, in terms of what Joe could teach him as a quarterback, and he did a great job, I thought. Joe was great with Lamar; Joe supported him and helped him, and even at the end there — when Joe came back and Lamar was the quarterback — Joe was very supportive of him there.”
This extended to the team’s home playoff loss against the Los Angeles Chargers, in which Jackson played poorly and heard loud boos from fans who wanted Flacco inserted in relief. “If you remember the story in the playoffs, Joe wanted Lamar to stay in the game there,” Harbaugh said.
The decision to switch quarterbacks began organically. Flacco had started the season well, but the Ravens were about to lose their fourth game in five weeks when Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt drove him to the ground and injured his hip. Flacco played the rest of that afternoon but was out when the Ravens returned two weeks later against the Cincinnati Bengals. Jackson was the starter because he had to be, but the team transformed with him at its center, winning his first three starts and surpassing 200 rushing yards in each of those games.
By the time Flacco was ready to play again, the Ravens had a clear path to the playoffs, and Jackson was the most obvious reason. Harbaugh made the unsentimental decision to stick with what was working.
“It’s not easy standing on that sideline, knowing that you have no hand in what’s going on,” Flacco said at the time. “But … you have to be a professional about it.”
Perhaps because of the way Flacco and Jackson conducted themselves, teammates never felt they had to choose a camp.
“They were both extreme pros about it,” tight end Nick Boyle said. “Stuff like that happens all around the NFL, and a lot of times, it’s a huge media thing, a huge turmoil thing within the locker room. But Joe handled it awesomely, Lamar handled it awesomely, and I think they still have a great relationship.”
Cornerback Marlon Humphrey noted that even though the transition happened just four years ago, it feels like a lifetime in NFL terms (only 12 current Ravens were on the roster in 2018). “I kind of remember it happening seamlessly,” he said. “I think Joe got hurt, so it was kind of an injury thing, and then Lamar started winning all these games and we were just riding behind him. … I just remember it being a little weird, because when I got here, Joe was the QB, Super Bowl MVP, had done a lot. So, it was interesting in that point, but as far as how it went, I thought both guys handled it really well.”
The Ravens have not looked back. They finished with the league’s best record in Jackson’s first full season as the starter, and he was named Most Valuable Player, an individual honor Flacco never came close to winning. They made the playoffs again in 2020 and held the AFC’s top seed last season before injuries, including one to Jackson’s ankle, dismantled them.
Flacco did not fare as well, going 2-6 in one partial season as a starter for the Denver Broncos before returning to the East Coast as a seasoned backup for the Jets, who are hoping 2021 first-round pick Zach Wilson is their quarterback of the future. At 37, with the end of his career likely drawing near, Flacco is the same steady presence.
“He’s been the same since the day I met him,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said on a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “I’m sure you guys are familiar with his personality; he’s very even-keeled, same guy every single day, does a great job in preparation, very likable in the locker room, and he’s just been a very calming force, if you will, just running the offense.”
What do Flacco and Jackson, the principals in the drama (or non-drama) of 2018, think of each other now?
“He meant a lot [to me],” Jackson said. “Playing with a Super Bowl quarterback, seeing what he did on the field, stuff like that, how he took apart the game, took apart practice and stuff like that. Seeing him sling the ball from one side of the field to the next side of the field, from our 20 [-yard line] to the opposite opponent’s 20 [-yard line] … It was ridiculous. It will be great seeing him.”
In a classic narrative twist, Jackson is now in the position Flacco was entering the 2012 season, playing on the last year of his rookie contract with no extension signed and a potentially elite team on his shoulders. That scenario led to Flacco’s defining achievement: a flawless run through the playoffs capped by his MVP performance in Super Bowl XLVII and a record contract soon after.
Flacco laughed recently on the Jets’ official podcast when former teammate Bart Scott suggested Jackson might “harness his inner Joe Flacco” by betting on himself. But he does not expect to talk contract when they see each other Sunday.
“I’m sure that will not come up,” he said. “Lamar’s a good kid, and I’m sure he’ll be worried about just playing the football game.”
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